25 May 2023
A Christian organisation is helping to lift the school attendance rates of a group of at-risk students and seeking to help them hurdle hardship through its unique outreach service.
Open House Christian Involvement Centre has been bussing 20 children to their primary school since February 2022.
Operations manager Peter Choma said the organisation’s two community buses collected the students at their homes and dropped them off at school every morning.
Mr Choma said the service started after the school and Victoria Police realised the students were not returning to classes post the pandemic restrictions, and approached Open House for help.
He said the children were from households where there was a range of problems, some of which included family violence.
Mr Choma said the school was concerned that the students’ low attendance rates affected their education outcomes and their ability to access programs, including speech therapy, significant to their social development.
A 2018 Smith Family report found that school attendance and achievement was closely linked, and that improving those elements raised the likelihood that disadvantaged students would complete school and break the cycle of deprivation.
It dovetailed with analysis from The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2014 that found that providing transport was a strategy to besting barriers to school attendance.
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St George’s East Ivanhoe parishioner the late George Farrington started Open House CIC in 1971 to help troubled youth overcome a variety of social challenges.
Mr Choma said the organisation now sought to help people of all ages who were disadvantaged or socially isolated, through a range of programs including Bible study fellowship, older people’s clubs and sports projects.
He said the school bus program hooked the students into some of those initiatives, and enabled the organisation to reach their families, as well.
“Sometimes the kids have a parent in prison, or someone’s died and they’re being raised by grandparents who can’t afford to get them to school,” Mr Choma said.
“The bus program is a foothold for us into their families and what they might need, like counselling, big garden clean-ups and food vouchers, things they might be too scared to ask for, because they might feel marginalised.”
Youth worker and member of the bus program support team Naomi Kop said initially the students were reluctant to go to school as they felt disconnected from their classmates and felt like outsiders because of their sporadic attendance.
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Ms Kop said support workers did some counselling onboard the bus when necessary and that the children were increasingly motivated and happier about going to school.
She said most of the students were up and ready at pick up times and that some reported being glad to be able to get to school breakfast club, which meant they could have something to eat before classes started for the day.
Ms Kop said there were now not enough seats for the number of children joining the bus program and to get around that the staff did at least two bus runs to get the students to school on time.
But Mr Choma said there were challenges despite the program’s success.
He said funding was always an issue, and that the organisation still had to dip into its reserves to keep the project going.
“There’s the cost of fuel, maintenance, replacement vehicles, and finding volunteers and staff who can do those morning drop-off times every day. There’s equipment, food, there’s all sorts of stuff,” Mr Choma said.
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