At 14 years of age, Sisi Haunga and his twin brother enrolled into the Eagles RAPS education program. At that point, the pair were avoiding school and participating in anti-social behaviour, running with the wrong crowd and getting involved in minor crimes.
Through the program, both boys completed their Year AA10 equivalent and HSC with Eagles RAPS with the courses provided and accredited by TAFE Digital and have gone on to become successful, admirable people.
After completion of the HSC, Sisi took up an apprenticeship in Community Services, working with Eagles RAPS while completing his Certificate III through TAFE Digital. After the completion of his Certificate III, he continued to work and volunteer with the organisaton.
Sisi is now 30 years old, married with three kids and is working two jobs. He is community-minded and gives a lot of his own time to volunteer work.
There are others like Sisi who have found a way through Eagles RAPS and the key seems to be providing an individualised program for each participant with enough flexibility to allow for the circumstances that disadvantaged kids will find themselves pushing up against.
Scott Dent, Service Director at Eagles RAPS says, “The young people who attend Eagles RAPS have not been able to attend mainstream schooling for various reasons. The vast majority of our students come from multi-generational welfare dependant homes, have lived in domestic violence circumstances and poverty, have grown up around alcohol and other drug use and abuse as well as other anti-social behaviours. Many lack any positive role models, have parents in jail or orders in place that prevent relationships with loved ones. Our students and participants have all had a tough time in one way or another.
“They have endured incredibly, and understandably their schooling has suffered. Typically, our students get to 14–16 years of age and in one way or another fall out of favour with the mainstream education system.
“Eagles RAPS offers them another chance at education and to gain skills needed to succeed in life. All young people are individually case managed to address barriers and issues in their lives and are supported by qualified staff, volunteers and mentors. The program networks with other services in the area to provide holistic support to participants.”
Students find the program through schools, services such as the Department of Communities and Justice, other community services, accommodation providers, police, health and they can self-refer.
“Students come to the program with the expectation of finding an alternative school setting that might be a little more 'laid back' than the conventional settings, and on the surface that is what we offer. However, there is a lot more to it than that. During the intake process we focus on more than just education, we get a holistic view of where the student is 'at'. We develop an individual learning plan which speaks to the students' academic needs. We also look at problematic attitudes and behaviours and seek to encourage, motivate and create a sense of belief in the students, showing them that they are capable of success and are worthy of a quality of life greater than what they have experienced to date.”
“The program is completely individualised and without boundaries in what support we can give the young people. We offer counselling and source specialist counsellors for longer term concerns. We offer court support where necessary. We engage the families where needed and do whatever we need to do to help the young people find their feet and direction,” Dent says.
“When we encounter a young person who is not at school, we do not see school avoidance as the primary 'problem' we see it as a symptom of a far greater issue. All young people should be in school, it sounds obvious, but not just from an education perspective. The Department of Education has a whole range of resources and tools to monitor the welfare of our young people and support them when it is needed. If a young person is not at school, they are a) most likely in great need for other supports and b) not in a place where they can access them. This is dangerous.
“We are fundamentally an organisation interested in affecting the mental health and well-being of our young people. We find that having the 'shop front' of an alternative education program allows us to access our target audience which is of course young, vulnerable, disadvantaged and ultimately 'at-risk' young people. While on the surface we look like an education and training provider, our real focus is on the mental health and welfare of local youth.”
Eagles RAPS became a RTO in 2018. The program still uses TAFE for some Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses, but now runs its own Foundation Skills which can act as a Year 10 equivalent education, as well as certificates in Information Technology, White Card, and First Aid courses.
Among the courses students study is the Certificate III in Information Technology, a nationally recognised qualification which provides foundational skills and knowledge needed to start a career in the IT industry. In addition to the courses, industry mentors from companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS) come in to mentor the kids and share their own career paths.
Students are connected with local businesses and are helped progress into employment.
The students gain accredited education as they are enrolled in a mixture of TAFE Digital and Eagles RAPS Registered Training Organisation courses. The education program is self-paced and flexible to allow young people to address their barriers to education. They receive assistance from the course facilitators who have been delivering the courses in the program for more than a decade.
The structure is flexible, the core program at the moment is called 4X4, meaning four hours per day, four days per week. This is a lighter time commitment than mainstream school, but lengthy breaks, assemblies, and other wasted time are excluded. Students just work for the four hours and go home.
“We provide healthy snacks and drinks, and they get short 5–10-minute breaks every hour, but the culture of the environment is that they just get back to work. They really rise up to the maturity expectations we put on them. Concurrently we are available to 'click into' youth work mode at any time and help our program participants when they want to talk about the life circumstances they are managing,” Dent says.
Students in the program take holidays at the same time as mainstream public schools, however, staff are still available during the holidays on a flexible timetable should the student have issues that need support.
Keeping Them Engaged and Attending
Eagles RAPS gives students the opportunity to try a range of different skills in their courses, helping find the topics that most interest them.
“Because we interact so closely with each of our students, we’re able to adapt our style of teaching to help them learn in the ways they find best. Some of our students can be quite autonomous, some need closer attention – we can offer both in the same environment because we have limited class sizes and are trained to recognise and support issues if they arise.
“The students we access are typically long-term school-avoiding students so it can be tricky to retain them. This is where our approach needs to be different to schools, we need to be creative and perform more the role of a mentor and youth worker than a teacher. We build relationships with the students, and we try to make it fun and engaging. A huge priority with new students is to allow them the opportunity to succeed early, get 'little wins' like passing a unit of work or getting good results on a quiz or test. For students who have had very little success in school, this can be huge, provided they feel that they have earned it, and gives us something to build on,” Dent says.
Industry mentors from companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS) also play a big role in keeping the students engaged. The message that Eagles RAPS conveys is that IT isn’t as simple as IT anymore, the diversity of roles and jobs and career options that are aligned with IT are enormous and the mentors really bring this to life.
“There is no finite or concise explanation of how we keep the students engaged other than to say that we see them, listen to them, try to understand them and care about them,” Dent says.
Eagles RAPS is a small organisation with three full time staff who each cover all bases. As part of Amazon Web Services’ mission to create innovative programs that have a lasting impact in the regions where its teams work, live and raise their families, the AWS InCommunities team began supporting Eagles RAPS and its Doonside centre in Western Sydney in late 2019.
Since then, they have sponsored 10 to 15 positions annually to help young people complete the various courses that Eagles RAPS offers. In December 2021, AWS announced it was providing funding for another full year, which will help support another 15 students.
AWS staff have delivered a mentor program to a number of students over the past two years. The AWS mentors check in with students both to help with their studies (especially IT students) but also to help in other ways by looking at strategies to improve their job readiness, providing strategies to handle difficult situations and relationships and anything else that might pop up in their mentor sessions.
Advice for Dealing with Disadvantaged Students
Dent says, “I would really hope teachers in mainstream schools would understand the difficulties that disadvantaged youth face, but sometimes the simple truth is that school isn't for everyone. In saying that, the advice I often give to people that are new to this kind of work is to assume nothing and see only the person. Sure, we need to understand background and circumstances to be able help, but we should see only the person. Make no judgements or assessments on their behaviours or circumstances because the truth is that so many of our kids have endured so much, the least we can do is accept them and help them pave a path forward which will be the building blocks of their lives.”
Many kids have gone through Eagles RAPS and achieved great things, but Dent says success can be a strange thing to measure.
“Some of my favourite engagements with young people are with those that came to us, did a small bridging course and found employment. It is great to be able to offer a reset or fresh start for kids who just want to work but need to navigate the red tape. For others, success is seen as course completions and qualifications.
“The greatest success is that our young people gain a sense of self-worth. That they build confidence in themselves that they are capable and competent and believe that they can work hard and gain reward. It is a beautiful thing to provide, and we don't always succeed but when we do it is truly life changing."
Noah was struggling with what he calls the “normal high school environment” and he was referred into the Eagles RAPS program. Noah is currently in the Certificate III program in Information Technology, a nationally recognised qualification which provides foundational skills and knowledge needed to start a career in the IT industry.
Noah joined Eagles RAPS in 2019 and started with the Workplace Skills certificate. He worked closely with Eagles RAPS program coordinator Sally Wynd and Eagles RAPS Service Director, Scott Dent, to complete his studies.
Noah has always been interested in IT. As part of the course, Noah is currently building a computer, something he’s really interested in and looks forward to finding a job in IT after graduating.
Ben enrolled into the Eagles RAPS program at 14 years old. Despite hating school and struggling socially, he was succeeding academically. Ben slowly settled into the Eagles environment and began to feel comfortable in program’s unique accepting and caring environment.
Ben completed Year 10 with Eagles, and went on to his HSC, growing in confidence and self-esteem along the way. Ben later became a leader and mentor in Eagles’ school program and joined the committee as a Youth Liaison prior to joining as a full member.
Following this, he then completed his Cert IV and Diploma in Community Services at Eagles before progressing into university study in 2014. Ben recently graduated with a degree in Social Work.
Ben is a great friend of the Eagles RAPS team, always keen to volunteer for fundraising efforts and anything else needed for the program.
“Ben is a champion bloke, with a great sense of social justice and fairness, he is going to be a rare asset to this industry for a long time to come,” says Dent.