Arriving at Paralowie High School is a little bit daunting; the sheer size of the school is overwhelming. An R-12 school with more than 1500 kids and growing.
But as you walk through the gates, and into the school grounds, you start to get a sense of how this school is anything but typical, it is not just a place for education, it is a place for community.
And at the helm of the school is a humble, passionate, and inspiring Principal who sees the young people in his school’s care not as numbers, not even just as students, but as individual young people whose potential can be reached by helping them overcome the barriers in their life and realise what they have to offer the world.
Peter Mckay has been Principal of Paralowie R-12 Schooll coming up just 10 years but has spent 43 years in the Department for Education. In his final year before retirement, we wanted to catch up with him to get an idea of what high schools are like today, and why he continues to invest and partner with Youth Opportunities to support his students.
“Schools today are different to what you might expect,” says Peter.
“At Paralowie High School we are a very multicultural school with 77 language groups present and a very diverse cohort of kids coming from some of Adelaide’s most challenged communities. Each week we are feeding up to 150 kids and 60 families through a program organised by our school.
“We are also not just employing teachers; out of the needs of our students we now include on staff speech pathologists, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, dental hygienists, and a GP.
“We have also invested in creating a wellbeing hub in response to the high levels of self-harm and suicide ideation in young people, and the increasing mental health challenges faced in children from reception to Year 12. And, knowing the important role parents play in the development of young people, we have parent community centre to connect families into our school community.”
For Paralowie R-12 School, and in particular, for Peter, creating an environment where young people can achieve the best education outcomes is intrinsically linked to their wellbeing and mental health, which is why he has also been an advocate for Youth Opportunities Personal Leadership Program in the school for the past 12 years.
“Learning and wellbeing are closely linked. Young people with good wellbeing are more engaged and successful learners. Likewise, gaining a good education is a key contributor to positive lifelong wellbeing outcomes. Respectful relationships enhance wellbeing. Building trust and care are foundations to building inspiration and engagement which in turn allows us to grow and develop as successful people.
“As a school, we acknowledge that we cannot do everything and so we look for the chance to partner with other organisations to support us in our work of supporting students to prepare for life after school.
“Youth Opportunities is one of these organisations that supports our students to recognise that they are actually in control of the choices they make.
“We want our students to understand that a happy life and successful life is result of the choices you make. Sometimes things beyond our control happen, but it is how we choose to react to them that makes the difference,” says Peter.
Peter says that feedback from previous programs continues to show it makes a difference. Even students who have been surveyed several months after completing the Personal Leadership Program are indicating some of the changes they made are still happening today.
But for Peter, even if just one young person’s life is better as a result of the program, then it is worth it.
“I think we need to appreciate that learning can and does take many forms as young people are all individuals.
“If we feel help them to feel safe, confident, and capable they are willing to take on challenges and work harder to achieve their goals. If they are resilient, healthy, and happy they are more likely to have a growth mindset, be open to new ideas and explore the boundaries of their abilities.
“It is the qualities above that we see develop in the graduates of the Youth Opportunities program at Paralowie, and in turn these qualities will become their habits. Habits that I believe will result in increased school retention and a more positive engagement with learning; improved personal relationships and communication, giving our graduates a sense of having developed the skills to deal with the complexities of their peer, family and teacher relationships; increased ability to deal with day-to-day challenges; increased motivation to achieve goals; and, perhaps a sense of wanting to contribute more to the wider community.”
Peter reiterates that programs such as Youth Opportunities do not just happen by chance. They take vision and a passion to make a difference in the lives of young people.
“Seldom are successful programs just the work of one person, and Youth Opportunities is a good example of what can be achieved when a group of committed people work together to make a difference, and I thank Youth Opportunities and its supporters for giving Paralowie the chance to be part of their network.”
And what is it that Peter hopes for the future of young people at Paralowie?
Peter shares a story of a young student at Paralowie who has decided she does not want to be the fourth generation experiencing unemployment in her family. She aspires to be the first person to go to university and, even though she has a range of barriers to achieving this goal, she is determined to work hard to overcome them.
“I live in hope that through their experience at our school these young people will be given the opportunity to create a better future for themselves. It is the successes of these students who put in the work to achieve their goals that helps us know we are doing a good job.”