The Clontarf Foundation

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The Clontarf Foundation exists to improve the education, discipline, life skills, self-esteem and employment prospects of young Aboriginal men and by doing so, equips them to participate meaningfully in society. James Russel, Director of The Armidale Contarf Academy, tells Focus of their achievements to date …

Can you give us some history on when and why the Clontarf Foundation began?

The Clontarf Foundation began operations at Clontarf College in Perth back in 2000. At the time, Aboriginal males exhibited a significantly reduced attendance, retention and Year 12 completion rate when compared to other Australian students. “Clontarf” was born out of a passionate desire to meet these needs and to assist Aboriginal young men to bridge this educational gap. Since then, operations have grown steadily, and the foundation has gradually expanded operations to also cover parts of the Northern Territory, Victoria, New South Wales and just recently, Queensland. We currently operate in 61 schools and work with approximately 3,700 Aboriginal young men.

How long has the foundation been operating in Armidale, and what are the benefits for students and the community? 
We opened our doors to 34 boys at Armidale High School back in April 2012. Since then, we have been extremely pleased to observe a steady improvement in the key educational measures of attendance, engagement and retention. We currently have 54 boys who’ve elected to participate in our programme, and they are attending at an overall average rate of 85%. While some of the other positives are more difficult to measure, regular feedback from school staff and the local community makes us confident that our boys have also made significant improvement in their ability to engage at school and within various aspects of the Armidale community.

Another notable benefit for our community is that many boys who have been a part of our academy for a longer period have markedly improved their behaviour and are developing into strong and proud young leaders. All four of our local graduates from 2014 are currently employed or completing further study, with two of them at university. These are fantastic outcomes for these boys, and we are very proud of them.

Tell us about your team?
While teamwork is an extremely important part of our programme, it must be understood that we are much more than just a team, or even an academy. We are more like a family, where we encourage everybody to get on, to pitch in and help out and to look out for one another. With 50 odd boys aged between 12 and 18, we really need to get on to make things work …. and thankfully we all enjoy each other’s company and push each other daily to strive to be better.

As you can imagine, somebody needs to steer the ship, and I fulfil the role of Director of the Armidale Clontarf Academy, and I’m ably supported by my co-worker, local legend Bruce “Boog” Dennison.

What type of activities are the students involved in?
Our boys participate in a really diverse range of activities, which largely fall under the pillars of the foundation – Education, Leadership, Employment, Partnerships (particularly with the local community), Wellbeing and Football (and other sports and activities). We also have a strong focus on teaching life-skills and the social skills necessary to effectively participate in wider society.

These lessons are learnt through participation in simple daily routines, as well as in strategically planned activities and camps, which provide powerful opportunities for this type of learning – which is much more difficult to impart in the typical classroom. A recent activity we are very proud of has been a partnership with the Office of Environment and Heritage, where the Clontarf boys have developed a traditional Aboriginal Dance depicting the migratory habits and breeding patterns of Ibis birds in wetlands west of Moree. The boys have done an outstanding job in embracing this project and have had the opportunity to perform the dance for primary school students and community members at the Moree Art Gallery. The Ibis Dance has also been captured in a video, which the boys are editing and producing, and we are looking forward to many future opportunities to perform the dance or have the video shown as a part of this partnership.

Another recent undertaking of Armidale Clontarf boys has been in the establishment of the East Armidale Community Garden. The boys are working hard to build and paint the gardens and look forward to growing some fresh fruit and vegetables, which they will use in Clontarf cook-ups back at school.

How can students and the community get involved with the foundation? 
A large part of the Clontarf Foundation’s success is due to the intensive nature of the programme and the associated daily support offered. This can only occur when the programme is based exclusively in one school. In our case, any Aboriginal male enrolled at Armidale High is welcome to join our academy and participate in the programme.

We also welcome any appropriate assistance that passionate community members might be able to offer. Community involvement is an essential aspect of our programme’s success, as we aim for all of our boys to be connected contributors to the Armidale Community. We have a number of local business people and other like-minded community members who participate in our activities, but we could always do with more support. While this makes a big difference to what we can achieve at an operational level, the development of a wider network of contacts and friendly faces for the boys to interact with out in the wider community significantly improves the likelihood of them becoming successful young men.

Tell us about some of your success stories?
While much of our success is measured in statistics, such as the many boys achieving average attendance percentages in the 90s, it is actually the personal stories of individual young men which are most poignant. Be it the young man who struggles enormously at school due to poor self-esteem, and feelings of alienation who grows and develops into a confident young graduate who dares to set lofty goals and works diligently towards achieving them, or the young man who is provided “a boost” out of drug dependancy and anti-social behaviour, or simply the boy who needs just a little extra help and support and the self assurance of knowing that there is somebody at school who will always be in their corner for him to reach his potential. We are truly privileged to have witnessed many success stories so far. The best way to understand and actually feel the success of the Clontarf programme is to meet our amazing young men.

Plans for the future?
Our plans for the future are quite ambitious for both individual boys and the entire academy. In the short term, we strive for all of our academy members to become high attending, keenly engaged students who all complete Year 12 and transition into meaningful employment. Most of our boys are already walking this somewhat difficult road; however, there is still plenty of hard work for us all to do in meeting the challenges on the way to our destination.

In the long term, we really hope to do ourselves out of a job, as we reach a point where it is seen as the norm for Aboriginal boys at Armidale High to achieve the goals I have just mentioned with very little support. If this were the case, Bruce and I would happily make a career change!

Thanks James.

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