Cooinda classroom place of learning, healing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in NSW

For Angel Gould, the walls of her high school classroom tell an important story about who she is and where she has come from.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the names and image of a person who has died.

The room is covered with hundreds of painted handprints, but it is one marking in particular that the 20-year-old Kamilaroi woman is drawn to.

Underneath the earth red handprint is the name Markisha.

“That’s my niece,” she says.

Markisha’s handprint is on a wall in a special Henry Kendall High School classroom.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

Ms Gould lost touch with Markisha after her family was separated when she was young.

But when she started at Gosford’s Henry Kendall High School, she discovered her niece’s handprint and was reunited with her long-lost relative.

“I didn’t even recognise her, it was unimaginable,” Ms Gould says.

“Seeing her again meant that I got to piece a bit of my family, that had been broken apart, back together.”

Angel Gould says she was reconnected to her niece, Markisha, after spotting her handprint on the wall.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

The Cooinda Cultural Program has been connecting Indigenous Australians with each other and their culture for decades.

The room was established at the New South Wales Central Coast’s high school in 1991.

Meaning “happy place” in the Noongar language, its founders, Gomilaroi, Mandandanji and Awaba man Kevin ‘Gavi’ Duncan and schoolteacher Alan Herring wanted it to be a place of learning and healing.

Friends Kevin ‘Gavi’ Duncan and Alan Herring (right) helped establish the room in 1991.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

Former high school captain and Bundjalung woman Holly Miller says growing up, her dad refused to talk about being Aboriginal.

She says the Cooinda program helped her and her father reconnect with their culture.

The pair have since travelled together to visit Bundjalung country in Queensland on several occasions.

“He’s picking up Aboriginal texts and reading them,” she says.

“And he’s coming with me and wants to go with me. [So] I think my enthusiasm has really shed off on him.”

Holly Miller says the room helped her reconnect with her culture and mob.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

Alan Herring says every school in Australia should foster a space like Cooinda for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and teachers.

“I think it would be important if every school could organically grow their own area of recognition and respect,” he said.

He says the program helped turn around a “pretty low retention rate and a very minimal HSC extension rate” for Indigenous students.

“Now, we have students that have come through that room and are teaching and are in high positions in education.”

About 80 to 90 per cent of students that go through the Cooinda program now complete their HSC and graduate.

Mr Herring (right) says every school in Australia should foster a space like Cooinda.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

Indigenous trailblazers

The most striking feature of the Cooinda room is the hundreds of painted handprints scattered across the walls.

Over the years, some of Australia’s most iconic historical figures have visited the school and left their mark.

The Cooinda room is covered in art and painted handprints.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

In 1998, soccer player and civil rights activist Charles Perkins left his handprint on the walls, and over time, other people associated with the 1965 Aboriginal Freedom Rides for racial equality have done the same.

“Charles Perkins was an amazing man who changed the whole political history of this country, and we have his signature here,” Mr Duncan says.

Charles Perkins put his handprint on the wall in 1998.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

The handprints of the late Archie Roach, Gail Mabo, members of Yothu Yindi and Ernie Dingo are also present.

Mr Duncan says each person who leaves a handprint puts their spirit line into the earth under the room.

“It’s just like a cave or a rock engraving and by having people’s hands … on that wall, it’s the very DNA of them,” he says.

Teacher Lisa Selsby helped the late Archie Roach put his handprint on the wall in 2019.(Supplied: Lisa Selsby)

The markings have become a visual representation of the threads that tie Indigenous Australians together.

“It pretty much shows how big the Aboriginal system and kinship system can be,” Ms Miller says.

“We’re all connected in some sort of way. Even though it’s as small as a handprint, we’re all together.”

Students were excited when Yothu Yindi visited the Cooinda room.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

Ripple effects of the Stolen Generations

The space also reflects the devastating legacy of colonisation.

Some people have written both their traditional and European names under their handprints to represent being caught between two cultures.

Others do not know enough about their heritage to write down a traditional name or their mob.

Several families have been reconnected, like Ms Gould’s, through looking at the names on the wall and speaking to other students in the classroom.

Ms Miller (left) and her former teacher Lisa Selsby reminisce over fond memories in the Cooinda room.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

The room’s custodian Lisa Selsby says the room highlights the “ripple effects” of the Stolen Generations but believes it has become a safe place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“It becomes a room of learning,” she says.

“But when you learn a lot more, it becomes a room of healing, and you watch the healing happening.”

Both Ms Gould and Ms Miller credit the room as helping them become proud Aboriginal women and helping to shape their ambitions after high school.

Ms Miller has just completed her nursing university degree and Ms Gould works as a youth caseworker in Sydney.

Ms Gould says all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children should be given access to places like this at school to help them flourish.

“It shapes Aboriginal children. It’s going to shape our future,” she says.

“I think that the kids that are lucky enough to walk their journey through this room, they’re gonna do really great things.

“They’re gonna be our elders one day.”

Holly Miller says it’s amazing to be connected to so many Aboriginal trailblazers.(ABC Central Coast: Keira Proust)

The NSW Education Standards Authority says it is delivering a new curriculum to teach “Aboriginal cultures and histories”.

“As part of the complete overhaul of NSW’s curriculum, we are prioritising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures across the whole curriculum,” a spokesperson says.

The state’s education department says all schools aim to be culturally safe for all students.

Several schools across the state have designated spaces like the Cooinda classroom, but the department says establishing them is a “school-by-school decision, according to the local need”.

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