Eagle Arts & Vocational College in Bligh Park provides stress-free schooling for disengaged teenagers

SUPPORTIVE: Eagle Arts student Olivia, 18 years old from Pitt Town, with the school's principal, Gab McIntosh.
SUPPORTIVE: Eagle Arts student Olivia, 18 years old from Pitt Town, with the school's principal, Gab McIntosh.

YOUNG people unhappy at school can gain a different style of education at an ‘alternative school’ in Bligh Park.

Based on the Bligh Park Community Centre site, Eagle Arts & Vocational College is a private school with no fees, designed for kids who don’t fit in at regular schools.

“Schools can be very cruel places for those students who feel they don’t fit in,” said the school’s principal, Gab McIntosh.

“Not everyone is going to flourish at traditional schools.”

Ms McIntosh describes Eagle Arts as a “low-stress school”. There are no exams or assignments, and the only time students get homework is when they ask for it.

There is no uniform required, and year groupings are irrelevant. To pass a year at Eagle Arts, students simply need a minimum 100 days of attendance.

Eagle Arts takes students aged 13 to 18 years of age, and provides the equivalent of Years 8 to 12 of schooling. They don’t offer a regular HSC, but instead offer their own curriculum with a lot more emphasis on sport, the arts and work experience.

Eagle Arts students are encouraged to further their learning through TAFE, either in tandem with their schooling or after they graduate.

The school has a high teacher-to-student ratio, with five teachers for around 30 students - which is the maximum number the school enrols.

PRACTICAL LEARNING: Students Lilli (16, Bligh Park), Kim (16, Windsor) and Skyelee (15, East Richmond), with Stuart the gardener, pictured beside the vegetable garden they've been tending at the school.

PRACTICAL LEARNING: Students Lilli (16, Bligh Park), Kim (16, Windsor) and Skyelee (15, East Richmond), with Stuart the gardener, pictured beside the vegetable garden they've been tending at the school.

It is open Mondays through to Thursdays from 9.30am until 2.30pm, but students attend when they can.

Meals are provided free-of-charge, as well as any excursions throughout the year. They also offer a free pick-up and drop-off service for students, and will even travel to suburbs as far away as Wisemans Ferry (where one current student is based).

Ms McIntosh has been involved in alternative education for around 20 years, and believes the key to engaging disengaged teenagers is to allow them to make their own choices.

“We don’t offer any of the traditional subjects as there are many schools offering the same curriculum, and why should we reproduce it? We tailor courses that we think will be just right for the kids,” she said.

Courses on offer include a Working With Difficult People certificate, which Ms McIntosh said was designed for students interested in working in the retail industry or other customer service occupations.

They also offer a Senior First Aid Certificate and a White Card construction induction certificate, as well as tuition in food preparation and gardening. They’ve even had the school van modified with a brake on the passenger side, so they can offer driving lessons to students who have their learner licence.

“We take students who have fallen out of favour with the law, or some of them haven’t coped at other schools. Principals and deputies make a decision and call us, or parents call us - parents are often the ones that suffer,” said Ms McIntosh.

She said the school gives preference to students based in the Hawkesbury, and around 80 per cent of current enrolments are from this area. The only criteria is the student must be living with an adult.

The school also provides a free school holiday program for the students, which includes activities like movies and ten pin bowling.

Positive experiences

Bowen Mountain resident Jillian Owen works part-time at Eagle Arts, and her 18-year-old son, Andrew, is a student. Andrew has high-functioning Asperger's, and has been attending Eagle Arts for a year and a half.

“Primary schools didn’t know how to cope with him and he often got frustrated and had melt-downs. He had five or six suspensions by Year 5,” Ms Owen said.

Ms Owen home-schooled Andrew for around five years, but after that he decided he wanted to go back to school in order to socialise. After enrolling Andrew at Eagle Arts, Ms Owen began volunteering there, and now she does their data entry and accounts, and cooks lunches for the students.

OUTDOOR LESSONS: Gardening is one of the alternative subjects offered at Eagle Arts & Vocational College in Bligh Park.

OUTDOOR LESSONS: Gardening is one of the alternative subjects offered at Eagle Arts & Vocational College in Bligh Park.

“Andrew sees this school as a community. He can talk to the staff and he feels like he’s supported. It’s been a really positive experience here,” said Ms Owen.

“I would encourage anybody who’s having trouble with mainstream schooling to give it a go. It’s more caring and nurturing.”

Ms Owen said Andrew had experienced bullying at his previous school, but not at Eagle Arts. Andrew said he felt comfortable in the small class setting: “It’s easier to deal with,” he said.

Andrew studies at Kingswood TAFE in tandem with his schooling - last year he did Digital and Interactive Games, and this year he’s studying Design Fundamentals.

Another Eagle Arts student, 18-year-old Olivia from Pitt Town, is currently in her second year at the school, and said her favourite thing about going there is that the students have a say in what they do.

“I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety three years ago. I had behavioural problems and got kicked out of schools. [Eagle Arts] is really good for kids who struggle fitting in. We’re all like a big family,” she said.

Flourishing at Eagle Arts, Olivia helps out in the office after hours, and is leader of the school’s harassment committee - a student-run committee that works to eliminate harassment at school.

Next year, Olivia plans to do an enrolled nursing course at TAFE, then go on to study nursing at university.

Information: Eagle Arts & Vocational College, 139 Colonial Drive, Bligh Park. Phone 0468 960 455.