'He brought the school alive': La Perouse Public's reputation makeover
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'He brought the school alive': La Perouse Public's reputation makeover

In one part of La Perouse, there is an Aboriginal mission. In another, the fancy new apartments of Little Bay. And in the middle there is a school where, for many years, neither community wanted to send its kids.

In its heyday, La Perouse Public taught 300 students. Yet when Matt Jackman arrived almost two years ago there were about 24 kids, seven empty classrooms and a reputation that made parents scramble for out-of-area schools.

He could have let the school struggle on, a victim of the area's gentrification and years of bad press. Instead, Mr Jackman hatched a plan to win over the trust of two very different communities. And his efforts have been rewarded: in 2019, La Perouse's numbers will almost double.

La Perouse Public School principal Matt Jackman with students Piper (11), Sophie (6) and Micah (5).

La Perouse Public School principal Matt Jackman with students Piper (11), Sophie (6) and Micah (5).

Photo: Steven Siewert

"He has brought the school alive again," said Selena Brown, who has been the school's Aboriginal Education Officer for 10 years. "He has been the voice in getting out there and pushing for enrolments, which has just been unbelievable."

When he arrived in September 2016, Mr Jackman's first priority was his students. He focused on improving behaviour by not focusing on it; his philosophy was that if the kids were engaged in learning, they wouldn't muck up.

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It has worked – behavioural issues have plummeted, and attendance has grown from 87 to 96 per cent. There is also the added incentive that if they score 200 classroom points, Mr Jackman and Ms Brown will take them out for lunch.

Next on his list was ensuring the school's physical appearance reflected the quality of the learning going on inside, knowing this would help win over prospective parents. "They are not going to send their kids to a school that looks really tired."

Inmates from nearby Long Bay jail worked on weekends to clear the enormous oval of lantana and build a vegetable garden. Graffiti artists painted a mural in return for burgers and beers. Mr Jackman enlisted a mate to help with a chook pen, and the classrooms were given a much-needed lick of paint.

Then Mr Jackman crunched his numbers. The 2016 census showed there were almost 400 primary aged kids in the La Perouse school catchment, but fewer than 10 per cent of them attended the school. So he set about winning them back.

First, he reached out to the Aboriginal community, which had been a mainstay during the schools' 150-year history. "A lot of the Aboriginal community were sending their kids to schools outside the catchment area," he said.

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Mr Jackman felt their pride in the school had faded, prompting him to redesign the school uniform, begin didgeridoo and Aboriginal dance lessons, and pull together a La Perouse Primary footy team – the first a long time.

Then he turned to Little Bay, and the thriving, middle-class community that has grown on the site that once housed Prince Henry Hospital. He patronised the local cafe, attended community events, and approached local mothers' groups.

He has been persuasive ("I should have been a salesman," he chuckles): about a dozen Little Bay students are enrolled for 2019, and next year's kindy parents have formed the first financial P&C.

Next year, the school's numbers will swell from 30 to 54. There will be a canteen one day a week, a pre-school on site and a footy team. For the first time in a long time, La Perouse is on the up. "The families we have now, they are walking so much taller," said Mr Jackman.

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The HSC study guide is out now.

The HSC study guide is out now.