Life lessons at Girls Academy

22 October 2019

Jayson Forrest

Jayson Forrest is the managing editor of Money & Life Magazine.

Simon Chesson CFP® has enjoyed a 15-year involvement with the Girls Academy, which helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls attend and complete high school.

The Girls Academy, based in West Perth, is a provider of high school-based engagement programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls, with mentoring to help students complete Year 12.

The Girls Academy is the flagship program of Role Models and Leaders Australia, which was founded in 2004 by Olympian and champion basketball player, Ricky Grace, to address funding shortfalls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls by assisting them to attend and finish high school, as well as to assist them plan for future study and employment opportunities.

Today, the Girls Academy program operates at 46 schools across Australia, with over 2,800 enrolments. The program works within the school system to drive community-led solutions aimed at overcoming the obstacles of educational disadvantage that prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls from attending and excelling at school.

Our program increases the skills, employability, mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls throughout Australia, providing them with better opportunities to contribute to the social and economic outcomes of the wider community,says Girls Academy grants co-ordinator, Kirsten Grant.

Academy girls are ready to make an economic contribution to our nation and to be part of the social change that is closing the gap. Girls Academy equips girls with the tools they need to engage in their education, achieve their goals and change their communities.

As Executive Finance Director of FPA Professional PracticeAustAsia Financial Planning, Simon Chesson CFP®has had a long involvement with the Girls Academy, having been instrumental in establishing Role Models and Leaders Australia, of which the Girls Academy is the leading program. He continues to play a vital role within the organisation as Chairman and Chief Financial Officer.

Through his 15-year association with the Girls Academy, Simon has seen firsthand the beneficial effects the program has had on improving the financial literacy, health and wellbeing, education and cultural connections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls in Years 7 to 12.

And the Future2 grants committee agreed, awarding the Girls Academy a $10,000 grant.

The Girls Academy Program is extremely important as it does two things: it empowers women, because if we Develop a Girlwe can Change a Community; and it assists young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women close the gap with the rest of Australia,Simon says.

The Girls Academy

The four primary aims of the program are:

* Increase school attendance;

* Advance academic and personal achievement;

* Improve Year 12 graduation rates; and

* Facilitate post-school plans.

Each of the 46 schools across Australia where the Academies are based, has a dedicated Girls Academy Room, which is a safe, nurturing sanctuary for girls, which is staffed with mentors.

According to Simon, the key to the success of the Girls Academy program is that it is not a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, but a community-led initiative tailored to suit the needs of individual communities.

Each Girls Academy has a local advisory committee, made up of predominantly indigenous members, who guide the design and implementation of the program.

Seventy-four percent of the programs staff are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women, who deliver a program that includes mentoring, homework support, cultural connection resilience and wellbeing activities, and career pathway events like professional networking, traineeships and university visits.

The program empowers students through its five core program components: wellbeing; physical activity, health and nutrition; cultural knowledge and understanding; future pathways and careers; and community engagement and leadership.

We aim to maximise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studentsattendance to ensure our ultimate objective of Year 12 completion. Current attendance rates nationwide are 11.2 percent higher in schools with a Girls Academy compared to the total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student cohort,Kirsten says.

The Girls Academy is further investing in its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students by extending support post-school, aiming to assist girls for an extra two years.

Making a difference

Kirsten says the Future2 grant is helping to make a difference by improving the lives and futures of disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls.

She says most girls in the program have backgrounds where poverty, and its consequences, such as poor health, poor education, exposure to substance abuse, lowered life expectancy and disconnectedness from culture, are common. And the statistics are sobering.

According to Kirsten, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls use illicit drugs 1.6 times more than their non-indigenous peers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teen pregnancy rates are 5.48 percent higher than mainstream rates, and hospitalisation rates from domestic violence are 35 times more likely.

Closing the Gap statistics demonstrate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education levels need urgent improvement. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school attendance rates are approximately 10 percent lower than non-indigenous (20 percent in remote areas) and Year 12 attainment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is around 29 percent lower, with suicide rates five times greater,Kirsten says.

Government statistics reveal that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls trail their non-indigenous peers in every social measure: health, education, employment opportunities, earning capacity and life span.

However, our program addresses educational disadvantage. The Academy helps our students engage and finish high school, and plan for the next stage of their life,Kirsten says. Year 12 enrolments are increasing by 276 percent and to date, the Girls Academy has worked with over 11,200 students.

Addressing inequity

Simon is delighted the Girls Academy was able to secure a Future2 grant.

This program is making a substantial difference in the lives of at-risk Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls across Australia,he says.

Back in 2004, we started the Girls Academy to address the inequity in educational support programs for vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls, and have succeeded in helping many of them overcome barriers that have prevented them from attending and finishing high school.

Simon Chesson CFP®is Executive Finance Director of AustAsia Financial Planning, which is part of the FPA Professional Practice program that recognises the highest calibre financial planning practices within the profession.


Grant recipient: Girls Academy

Grant amount: $10,000

Endorsed by: Simon Chesson CFP®

FPA Chapter: Western Australia