Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards
Holy Spirit College (QLD)
Success for Erica Prosser’s students is measured not in exam results but in finding the confidence to figure out a life plan and start working towards it.
Across two sites in far north Queensland, Holy Spirit College offers “a second or often last chance at education,” for young people whose lives are affected by trauma, violence, drug use or mental health issues, says Erica, its founding Principal.
With a focus on building literacy and numeracy skills, staff program around young people’s interests and aspirations, teaching flexibly across multi-age groups. An essential part of every day is “circle up”, where all young people and staff including the cook, cleaners and administrators – come together to share hopes and concerns and figure out how to structure the next learning projects.
Families attest to the remarkable difference in their young people’s lives. Recent triumphs include a young man who overcame homelessness and is now an apprentice mechanic, and a young woman with crippling anxiety who has been able to take up a work placement in a childcare centre.
The teenagers who attend Holy Spirit College are survivors. Typically they have lived through chaos or tragedy. They are understandably mistrustful and disengaged from education, which in most instances has failed them repeatedly.
“Our young people are looking for a second or often last chance at education,” says founding Principal Erica Prosser. “We recognise the trauma, violence, drug use, mental health, emotional issues and anti-social behaviours they are involved in or that surround them at home; we put those things aside and work with them as an individual to help them realise their potential.”
Success at Holy Spirit – which opened four years ago and operates across two campuses 350 kilometres apart at Cairns and remote Cape York in Queensland – is measured not in certificates or standardised testing.
Instead, the school’s successes are the Year 7 to 12 students themselves: young people finding individual paths, positive reinforcement and hope for the future.
Among Ms Prosser’s recent triumphs: a homeless young person, supported to live and study, is now an apprentice mechanic; a highly anxious young woman is in a work placement in a child care centre; a young man with a history of violence and a criminal record is playing sport at national level and has a traineeship in the health sector.
A teaching staff of 10 supports 88 students in literacy and numeracy. Beyond that, anything can happen. Because there are no mandatory subjects, young people work across year groups according to their interests.
Secure, respectful relationships between all members of the Holy Spirit community are at the heart of its ethos. An essential part of every day is “circle up”, where all college staff and the young people come together to share hopes and concerns and figure out how to structure the next learning projects.
“Candid downloads are integral to the young people’s feeling of safety and accomplishment”, Ms Prosser said, and are the embodiment of a trauma-informed approach – where the impact of someone’s life history is acknowledged, understood and recognition is given to how that affects individual’s respond to current stresses.
Families attest to the difference in students’ lives. “My children feel wanted,” one parent said. “They have become encouraged to be better within themselves.”
Ms Prosser, a 20-year alternative education veteran, is known to colleagues as a quiet innovator. She championed technology to link the two sites, creating an essential sense of collegiality between teachers who support each other in work that can be emotionally draining.
From humble beginnings – Holy Spirit was launched in 2015 from “half a building” and a bus – she has built a hub of expertise. Other schools in the region now draw on her advice when a student is struggling.
Ms Prosser is passionately committed to professional learning for herself and her staff, combing journals, webinars and conferences for new ideas and bringing those insights into her classrooms. Art therapy will be next out of the blocks in a school that never stands still.