Learning a better way at Ashley

Ashley School principal Shane Stanton. Picture: GEOFF ROBSON
Ashley School principal Shane Stanton. Picture: GEOFF ROBSON

THERE is no denying  that if you've been sent to Ashley Youth Detention Centre, you're not what would be called a model student.

Driving  past on the Bass Highway, the average person may have ideas of what kind of young people are there, and what they have done, but also wondered what  their family life was  like.

Ashley School principal Shane Stanton knows the young people there better than most - where they've come from, what they've done and, if they don't change, probably where they're headed.

 Regardless of what that young person, male or female, has done, he doesn't care.  He cares about  how much they learn while there and if he can help set them on another path.

Located near Deloraine, the centre is regarded as a leader in youth detention in Australia and is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

 The state government is conducting a review of the centre.

Unlike other centres, each building is not surrounded by razor wire, television sets are not locked in large boxes mounted to the wall and the students have access to the internet - although not social media sites.

It has taken a long time to get to this point and is  something that  Mr Stanton has worked on since arriving in 2003, when the school had just one classroom with nothing on the walls, as not even staples could be used to put up posters in case a student attempted self-harm.

To be a principal of such a school is a unique role, and Mr Stanton works with three teaching staff, teacher assistants, ``youth workers'' otherwise known as guards and various subject-specific teachers in art, music, automotive, hospitality and construction.

Other educators also visit regularly, including those focused on drug and alcohol awareness and parenting.

At the request of students, the school operates over a 49-week year and follows the Australian Curriculum as much as practicable.

His students range in age from those in about year 6   to their early 20s, if they are there for an offence committed before the age of 18.

Students are put in class levels depending on academic ability, not age.

Unable to disclose exactly how many students attend the school, Mr Stanton said it regularly fluctuated as young people arrived or were released but everyone in the centre was expected to attend. 

``The majority of kids come very traumatised, as you would expect,'' Mr Stanton said.  ``It's very intergendherational still and so  they generally come to us not having a good experience at school, and that's not blaming mainstream school, that's just how it is.''

He said recidivism was very high, as it was across Australia, and an increasing number of young people were arriving under the influence of hard drugs such as  ice.

The former Prospect and Campbell Town teacher has pushed for the school to look and feel more like any other. They now have sporting carnivals with team houses and shields; class reports are sent to parents; and assemblies are held  to acknowledge student learning.

There are  brightly decorated classrooms (albeit smaller   because only five students at a time attend class together with a teacher, a youth worker and teacher assistant), a library, an art room, metal and woodwork rooms and  a kitchen.

The detention centre school is believed to be the only one in the country that has a ``cafe'' called The Daily Grind - although Mr Stanton jokes that the students' first choice of name was Coffee On The Run. 

Students  learn not only  about how to make various coffees and operate a small business (without money changing hands) but also how to behave in a social setting.

Attendance in classes is based on a behavioural colour-coded system: ``green'' students are allowed to work with knives and hot water in the kitchen, tools and welding equipment; ``red'' students may have been in a fight and will spend time in detention.

But Mr Stanton is quick to clarify that  staff are ever-vigilant - every item is accounted for at the end of each class, each door is locked when you enter and leave a room.

Anywhere there is a student with a staff member, there is a youth worker.

He said the policy now was to work with the student and focus on the positives - show respect and trust in them and they will do the same to you.

``We have a philosophy that we treat the kids the way we want them to be, not the way they are. They get treated the same as anyone else,'' he said.

``We've had some interesting cases over the years. At one time we had all female staff and we had one particular young person come in who had been in the news really heavily for an atrocious crime at the time, and we're thinking, `oh no, how are we going to deal with this?'

``They (staff) came over at morning tea time and we're out there chatting and they're like, `oh he's so lovely, he's not such a bad . . .'

``He built a fantastic relationship with all of us here at the time and (when he left) we wished him all the best, and we believe he's still working and possibly got a couple of children.''

They have a weekly Strong ARM-Attitude Respect Manners award and students can receive lollies or a bottle of sports drink for good behaviour.

Mr Stanton said the average literacy and numeracy level of the students was between nine and 10 years of age, and they catered to that to improve the students' learning.

There are the exceptions, of course, and last year one student completed year 12 at Ashley, has since left and began university in February. He now has a job.

Another student, expected to be in there long-term, has begun year 11 this year, and  in the past  some have travelled off site to attend college classes in Launceston.

``It's all part of the transition and obviously they have to be low-risk and trusted and be approved by all of the organisations for it to happen,'' he said.

``You need to transition kids out and you need to do it as smoothly as you possibly can and be as supportive as you  can.''

Mr Stanton said transitioning students into college and completion of their Tasmanian Certificate of Education would not have happened in the past, so he was grateful to the centre for allowing the school to let it occur.

He  wanted the students to look back and be able to say they had a good school experience and to value it -  something that  they could  then instil in their own children.

``I'm very proud of my kids here - they give me goosebumps every day. It's a bit of a rollercoaster ride with them as well, but to think, I've got kids out there you're just so proud of and yet they've got such a history of poor disengagement and of course, offending as well.

``But you do see the best of the kids here.''


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