Tucked away in the heart of Fitzroy, in Melbourne’s inner north, is a vibrant and culturally diverse primary school that prides itself on nurturing the spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional and physical needs of its students. Sacred Heart Primary School is home to more than 100 children, many of whom are culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD), having come from refugee backgrounds.

In an effort to provide additional support to some of its more disadvantaged students, Sacred Heart has teamed up with nearby Australian Catholic University (ACU), to implement Read to Learn, a program that provides a safe and fun learning environment where the children are supported by tutors (ACU students) each week to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

At 3.15pm on a Tuesday afternoon, Sacred Heart Primary School is a flurry of activity. The end-of-school bell rings, and while many are heading home, a small cohort of students stay back for an hour to take part in the weekly Read to Learn program. They run around, kick the soccer ball, laugh, play and eat their snacks, before meeting up with their tutors, who are also gathered in the yard, ready to take them up to a classroom.

There are currently 14 Read to Learn tutors, all students from ACU who have opted for this program as part of their compulsory community engagement placement. For ten weeks over terms 1 and 2, they gather each Tuesday, each with the same Sacred Heart student, to sit with them while they read and talk about their chosen books. The program is run again for a 10-week period over terms 3 and 4, usually with a different cohort of students.

Kellie Noonan is Deputy Principal and Literacy Leader at Sacred Heart Primary School. She explains that the school has a ‘really strong connection’ with an array of agencies in their local community and runs a range of programs that cater to different types of needs among the students. The school has a particularly ‘strong relationship’ with ACU, which has been running the Read to Learn program at Sacred Heart since 2016, among other programs.

‘The vast majority of our children live in the Atherton Gardens Housing Estate, the towers, just here in Fitzroy,’ she says. ‘And they come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, predominantly Vietnamese, South Sudanese, Ethiopian and some other African countries, and, more recently, from Afghanistan.

‘So Read to Learn is targeted to those children in the school who perhaps don’t have the support at home, or their parents might not speak English, or they might come from large households where there are lots of children and a single mother, so she might not have a lot of time to sit with them. Read to Learn is an opportunity for the children to read to another adult.’

Kellie says it’s ‘not so much about the tutor being the teacher and teaching them how to read’. Rather, ‘we’re trying to develop more fluency and expression and being able to talk about the book—we’re trying to increase their understanding of the English language, essentially.’ They go over things like ‘high-frequency words’—common words such as are, and, the and but—and finding them in the context of the story, and often finish their time together with a literacy-based game or another game that helps build the relationship between student and tutor.

Jake Stavrou is ACU’s Read to Learn Program Manager. He coordinates each of the afternoon sessions and ensures everything is running smoothly each week for both the ACU tutors and the students. He explains that about half of the participating ACU students currently come from the education faculty, where the community engagement placement is compulsory in their first year, while the others come from midwifery, paramedicine, business and occupational therapy (OT).

Amy Allford, 35, is a second-year OT student. She applied to be a tutor as part of her community engagement placement for a subject that focusses on engaging with either culturally and linguistically diverse communities or marginalised communities. Over the weeks, she has been tutoring Vin, a Grade 3 student whose family originally comes from Vietnam.

‘For me, Read to Learn fits well with OT because it’s about using an occupation of reading to help somebody get further in life,’ says Amy. ‘It’s been really interesting to be in a classroom setting, working directly with the same student throughout this time. We only spend about an hour together, once a week, but we’ve still managed to build the relationship, which is great, and I can see changes and improvements.’

Mikayla Tito, 18, is another of the ACU tutors. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood and Primary) and commutes from her hometown of Geelong a couple of times each week. Her community engagement placement is for an education unit called ‘Understanding Learners and Contexts’ and is providing an opportunity for Mikayla to put ‘theory into practice’.

‘Being an aspiring teacher, I thought this would be a great opportunity to partake in a tutoring program and be a part of a classroom setting in a practical way before going onto placement,’ she says. For the past 10 weeks, Mikayla has been tutoring Vicki, also in Grade 3, whose family originally comes from South Sudan. At the beginning of their time together, they set a goal of reading one or two books, depending on what’s been happening during the day, with the final reward being a game or two.

‘I find teaching such a rewarding vocation,’ says Mikayla. ‘It’s good to see how much my student has improved in her reading from the beginning of the 10 weeks to now. It’s also been good to build that relationship and to see her improve socially. For her, she can see there are people much older than her, originally strangers, that are happy to come and sit with the students, to help, and now it’s totally different, in a positive way.’

‘I might not ever see my student again, but if she is able to get something out of the program and take it with her for when she continues on her learning journey, it would be enough for me to say, “I made a difference.”’

20230509 SHPS F Basile P1277263
Bashir with four of his six children, who attend Sacred Heart Primary School. From left: Marzia, Sabawun, Mewand and Hewad.

Bashir arrived with his wife and family from Afghanistan last year in August. He had been an interpreter for coalition forces in Afghanistan and was evacuated by the Australian government when the Taliban returned to power. Though he feels ‘lucky’ to be in Australia, Bashir explained that moving suddenly to a new country and environment has been difficult for himself and his family. ‘We are still struggling to adjust to the community, to the school, and to the environment. Everything is new and has changed. In Afghanistan, I had a job, I was an independent person, I could lead even an organisation. But here, at the moment, I’m still searching for a job. And our kids are also adapting to this new situation. They have to learn English and it is quite difficult.’

Four of Bashir’s six children—Mewand (12), Hewad (10), Sabawun (8) and Marzia (6)—attend Sacred Heart primary school and are participating in the Read to Learn program. When he compares how his children were when they first arrived to now, he says, ‘They’re happy.’

‘When we were first here, there were lots of problems and difficulties,’ he says. ‘Now, they’re in a hurry in the morning to get to school.’

Kellie adds, ‘When I see them after school holidays, the children run up and say, “I missed you so much! I’m so glad school’s back.” They’re the most beautiful children.’

She says the Read to Learn program has been particularly helpful for these children, given they’re so new to English. ‘Having as much role-modelling from another adult, especially one-on-one, is really important for them to improve their capacity for reading,’ she says, ‘and also having another English speaker that they can develop a relationship with helps.’

Bashir expresses deep gratitude to the Sacred Heart school community and ACU students for the support given to his family. ‘We are lucky that this school is close to our home,’ he says. ‘And the wonderful teachers, the management team, the principal, deputy principal, the whole staff and the ACU students have supported us. It is absolutely phenomenal. As a father, I won’t forget this support.

‘Every parent hopes their children will be successful. They have excellent opportunities here in Australia compared to Afghanistan. As a father, I’m looking forward to a bright future for myself and my children. I feel optimistic and look forward to motivating them. Hopefully one day they will be serving others, as we were served. Hopefully the day comes that my children are supporting and serving other human beings.’

Further details about the Sacred Heart / ACU Read to Learn program can be found here. A full list of the community engagement placement opportunities open to ACU Melbourne students can be found here.