Classroom personalization: the rise of autonomous learning centers

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Independent Learning Centers are flexible learning environments designed to accommodate students who cannot or do not want to be in a traditional classroom. Meet three students from South East South Australia who are successful the second time around and a teacher from Naracoorte who says education should be student-friendly, rather than the other way around.

Sara Alfraij: “I’m here to learn”

Sara Alfraij, 21, is a student at the Mount Gambier Independent Learning Center.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Kate Hill)

“When we moved to Australia, I was fifteen and didn’t speak English.

“I was a year younger than everyone else in my school in Syria. But I went to school here and was downgraded by two years.

“I started grade 11 at 17, almost 18, and I got fed up. My English wasn’t helping me and neither was my teachers.

“I had an essay in English and wanted to do it on a little children’s book, not a big book that I couldn’t read or understand.

“They brought in my parents, then I gave up and decided drugs were a good idea. I was taking a lot of crack and taking acid and smoking a lot of pot.

“It really hit me that I couldn’t finish school. I was mad at so many things.

“When I started working, my boss knew I wasn’t going to any school and she told me that if I enrolled in the Mount Gambier Independent Learning Center (ILC), I could finish my SACE (South Australian Certificate of Education).

“I signed up and it was the best thing I have ever done.

“I have completed my Cert 3 in Business and Hospitality and now I am working on my South Australian Education Certificate.

“It’s not like when you were a kid. You can’t be bored doing business and talking about things that don’t matter. You just want to work and come home.

“I’m here to learn. I really hope to graduate this year.

“I won a leadership camp called the Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) and went in May. It was mean, I learned so much about myself.

“I learned to take things a little more seriously. I learned that I can set myself a goal and achieve it, whatever it is.

“I got a tattoo for this, because it changed my life.

“I want to finish my SACE and my basic studies and then I want to start my social work studies. This is what I want to do. I just want to work with refugees from my country.

“When I graduate, I’ll probably have an ILC tattoo. Maybe something with a little graduation hat.”

Gareth Hunter: “You have to prove that you have actually completed something”

A young man with a cap upside down looks to the right of the camera, leaning on a wooden handrail.
Gareth Hunter, 20, was a student at the Mount Gambier Independent Learning Center. He is now an apprentice cook.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Kate Hill)

“I stirred pretty much all of grade 12.

“The first semester went well, I had good grades, then I got my license and then everything was free, girls and football.

“I was a pretty good leader in school, I voted on the school committee and stuff, but I still tried to be the class clown.

“My teachers used to tell me ‘work hard, it will pay off in the long run and you can party during the school holidays.’

“But I just wanted to party and have fun then.

“I passed a few classes. The only one I really did was outdoor education, I got an A for that. The rest were high D’s or low C’s.

“I ended up dropping a few courses and finished the year. But I failed so many courses that I was still missing a few SACE points.

“I wanted to go back to school to make sure I had something behind me. I always wanted my SACE because a lot of jobs are looking for it now.

“They were very helpful to ILC. It only took a few months and I was successful. I took out my SACE and got my Certificate 3 in Business.

“They left you alone to do things of your own accord, but they also came, timing it perfectly, came to ask a question to see how you were doing.

“I wasn’t there every day of the week, eight hours a day like in traditional schools, so it wasn’t a chore. I treated it like a side job.

“I graduated last year and now I’m a first year cook apprentice and entering business school this year.

“They asked me to speak at ILC graduation last year and I was a little surprised that they chose me.

“But I’ve always been good at public speaking and talked about how I was working full time and finishing my education. I also said a lot of lame jokes.

“Certainly, if you are planning to relocate, find a good job, or find a house to rent, education is something they are definitely looking for.

“That’s a great thing. If you want to be reliable enough to pay rent or work all the time, you have to prove that you have actually completed something.”

Skye Bowring: “I feel safe here”

A young woman is looking directly at the camera, with blurry trees in the background.
Skye Bowring, 21, is a student at the Naracoorte Independent Learning Center.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Kate Hill)

“I have been displaced my whole life, I attended schools in Keith, Naracoorte and Bordertown, Mount Gambier.

“The school was just different. I didn’t get along well with the other students. I was pretty much bullied and found it difficult.

“I haven’t really had a stable family life since I was 14. Living away from home and trying to go to school every day, it was difficult to motivate myself.

“I dropped out in grade 10. Back then, I really didn’t care. I didn’t mind then, but now it bothers me.

“I want to make my living and finish my twelfth grade, so I have my studies behind me.

“When I dropped out of high school, someone recommended that I come here, so I did and I love everything about it.

“It’s more functional, the hours are better and the students are nicer. I got really hammered in school and it hurt my self-esteem. I feel safe here.

“I feel like if I have a problem, I can go to any of my teachers and they’ll fix it, no problem.

“I hope to graduate from grade 12 and get my SACE this year.

“It would be a great achievement for me and something I would feel good about.

“I still have days when my confidence is dropping but I’m starting to see the potential in myself.”

Tammy Schinkel: “We don’t have disengaged students here”

A blonde woman standing near a brick wall looks left at the camera.
Tammy Schinkel is the Campus Manager of the Naracoorte Independent Learning Center.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Kate Hill)

“My first question to them, ‘why do you think this will work for you if other educational institutions haven’t’?

“I will not take anyone that it is not their choice to be here.

“People are much more responsible here than they’ve been before. There’s nowhere to hide in the back of a classroom or nowhere to sit and do nothing.

“I tell people that doesn’t mean we’re doing anything better or worse here for mainstream education, it’s just a different system that works well for some people.

“Our participation last year was 98%. We don’t have disengaged students here.

“I taught in a regular school for 20 years before I came here. In a class of 35 kids, it’s easy for kids to go unnoticed.

“I think there is still a stigma attached to independent learning centers no matter where they are located.

“People may think that there is something wrong with the people who go there, as opposed to something wrong with the system they come from.

“When it’s the right time and the right place for them, our door is always open.

“What inspires me and what I love is the growth I see in students like Skye.

“Skye was a coming and going student of ILC depending on life circumstances and many pretty big obstacles that would have plagued most people for six years.

“I think for the first time in her life she has realized that she is in control of her own destiny and is very aware of wanting to break a mold that she has been a part of her entire life.

“I can already see in Skye what she still has to find out about herself.”


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