Dickson College back from the brink
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Dickson College back from the brink

A Canberra school has come back from the brink after being marked as one of the least viable schools in the ACT.

Five years ago Dickson College was one of 39 schools tipped for closure as drops in enrolments caused a major government shake-up of the entire sector.

Dickson was one of only two secondary schools included in the review and survived only narrowly after a strong public campaign by more than 2000 parents, students and community members.

But this year, the viability of the school could never be more apparent.

Since 2006, enrolments have increased from 500 students to a total of 800.

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Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks have risen from the low 70s to a median score of 82.9 and of all students intending to enter university, almost 30 per cent receive scores above 90.

Meanwhile, satisfaction surveys circulated once a year indicate that 80 to 90 per cent of students are in a good mood for a significant portion of their time at college.

The dramatic results have led ACT Education and Training Directorate chief executive Jim Watterston to describe the college as the best school we have.

He attributed much of the college's success to the innovative leadership of Beth Mitchell, who took over as principal in 2009 after formerly acting as the colleges deputy.

Ms Mitchell has introduced a school culture that focuses highly on creativity.

Student artwork dominates every corridor, contributing to a sense of pride among students, but staff are also instructed to "get a little crazy" when thinking up new initiatives for learning.

In one example, the school decided to design a Refugee Bridging Program even though only one refugee student was identified as needing extra support.

The program has now grown to cater for 30 students a year, with three specialist English and maths teachers and links into other specialisations ranging from IT to media and construction.

In another example, history and English teachers created their own wiki sites showcasing "exemplary" student essays as a guide to their peers and parents.

The wiki site has since gone global, with praise from high school and university students across the world.

Meanwhile, staff also created a global relations course that allows students to study issues identified by the United Nations before giving presentations to UN staff on their findings. This program has not only scored countless work experience opportunities for students but also lead to a global relations high school conference being held this year, with talks from such speakers as Climate Commissioner Will Steffen.

No idea is too trivial to Ms Mitchell who, in the grand scheme of things, has even suggested the school build a child-care business partially staffed by students and a student accommodation centre offering scholarships to regional students.

"Well-off private schools already offer opportunities like this so I don't see why public schools cannot eventually do the same," she said.

Ms Mitchell received the Public Education Principal of the Year Award earlier this year and Mr Watterston said her goal - that every student be made to feel "the world is their oyster" - was key to her success.

"The people in that school are passionate, committed and energised because they are allowed to take risks and explore opportunities they never had in the past," he said. "There is a sense of belief that if you have an idea, you can get things done."