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'How could we close our college doors on these young people': support extended to students

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The doors of a Sunshine Coast school will remain open during the Easter holidays, to provide support to students who need it.

Arethusa College Maroochydore will be one of eight campuses of the college in South-East Queensland to stay open during the next couple of weeks, welcoming students to drop in, have a chat and stay connected with their school.

Principal Marcelle Calitz said the campus had remained open to students during the summer school holidays, attracting two to four students each day.

“Whether we have one, four, 10 or no students come to campus, they all know that we will be open if they need us,” he said.

“That reliability, dependability and acceptance without judgement is who we are – it’s what Arethusa is known for.

“The school holidays can be a high-risk time for vulnerable young people to disconnect from school, which not only impacts their education, but also their access to important health, mental health and welfare services that our college helps facilitate.”

Arethusa College Maroochydore principal Marcelle Calitz with students. Picture: Stefan Postles/The Photo Pitch

Mr Calitz said, for a number of students, the college was their “safe place, and our school community their family”.

“It’s vitally important that our young people – some of whom come from trauma backgrounds – know that they can count on and turn to us, not just during term time, but year-round,” he said.

Mr Calitz said at least four staff members – a mix of support officers, such as educational support officers and chaplains, as well as a member of the school leadership team – would be rostered on during the next two weeks (except for public holidays and weekends).

“I’ll be working the first week of the holidays and dropping in during the second week to check in on our staff and young people,” he said.

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“Our staff absolutely love our kids.

“At no school I’ve taught before have I heard staff speak more beautifully about our young people.

“We have more support staff wanting to work than we need.”

Arethusa College executive principal Lisa Coles said the college recognised five years ago that its duty of care to its young people extended beyond the official start and end dates of a school term.

“As a college that specialises in educating young people who’ve experienced school refusal and non-attendance – often as a result of disadvantage, health, mental health, social and other life challenges – we understand the holidays aren’t always a happy or safe time for some young people,” she said.

“Our Spring Hill campus, which opened in 2013, was the first to welcome vulnerable students during the school holidays in 2019.’’

Ms Coles, who has been leading Arethusa College since 2019, said Australia’s education system assumed young people had “a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, clothes on their backs and adults to care for them” 52 weeks of the year.

“In our experience, while we have many wonderful caring families in our community who do just that, for some young people our college is their family,” she said.

“Some of our more than 1300 students experience homelessness, some live in residential care, and for about 30 per cent, the breakfast and lunch we provide daily at our eight campuses is their main source of nutritious food.

“How in good conscience could we therefore close our college doors on these young people simply because the official school term was over, because that’s how school has always been done? We concluded that we couldn’t.”

Arethusa College Maroochydore principal Marcelle Calitz. Picture: Stefan Postles/The Photo Pitch

Ms Coles said this year the college’s eight campuses would be staffed to remain open and accessible to students for 50 weeks (excluding two weeks over the December-January break and for two days in July when staff undertook professional development), which is 10 weeks more than the traditional 40-week school year.

“However, even over the brief period campuses close, our staff will ensure students who need to access free meal services and wellbeing support know exactly where they are located and when they are open,’’ she said.

Arethusa College is an accredited independent Special Assistance School, recognised in the Australian Education Act 2013 as catering “for students with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties”.

There are 96 Independent Special Assistance Schools operating across 176 campuses in Australia’s independent schooling sector.

Students must be referred to the college by other schools or recognised agencies. The college receives the majority of its funding from the Australian and Queensland governments, in recognition of the complex family, health, social and learning needs and challenges faced by many students.

Campuses and classes are small, compared to mainstream schools, and education is moulded around the needs of each young person, from the length of their school day or week to how their individual learning program is structured and delivered.

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