In the shadow of the Great Western Tiers, in a tiny village known better for its hydro history, is a college unique to Tasmania.
Establishing a school nearly an hour out of Launceston, far from city services in the old hydro village of Poatina, may seem like a strange idea.
But Capstone College has a purpose in its choice of location.
With spectacular views across the plains – and the golf course – the college is run by principal Russell McKane.
Mr McKane has plenty of experience in working with unique education systems, having run similar colleges on the mainland.
Capstone College is a special assistance school with fewer than 20 students, who come to classes as they feel like it.
The college works to re-engage the most disconnected or traumatised students back into an education system, and is part of not-for-profit Christian youth organisation Fusion.
Fusion runs several colleges like Capstone, using evidence-based data to find ways for students with a history of abuse or trauma, or who have a disability or autism diagnosis, to enjoy learning.
Spread across two campuses around Poatina, Capstone College is more like a home than a school, the small-town support critical to helping students from often trauma-based backgrounds feel comfortable and welcome.
In the school’s big, airy breakfast room, a massive poster of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games covers an entire wall – burning in flame, she rises from ashes and stares across the room.
As principal of this unorthodox college, Mr McKane is proud of the progress the college has made in its first full year of operation.
Students who came into the school struggling to complete the most routine tasks of writing assignments or taking tests were, by the end of last year, turning in complete assignments with a smile on their faces.
The transformation, Mr McKane said, was due partly to the lack of pressure at Capstone.
“Ninety per cent of what we do is really about the staffing and the relationship with kids,” he said. “They know they can trust us … Kids who’ve had really negative school experience, getting them into a position of trust is critical.”
A daily breakfast club helps create that trust, along with finding the right kind of staff.
The quiet, steady village of Poatina is an ideal place for young people to recover, find themselves, and slowly begin to learn again.
Students may have a litany of challenges to face – social, mental, family – but can make their way toward a future that includes learning not just through grades 9 and 10, but beyond.
The word ‘nurturing’ is one that Mr McKane uses frequently to describe the attitude at Capstone: teachers who care, a volunteer community that understands, and a place that is safe.
“For [students] it’s somewhere safe, they’re not having to risk the social dynamics of somewhere like downtown Lonnie,” he said.
“We run a bus that picks them up in the morning so they don’t have to negotiate public transport in the mornings – things like that.
“And in that village context, all the specialists we have here – a glassblower, we have a home ed teacher who lives here who runs her own catering business, your local farmers … those things are part and parcel of the way it works.
“We build the curriculum a little bit around what we have here in the village, our history component is built around the hydro history.”
Mr McKane said students who had started 2017 completely disconnected from education had reached a point where they could successfully turn in a full assignment with a smile on their faces – a satisfying result.
The key challenge in running such an education structure is finding the right teachers, who understand the school’s philosophy.
“It is certainly hard, and particularly getting part-time people who can be at Poatina,” Mr McKane said.
“That can be threatening to a teacher … not so much for new teachers, often new teachers have been taught really good teaching methods and they go into a traditional school and get disillusioned.
“You’ve actually got to work differently, so that makes staffing hard.”
Instead of set periods for individual subjects, the college works through units that run for several weeks, creating an immersive, in-depth learning experience.
“By doing five-week unit structures, if kids are away for a day, they still know where they are, they don’t get lost,” Mr McKane said.
“Schools divide our meaning up into little pieces and expect the kids to put them together … 90 per cent of the kids can’t, so they bluff their way through.”
Using the five-week structure rather than set periods for maths, science and so on means entire days can be taken up with excursions and alternative learning opportunities, keeping students engaged and interested.
On any given day, students could be out playing golf or gardening, helping cook pancakes for breakfast, or working on texts.
“If any kid is not feeling okay, they’re free to walk out, have a coffee, walk around the town and come back,” Mr McKane said.
“Having that freedom of choice for them gives them a real choice, not a fake choice.”
Along the walls of one campus building are photos of past events and courses – glassblowing and gardening, farming and artwork, archaeology and more.
Now in its second year, Capstone has seen nearly every student return, with more interested in enrolling.
“We’re growing slowly, we’ve increased our staffing significantly this year,” Mr McKane said.
“We’re planning to hopefully begin a year 11 and 12 next year or the year after.”