Building bridges … and bringing back hope

Penny Conway, second from left, with some of her colleagues from Murray Bridge Independent Learning Centre.
Penny Conway, second from left, with some of her colleagues from Murray Bridge High School’s Independent Learning Centre.

Purple has long been the colour of kings, so when perceived underdogs deck themselves out in it, then step boldly forward, it’s worth paying close attention to what happens next.

So it has been with Murray Bridge High School’s Independent Learning Centre (ILC), winners of this year’s Flinders University sponsored Brand South Australia Education Award for the Murraylands and Riverlands Region.

“When the ILC opened its doors in 2012 I’m pretty sure there were a lot of sceptics out there,” said Assistant Principal Penny Conway.

“We were called ‘those purple people’, and I’m pretty sure people were thinking, ‘what’s this all about?,’ and that we were upstarts.

“We were determined that it was going to work though, and determined to show we could do it. I thought, ‘no way is anyone going to say that this is not going to work’.”

As Ms Conway, who drives 90km each way every day to the ILC, speaks over the telephone, she reveals a steely resolve to challenge perceived norms where necessary – and to stick up for her students at all costs.

“I have always had a very strong interest in the kids that other people considered difficult or non-academic,” she said. “That’s my passion and it’s what made me apply for the position of FLO coordinator in 2011.

“I’ve been in education for over 30 years and began teaching commerce and typing. I’ve taught in lots of schools – small schools, big country schools, and interstate in Darwin.

“Years ago, someone told me I was just the commerce or typing teacher and that I would soon be obsolete. I told them I would be obsolete over my dead body.

“Commerce was often sent the kids who weren’t so academic. That meant I had to work hard to keep those kids engaged and motivated.

“When I first got into this role the only kids we could find quickly were those who were already engaging at school. The only way I could work out where the others were was through their youth workers.

“We had to bring them in one by one, show them around and give them a home base that they could feel was theirs. I’d say, ‘look, just take advantage of what we are going to offer you’. And in the main it worked.

“In the three years we’ve been really pleased to see their growth. They have really attached themselves to the ILC and we have had relatively few problems. There has been no smashing, graffiti or disrespecting of the space.

“That, to me, says they see it as their space.”

Asked what would happen to the young people at the ILC if it wasn’t there, Ms Conway paints a bleak picture.

“These kids would not be in a learning environment if we were not here,” she said.

“We had 90 in the first year and 120 this year, and most are able to move on to something in education or a career. We had two SACE completers last year and 15 this year.

“We also have lots of students doing Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses and they are also moving on to better things. Two got employment directly through their work experience.

“This year we have also had a couple of kids apply for university. Even if they don’t get in, it’s still important that they are applying.

“We have not been able to help everyone, but in the main it’s been great.”

In spite of her clear strength and determination to fight for a fair go for her students, Ms Conway reveals a softer side when she talks about the ILC receiving its award.

“I still can’t put it into words, it was just overwhelming,” she said. “I honestly didn’t think we had a chance.

“Basically I still consider us to be babies. This is only our third year, so when they called us out, I was gob smacked.

“To be recognised by Brand South Australia like that, in our own community, in front of all of those people, was just overwhelming. I think I cried for the remainder of the event.

“It was really important for them to hold the event in our region because it allowed us to see our own people recognise us for what we are.

“I couldn’t believe how many came that night and introduced themselves, and said they came past every day for work and never knew what we did.”

Ms Conway said the award was doubly treasured because it was sponsored by a higher education institution.

“We are also a learning institution and university is the next stage, even if most of our kids come in thinking they can never finish their SACE,” she said.

“That’s why it matters that the award is sponsored by Flinders University. We were really chuffed to see the university’s name on the award.

“Since the award we have added it to our branding, our door and on our letterheads.”

Although she is close to the end of her career, Ms Conway’s spirit remains undiminished.

“I’m near retirement now, and I’ve got to win my job back next year when it comes up for renewal, but I’d love to stick around and see the next stage if humanly possible,” she said.

“I think I’ve still got a lot to offer.”

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