Djarragun College, a Private school catering for mainly indigenous students, is situated about 24 kilometres south of Cairns in the sugar cane fields of Gordonvale in Far North Queensland. The school opened its doors for the first time on 5 February 2001 in the middle of the wet season with only a handful of students. Its grounds, still raw from the building activities, were a sea of mud. Under its founding Principal, the school’s enrolment grew to an enrolment of around 600 students. The school grounds became an attractive campus with grassy playing fields, shady trees, rock gardens and native shrubs.
The overwhelming majority of its students are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. They commute from the area around Gordonvale and Cairns, including Yarrabah, an Aboriginal community across Cairns Harbour, 45 kilometres from the College over the Range. Students from Aboriginal communities on the Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait Islands board at the College but fly home in the holidays.
Its students range from Pre-school to Year 12; during the first ten years, under the inspiring leadership of its first Principal, Ms Jean Illingworth, it was a happy place and considered the best indigenous school in the region. This fact was recognised when she was a National Finalist Senior Australian of the Year 2009 for “having been instrumental in transforming a once dysfunctional Indigenous school into a much-admired model of success”. Because of her tireless work raising funds for the school, Djarragun College became a very well equipped institution. Dedicated staff regularly visited home communities and therefore had a great rapport with the students and their parents. Many graduates from the school returned to do various Vocational courses, and many of them found good jobs. During those years, great emphasis was placed on integrating information technology into the program: the school was very well equipped with computers: from a modest beginning with mainly second-hand machines, it acquired computer labs and many laptops. Although academic learning was fundamental, art and music also played a strong role; the “DC Band” performed regularly around Cairns, and at the various Cultural Festivals the school participated in. And of course Sports and Athletics occupied pride of place, with students winning many awards in interschool competitions. The school was well known in Australia and beyond; school groups from Sydney and even Japan visited regularly. A small group of students was invited to visit and perform traditional dances in the United Arab Emirates in 2008. After the founding Principal left, almost all of these programs, including vocational studies, ended, almost all indigenous staff were dismissed. Student numbers dropped dramatically, and the school became a far less attractive place for indigenous students than it used to be. Nowadays, though, the school has come back under new management and is an attractive place for indigenous students from Queensland and the Northern Territory. These photos are from the “good old days” of the College, during the ten years from 2001 to 2011.
Djarragun College actively promoted its indigenous students’ culture, and the most spectacular manifestation of this was the different traditional dance groups that formed and grew over the years. It started with the Djarragun Torres Strait dancers, a group of senior boys, mainly from Murray Island, performing vigorous social dances, accompanied by singing and the beat of traditional drums. Soon girls joined, and later the other islands groups in the Torres Strait were represented as well. Not to be outdone, a very active Aboriginal dance group, formed over the years. Boys and girls performed dances that depict activities like looking for bush honey and fishing near a crocodile-infested creek, plus the vigorous “shake a leg” dances, accompanied by the sound of the didjeridu and clapsticks. And last but not least, there were the “Hula dances”, Polynesian dances originating from Tahiti and the Cook Islands performed by girls to the sound of recorded music. Djarragun students, whatever their age or where they are from, proved themselves to be top performers and staying strong in their culture. In those days, they performed at many functions around Cairns and beyond.
To see what life was really like at the school between the years 2002 and 2010, the Djarragun College School Rovers of those days can be accessed here. The pages of the intranet, with photos of all events and portraits of all students and staff from 2001 to 2011 can be accessed here.