Cultures intersect at remote NT graduation

Lucy Hughes Jones

At a remote Top End school in West Arnhem Land, a handful of nervous Year 12 students are preparing for a unique graduation ceremony that blends western and Aboriginal heritage.

Each student will be clap-sticked down a red carpet by their families along with singing and traditional dancing.

The girls have been pampered and are practising their acceptance speeches and walking in their new high heels.

"We want to keep them in the air conditioning until all the dignitaries are seated, because they've got makeup on and it's so damn hot here it'll all melt away," co-principal Sue Trimble told AAP.

"Celebrating the graduates shows that there is a strong life and pathway to a job if you show up everyday."

Ten students are graduating from Year 12 at Gunbalanya School, located on the edge of Kakadu National Park.

It's around 300km east of Darwin but becomes completely inaccessible by monsoonal rains during the wet season.

The school has maintained the record for the largest number of students to graduate in a remote Northern Territory indigenous community.

Eight of the students have earned their Year 12 certificate and another two have completed high school with a work ready pathway to become rangers.

Before floodwaters cut off the town, they all travelled to Darwin and the school bought each pupil a formal outfit as a graduation gift that could also be used for an interview.

The school has two principals - Ms Trimble, who is non-Indigenous, and Esther Djayhgurrnga, who is from the Aboriginal community.

Their seven-year partnership combines local values with the way of the Balanda, which means white person in Kunwinjku, the main language spoken in the area.

"We work two ways, I bring my western background and curriculum knowledge and Esther brings cultural understandings and knowledge of families here," Ms Trimble said.

Semester dates have also been changed so students have time off for major cultural events in the dry season, when attendance numbers drop off significantly.

"The boys had to go away for ceremony obligations but had the resilience to come back and finish," Ms Trimble said.

"Even if they were late to school they'd come to the night classes to catch up."

Gunbalanya School's attendance rate is about 55 per cent, compared to the Darwin region with usually hovers around 89 per cent.

"We'll see every child once in a week, the good attenders come three days a week," Ms Trimble said.

She says attendance has improved with the flexible term dates and the introduction of truancy officers.

Since 2013 the federal government has also rolled out a program to dock the welfare payments of parents who don't oversee their kids' attendance.

An after school community engagement program has also kicked off, offering cooking and language classes, reptile hunting and sports competitions.

School has been a family affair for 17-year-old twins Jade and Renae Nayilibidj - their mum works at the canteen and has also been studying hospitality.

The petite sisters are very supportive of each other and Renae plans to work at the Kakadu Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru after graduation.

"I would like to stay with her," Renae says of Jade.

"The hardest part was finishing my subjects. But I did it for my family, my teachers, my friends and the school."