Leonora High School in WA wins battle against low attendance with free hot lunches, trips to the pool

A remote Western Australian school which has battled some of the lowest attendance rates in the state is starting to see positive changes after introducing a series of initiatives over the past 12 months.

School attendance is a never-ending battle for staff at the Leonora District High School, 830 kilometres north-east of Perth.

But under the leadership of principal Jennette Maxfield, the school has slowly been making inroads with initiatives such as free hot lunches and free entry to the local pool in summer when temperatures regularly rise above 40 degrees Celsius.

In some individual cases, student attendance has jumped from less than 50 per cent to more than 90 per cent.

Mrs Maxfield said children who attended school less than 60 per cent of the time were considered at "severe risk".

She said Leonora had decreased the number of students in that category by 11.5 per cent this year.

"We started planning a year ago to address our concerns around attendance," Mrs Maxfield said.

"I'm really excited about where we are at 12 months later.

"Once children are coming to school then obviously the learning begins and improvements in student achievement have already been observed."

Statistics only tell half the story

Last year, Leonora was among 15 schools in regional WA which had attendance rates of less than 50 per cent for secondary year levels.

Department of Education statistics show Leonora's secondary attendance rate jumped significantly this year from 34.5 per cent to 45.7 per cent.

It was still well below the state average of 86.8 per cent but has been heading in the right direction.

Attendance rates for primary school children in Leonora have also increased this year from 61.5 per cent to 64.4 per cent, compared with the state average of 91.6 per cent.

Mrs Maxfield said the statistics do not tell the full story and were often misleading as Leonora had a transient population, where students could be pulled out of school at short notice for cultural reasons.

Issues at home, including domestic violence, fatigue and hunger also contributed to truancy.

"We're really pleased with the improvement in engagement and attendance, especially in our secondary years," Mrs Maxfield said.

"We're now seeing some students aspire to bigger things, like what's next after school.

"So that's an exciting space for us to keep working on as well."

'Punitive' approach did not work

The first steps towards improving school attendance were taken last summer when the Shire of Leonora agreed to sponsor free pool entry for children who attended school.

Previously a no-school, no-pool policy had been in place for about a decade.

The change in thinking saw a 79 per cent increase in attendees to Leonora's council-owned pool last summer, jumping from 2,202 to 3,943 swimmers.

There was further evidence of the policy's success this summer, with 573 pool attendees in October, which was more than double compared with 211 who attended in the same month last year.

The Leonora Youth Centre coordinator, Rene Reddingius Junior, who has regularly been driving around town picking up children to make sure they made it to school on time, said the free pool entry initiative had made a huge difference.

He said the policy to ban children who missed school had failed.

"Punitive approaches have never worked," Mr Reddingius said.

"Having the glass-half-full type of approaches are really important.

"It sets off a positive energy to the kids, the community and everyone.

"Services like myself can utilise that in a very positive way."

Free lunches for 'hungry' students

The Shooting Stars program, which used netball to motivate Indigenous girls and grow their self-esteem, was also launched in Leonora earlier this year.

As part of the program, the girls played weekly social netball games against workers from a local gold mine.

But perhaps the biggest change had been the introduction of free hot school lunches, with teachers noticing a big difference in energy levels during afternoon classes.

The meals were sponsored by mining companies, made at a nearby workers' accommodation village and then frozen for storage.

Secondary students were responsible for reheating the meals every day, cutting up fruit for snacks, and then delivering the food to each classroom.

The idea came from Leonora Police, which secured funding for a six-month trial after identifying hunger as one of the causes of youth crime in the town.

The hot lunches program will continue next year, while Leonora Police have also introduced the Adopt-A-Cop program with local youth.

"We've noticed a big improvement in engagement," Mrs Maxfield said.

"A lot of students were going hungry.

"When students are hungry, we often have behaviour issues around that and they're not engaging in learning.

"It's really been a combination of everything we've introduced that's helped turn it around."


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