A project is underway in Portlaoise on the back of an initiative led by local educators to build a community of belonging where the many different nationalities living in the town can integrate successfully.
The Community of Belonging aim is the result of an initiative launched by the Laois Education Support Centre in conjunction with the Teaching Council of Ireland.
It is spearheaded by the support centre's Director Catherine Doolan and its Vice-Chairperson, Liam O'Neill, who is also a former president of the GAA.
Inspired by the challenge and benefits of diversity in Laois and Portlaoise in particular, they adopted the Teaching Council's BEACONS framework to, as they put it, “start a conversation” around interculturalism.”
This resulted in the organisation of an event last November attended by schools which the organisers hope is just the start of a process.
This resulted in a report launched last week by the former Mayor of Portlaoise Rotimi Adebari. The foreword sets out the ultimate goal of the project.
“Our hope is that through seeking to explore our diversity, we will strengthen and enhance our existing community of education and build a 'Community of Belonging' where we might all embrace and celebrate interculturalism. Through recognising and respecting the cultural diversity we have been gifted, we know we will only enhance our own cultural experience,” wrote Ms Doolan and Mr O'Neill.
The report says Portlaoise has experienced a rapid increase in immigration. It says it is necessary to acknowledge the linguistic and cultural enrichment of Portlaoise which represents a rich diversity of nationalities, religious faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
“In light of this, focus is now directed on exploring the possibilities around creating a 'Community of Belonging' in the context of the education community in Portlaoise,” it says.
The BEACONS event was held last November virtually. It included contributions from all of Portlaoise schools, LOETB, Laois Integration project, the GAA and other organisations. The format involved a series of conversations involving teachers, parents, pupils.
Several emerging themes were identified. These include:
- Need to support students in the transition through the levels of the education system.
- Home school communication and parent engagement - difficulties with language were identified.
- Language, identity and linguistic heritage: teachers identified a language barrier; a desire to maintain 'home languages' at school was identified; desire to see more diversity / ethnic representation among teachers; primary school pupils demand to learn languages
- Mental health and wellbeing, coping with the challenges of distancing in the context of Covid-19 featured in many conversations among students.
The idea for the 'Our Community of Belonging' project came about as a result of a conversation between Catherine Doolan, the Director of Laois Education Support Centre and Liam O'Neill, its vice-chairperson.
Launching the project report Mr O'Neill said the discussion focused on the wider remit of the Centre in the broader education community.
“In our conversation, we noted that Laois, and Portlaoise in particular, has become a very multicultural community
“We have people from over 90 different countries speaking over 50 different languages and practising at least 22 different religions. We also noted that more than 10,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes.
“We concluded that this means we have been given a gift of diversity that we could never have imagined in our wildest dreams. We are excited by the possibilities that this provides. We are also acutely aware of the challenges that diversity may pose for us all in the community,” he said.
Mr O'Neill said a decision was reached to engage with school communities with a view to exploring openly how Laois Education Support Centre could support schools in addressing diversity and interculturalism in their own contexts.
They adopted what is called the BEACONS model of engaging with School Communities which the Centre's director has experience of working with. An event took place last November and a report on this has now been published as a roadmap for what can be achieved.
“As well as discussing education and school with students, teachers parents and management we decided to listen to their views on diversity and interculturalism and how it affects our educational community
“We intended that this conversation would be open, honest, and safe and that it would also be the first tentative step in a longer engagement with school communities and indeed the wider community about supporting diversity and interculturalism.
“We were genuinely heartened by the response of those who participated in discussions on the day. The enthusiasm, honesty, and willingness to share their perspectives and experience was wonderful. We want to build on the success of this event.
“We know that we are just one part of a huge jigsaw here. Our remit is to deal with the educational context of diversity and interculturalism. We don’t think we have all the answers but we hope that through seeking to explore our diversity we will strengthen and enhance our existing community of education and help build a ‘Community of Belonging’.
“ We want Portlaoise to be a place where we might all embrace and celebrate our interculturalism.
“Our hope is that through recognising and respecting the cultural diversity we have been gifted we will enhance our own cultural experience,” he said.
The report describes the BEACONS event as 'groundbreaking' where teachers, pupils, parents and others in Portlaoise were welcomed and supported. The report says the Laois Education Support Centre has established a hub of learning. The Centre has committed to continue the process the BEACONS event started by developing a support network for intercultural learning that will give opportunities to connect, explore and solve educational challenges. It commits to raising awareness among educational leaders and decision-makers.
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