Dandenong High School: Voices for harmony

Ensuring students have a voice in a school’s day-to-day life presents challenges. Dandenong High School, a large school in Melbourne’s south east, has a significant student leadership structure, and wanted to increase the participation of students of refugee backgrounds. In 2017 the school developed its Harmony Ambassador project, an approach that has increased student voice among its cohort from refugee backgrounds.

The school has a large number students of refugee backgrounds, many of whom are also of refugee backgrounds. Of its almost 2,000 students, 90 per cent have a language background other than English. The school wanted to ensure its leadership opportunities were accessible for all students, and so the Harmony Ambassadors project was born.

There were concerns within the school that a parallel leadership program was unnecessary, given that it already had a large and effective leadership system. But staff committed to the Harmony Ambassadors project emphasised how helpful it could be in promoting multiculturalism, and reiterated that students of refugee backgrounds viewed the student representative council as inaccessible.

The Harmony Ambassadors project’s key aim was to develop and implement senior and mid-school students’ leadership skills in an environment that provided the extra support they needed. Potential ambassadors underwent a comprehensive selection process that included an application form that focused on the skills students could bring to the role, as well as their ideas for furthering an inclusive culture at the school.

The Harmony Ambassadors achieved a range of positive outcomes, including sporting competitions and language development programs, and a unique student-led curriculum day: students of Afghan background provided sessions for staff that introduced them to Afghan culture. Harmony Ambassadors also provided local primary schools with information sessions about multiculturalism and cultural diversity, which encouraged ambassadors’ leadership skills and assisted primary students who would later be transitioning to Dandenong High School.

The ambassadors also planned, budgeted and managed a Harmony Day Festival at the school that featured hip-hop performances, food vans, school decorations, dressing up in orange (the Harmony Day colour) and harmony-themed workshops. The festival gained significant media attention, and it is expected the event will have a bright future.

The school also has a highly effective and unique approach to assisting students’ transition process. The school has dedicated a staff member to the role of liaising with the nearby Noble Park English Language School (ELS), meeting with every student and family transitioning from the ELS to Dandenong High School. To ensure transitioning students are supported as effectively as possible, every teacher who will have a student of refugee background in their class is offered a wide range of information to support that student.