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The school principal changing the lives of asylum seeker children.

This incredible woman transformed one of the most unlikely public high schools into one of the best in the nation. Here’s her story.

Dorothy Hoddinott is a champion of refugee and asylum seeker rights. While her incredible work has earned her the Australian Human Rights Medal, the foundations of her success belong very much at a grass roots level — as the principal of a Sydney school.

Ms Hoddinott has been the head of Holroyd High School for 20 years.

At Holroyd, 83 per cent of students do not speak English as their first language. One third of these kids have been in Australia for less than three years, and 60 per cent have a refugee background.

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Dorothy Hoddinott (centre) accepting her Australian Human Rights Award last year. Image: Human Rights Commission.

Most of the students have never attended school before, and many have spent time in detention centres upon entering Australia.

Their traumas are significant and their ability to transition to a ‘normal’ life has been stunted.

Related content: It’s time to give kids in detention their childhoods back.

“The one thing I noticed is there’s a lack of trust in institutions. There’s a lot of anxiety, lack of concentration, disrupted sleep,” Ms Hoddinott says of her large cohort of asylum seeker students.

“Depression is another issue. Our school counsellors deal with a lot of depression and feelings of hopelessness and sometimes suicidal thoughts. Despair about the future, anxiety about being disconnected from family, not knowing what has happened to family – they’ve been through huge trauma, and it has an impact on them.”

Dorothy Hoddinott has been the principal at Holroyd High for more than 20 years.

Holroyd High sits in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Sydney, with more than 60 per cent of student falling within the bottom socio-economic percentile.

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Yet, despite these obstacles, the school has enjoyed an unfathomable amount of success.

Holroyd High consistently yields above average HSC and NAPLAN results. Attendance rates are impeccable. It ranks among the top 30 schools in the entire country in chemistry.

Each year, around 40 per cent of Holroyd students received university offers. Last year, this was raised to 54 per cent. That is well above the national average of 30 per cent.

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Image: Holroyd High School.

This astounding success is largely thanks to Ms Hoddinott.

“Quite a long time ago – the second year I was at the school – we decided the raft of school rules we had didn’t really serve the needs of the school with an emerging complex population,” she said on SBS Insight last night.

“Basically, I got rid of all the school rules, and we spent a year negotiating with the students and the teachers and parents about how we would organise the ethos of the school.

“And we came up with the idea of respect.”

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Dorothy Hoddinott. Image: Screenshot via SBS Insight.
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On top of that, every Holroyd High student receives some kind of mentoring project.

Beyond the renowned Intensive English Centre program, the school has partnerships with the Australian Business and Community Network, Universities of Sydney, NSW and Western Sydney. It runs leadership and enrichment programs with Opera Australia, Bell Shakespeare Company, Belvoir Theatre, Football United and Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS).

All of these programs are in place to enhance the opportunities available to students, and encourage them to pursue their individual interests.

Yet, beyond an extensive list of support programs, Ms Hoddinott’s passion for providing every child with an education underpins the school’s success.

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Multicultural Day at Holroyd High. Image: Holroyd High.

“My goal for the school is to make education work for every student. To have no one fail. To have everyone be successful, have everyone go onto further education, and for that education to be relevant to them and see them fulfill their potential,” she told Mamamia.

Related content: The 10 crucial life skills they don’t teach you at school.

Yet, when I ask about goals for herself, the principal reminds me she is privileged in her position already.

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“I don’t have a goal to be something more exalted than a principal. If you are an educator and you love education then being a principal gives you an enormous capacity to influence the futures of young people,” she said.

“It’s a very privileged and special position. So I think being in my position, enables me to make a huge difference in young people’s lives.”

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Being the principal of Holroyd High is a very “privileged and special position.” Image: Screenshot via SBS Insight.

When it comes to Australia’s asylum seeker policy, Ms Hoddinott wouldn’t comment on any particular government, although she mentioned some policy points as “convenient”.

“The conditions they (children in detention centres) are kept in violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” she notes.

“Although we are signatories (of the convention) it has not been enacted into Australian law. And it is convenient for governments not to have a bill of rights in the constitution.”

Related content: The horrific effect of keeping children in detention.

Ms Hoddinott also emphasised that Australia needs to open its borders to more refugees and people in need.

“The continuing disaster in the Middle East and parts of Africa are going to create large groups of refugees and we shouldn’t be closing ourselves up and putting up the drawbridge,” she said.

“It’s a relatively small number of people who come to Australia. The 18,000 humanitarian entrants each year isn’t enough.”

To find out more about Holroyd High watch the SBS Insight episode, or visit the school’s website.

What would you like to see your children being taught in Australian schools?

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