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Curtin students give children a brighter future

News story

In a south-eastern suburb of Perth, Curtin University students are helping a primary school change the lives of children and give hope back to the community.

Based in Armadale, Challis Primary School has been in partnership with Curtin since 2011, with Curtin health sciences students on placement within the school delivering a program of free on-site health care to primary school students, parents and the local community.

The students have assisted children with learning difficulties from kindergarten to year 2 and worked in the school’s Early Childhood Education Centre helping parents and the community.

The benefit of the program on both sides is immeasurable, with health science students experiencing first-hand the impact health care has in a disadvantaged area, and the children receiving the support they need to succeed.

The school’s success has now prompted the state government to implement similar centres in similar areas throughout Western Australia.

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Curtin’s Interprofessional Practice Facilitator of Health Sciences, Kristy Tomlinson says the Challis program helps a high number of children who struggle with serious family issues and may not have access to essential health care.

“Before [the program] parents either lacked the confidence to seek help for their children or did not have direct access to the professional health care they required,” she says.

“At Challis, people with personal issues have the confidence to contact us because we’re free, right on the school and emotionally available.”

The school previously had some of the lowest student test scores in Western Australia. Today, students who were in kindergarten when the program started three years ago, have scores that exceed the academic state average.

Director of Practice and Interprofessional Education of Health Sciences, Margo Brewer says the program also greatly benefits Curtin’s health sciences students across various disciplines.

“They’ve got a lot of responsibility, it’s been a great place for our students in terms of preparation for the work force,” she says.

“They get a much higher level of independence and higher demands on the collaboration with each other, families, teachers and other school staff.”

According to Kristy, Challis Primary School is one of the most popular practical placement options amongst health sciences students.

“At Challis, the students are appreciated and valued. Every day a parent congratulates a student because they’re making a difference and doing such fantastic work,” she says.

Curtin occupational therapy student Paige Holmes, who completed her placement at Challis, says the practical experience was invaluable.

“It changes your perspective and puts you on an equal level with the kids,” she says.

“I had been working with a little boy in year 2 who had family difficulties. The whole time of my placement I worked with him to teach him to tie his shoelaces.

“He did it by himself on my second last day here. It was the first time in the placement that I had worked with a child and helped them on my own. It was very rewarding.”

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Kristy credits the program’s success to the close bond that the supervisors and health sciences students develop with children, parents and the community.

She says the most memorable case was a young mother who actively sought help from the Early Childhood Centre within the school.

“A mother came to the [gates] who was 14 years old and had an intellectual disability,” Kristy says.

“She was raped and had just had a baby girl but had no idea how to look after her. She was scared to go to professionals or go inside the centre, so our students worked with her in a local park,” she explains.

“Over time our students taught her how to feed, talk to and play with her baby. She came so far and blossomed into a capable young mum.”

Curtin is now focused on further improving the Challis program and expanding its placements into other centres.

“We have a $700,000 from the Commonwealth Health Department for a new building at Challis where our students will have a dedicated space,” Margo says.

“There are 16 centres throughout WA now that were based on the successful model at Challis. We currently have a partnership with another one and want to have our students in other centres, but we need funding.”

The Challis program was independently funded by the Andrew Forrest Minderoo foundation. The new state government-funded centres will closely resemble the Challis model but will service up to 10 schools and potentially thousands of students across Western Australia.

Kristy says her vision is to have programs like Challis in low socio-economic areas around Western Australia that retain the tight-knit bond between children and practising health workers.

“I’d want Curtin to broaden but still keep the partnerships small and manageable,” she says.

“At Challis, they don’t know us as health workers, they know us as the ‘Curtin friends’.”