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Fairfield High School - the mirror of Australia's multi-cultural legacy

By Kali Goldstone - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Fairfield High School looks like your average Aussie high school, but there is a twist. There are 65 different cultures represented in the student population, including Assyrian Iraqi's, Afghani's, Burmese and Congolese. Deputy Principal, Mark Sargeant, points out that the Intensive English Centre (IEC) is an integral part of the school as most of the newly arrived students are refugees, who continue their education through to the high school.

Mark, 43, married with 4 children - one daughter, Amber, 16 and three sons, Caleb, 15, Rowen, 14 and Jared, 13 - spends a lot of time with his family and supporting his children's interests, "investing in them is really important to me," says Mark.

Mark is also a committed educator. "It's somewhat rewarding to have lots of money and buy a new car, but it's more rewarding if you get a car that is quite damaged and you spend a lot of time and love and build it yourself. It might not be as flash as a BMW but it is your car and you built it - and that's the sense I get from being at Fairfield and working with these kids," says Mark.


Nicole Barber, 16, from Lebanon, notes that the "advantage of being here is that I can be what I am now with my weird background and I fit in just as well as anyone else."

Sarah Maarbani, 16, of Australian and Lebanese Muslim descent, claims, "the Deputy Principal is fantastic at his job and very kind."

Mark's calls himself an "educationalist," noting that he has been teaching at schools for over 20 years. He changes jobs every five years, because "I feel that I can make a difference in a finite period of time and then it is useful to move on. I really do believe that I can offer my support in a variety of different ways."

Mark fiddles with his gold wedding band as he recounts the beginning of his career at schools in Western Sydney like Kingswood High School in Penrith and Plumpton High school in Mount Druitt, where his father, Glenn Sargeant was a Principal and pioneered Australia's most admired educational programs: The Plumpton High School Young Mothers' Programme. They take in young mums, give them support and counsel, and help them complete their schooling. As Mark says, "education must be in the genes."

But such schools were too familiar to Mark because that was where he grew up. So he moved to a country town called Lightening Ridge where he started the High School. "It was a totally different lifestyle and it was one of my happiest places. My daughter was born there and that was where my wife and I decided we would have our other children very quickly, to get our family started."

By his own account he was then "lucky enough" to get promoted to Deputy Principal and "went to a lovely country town called Narromine which had a significant Aboriginal population." The year that he left Narromine High School, they had the largest number of Aboriginal kids complete HSC in the State of NSW. Mark also coached the girls rugby team and "they had some success, so that was my in, into that community." He is a huge Rugby Unionsupporter, giving his three boys middle names of ex rugby greats.


"The most liberating thing that we can do as a society is leave it a better place than we found it – the best way I can influence that is by working with children," says Mark.

This mantra rang true even during his early days as an educator. It was in Narromine that he ran a program for disconnected kids in the community, noting that it was "easy to lose them to farm work and opal mining."

So he devised an "alternative school," where the students who were disengaged were given fun activities to do on the fifth day, on the proviso that they caught up with all their schoolwork by the fourth day. "We found over time that they actually didn't end up getting behind any more because they wanted to do fun things for the whole fifth day. So we eventually got those students engaged and able to complete the HSC," notes Mark.

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About the Author

Kali Goldstone is an international human rights lawyer and journalist with a depth of expertise in managing diverse programs working with minority and vulnerable groups, refugees, IDPs and immigrants for the last 12 years in Australia, Denmark, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kenya and the U.S.

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