It was last September when Coburg West Primary School (CWPS) principal Mark Colagrande assured the Greek Community of Melbourne (GCM) that the Greek language program would indeed be part of the school’s 2019 curriculum. The pledge came following a flood of protest from parents after proposed cuts to Greek language lessons. He also assured the GCM’s vice president Theo Markos that the school would set in motion a series of consultation sessions with teachers, parents and members of the Greek community in Coburg “to ensure the future of the program.”
A year down the track, the school’s independently-conducted Specialist Review Process did not include consultations with the Greek community, but also fell short of genuinely exploring ways in which to continue Greek language lessons. It also showed a lack of support for the lessons by the very people entrusted to promote these with only 7 per cent of teachers responding positively to “Question 8: The School should continue to offer a choice of both LOTE Greek and LOTE Italian language programmes.”
The survey had a total of 159 respondents, slightly more than a quarter of the school community. Of these, 40 per cent of the parents supported the language program.
Parents were informed of the decision to scrap Greek in a newsletter sent to them over the school holidays leaving 100 children in limbo.
The Greek Community of Melbourne (GCM) that has supported the program was not part of the consultation process. In a letter to Mr Markos, Mr Cologrande said he hoped to “continue to work together in the coming months to establish an alternative out-of-school-hours arrangement that will enable us to offer some form of Greek Language Program to our school.”
Mr Markos said that Mr Cologrande had shown opposition to the school’s historic program for various reasons. He has pointed to “timetable issues”, “financial burdens”, and has also stated that “the need for the Greek language is not what it used to be”.
On its part, Mr Markos says that the GCM has done all it can to keep the program running, including offering to “provide an assistant to help”.
Mr Markos said that cutting the programme will not just be a “tremendous loss to Greek language teaching” but also at odds with the principles and values of multicultural Australia which promotes diversity.
“It’s not just about Greek children learning the language, but about the multicultural way of life,” he said.
“We were able to stop him last year because he had not followed due process, and so he got to work this year, however once again there was no proper consultation process with the community. A consultant was appointed by the principal, however we had no access to the survey, no part in formulating the survey, and the questions bunched all specialist programmes together in a way that compared apples to oranges.”
Dina Khaled, a mother at the school, told Neos Kosmos how deeply disappointed she is with the decision.
“I live three doors down from the school and went to the same primary school myself,” Ms Khaled said, remembering the school’s proud Greek history that is being diluted.
“When my three children started learning Greek, I was really happy. More so because both my parents have passed away and the program offered my children a chance to continue the Greek language. It brought back my own memories of learning Greek at the school. It was an opportunity for them to be in touch with their heritage and understand where their grandparents were from.”
Her eldest child is at Strathmore High School where Greek is offered, and she fears that the decision to slash Greek would have repercussions on the high school offerings. “It cuts continuity,” she said, adding also that her younger children will be placed in the same classroom as the other students who have already being doing Italian instead of a beginner’s class.
“For me, that’s just a waste of my children’s time,” she said, adding that she was not part of parent consultations mentioned in the newsletter and nor was she aware of any of these taking place.
Specific details regarding the identity of the group conducting the independent review was not transparent, and there are fears that changes brought on in the last three years of Mr Colagrande’s jurisdiction have not been supportive of the Greek community’s efforts to keep the program going.
Another parent spoke to Neos Kosmos on the basis of anonymity and stated that the results were skewed. He points to ‘opaque’ methods.
“The survey asked whether the school should consider other specialist programs such as science and technology, to which of course parents agreed, but it did not state that such initiatives would replace the teaching of Greek,” he said, adding that he specifically chose the school for the Greek language program because it was his desire to have this incorporated within the school syllabus.
Despite the large Greek population of Melbourne, the Greek language offerings within the state education system are disproportionate and CWPS is currently among a handful of schools still offering the lessons. For this reason, many parents wishing to have their needs met are forced to look outside the state education system of Victoria, a system which claims to value and endorse diversity.
“If the program shuts down, then I will be forced to take my children from the school,” he said. “Other parents are thinking of doing the same.”
His children are among more than 100 that will be affected by the cuts, and he disagrees that “consultation undertaken with parents”, as mentioned in the newsletter, actually took place.
The newsletter, signed by Mr Colagrande, states that it has “been agreed, that the Greek Language Specialist Program will not continue at CWPS, beyond this 2019 school year. Given that it is a requirement that all students participate in a Language Program, all students across our school, will partake in our existing Italian Language Program. While there will be a period of adjustment, options are being investigated to support their transition into the Italian Language Program.”
The newsletter also reassured parents that “the benefits to the development of the brain, which occurs during language learning, continues to occur regardless of the language being learnt.”
One father who tried to meet with Mr Calogrande to discuss the survey results, found the door shut. It took several calls and emails before he was allowed to meet face-to-face with the school’s head.
“He was very negative,” said the parent. “I had sent two emails and had called just for a meeting. Even the Greek language teacher did not appear at parent-teacher night and sent someone else to stand in for her.”
The GCM points to the fact that a program, endorsed by the Greek Education Department via its Office of Education in Melbourne, is being cut after 30 years.
“The community is concerned, and it is likely that the wider region of Coburg may react,” Mr Markos said. “The minister (James Merlino) has been informed and we will meet with him soon. I have also briefed Greek Australian politicians Jenny Mikakos and Steve Dimopoulos in the hope that they would give their support, and Ms Mikakos is raising awareness on the issue.”
Neos Kosmos tried to contact with Mr Colagrande who was absent on personal leave, and we were told that his replacement and the current Greek language teacher were not in a position to speak to the press.