Exodus Foundation’s literacy centres are making a difference for every child.

In the 1990s, the Rev. Bill Crews grew frustrated at picking up homeless kids and having nowhere to send them for schooling.

In its early days, the Exodus Foundation at Ashfield was caring for up to 50 kids a night and their futures sat heavily on his mind.

“The average age of these kids would be somewhere around 13 or 14,” he told Insights.

“We would house them and look after them but I found that it was often impossible to get them back to school. We’d get them all scrubbed up and ready and drop them off but within hours found they were back with us because they simply didn’t fit into the school system.”

Instead of giving up on the system, he decided to build his own.

This year the Exodus Literacy Tuition Centres (situated in Sydney’s Ashfield and Redfern as well as in four Darwin areas) celebrated the graduation of their 1,500th child.

It has cost $20 million so far to but they estimate a saving of around $550 million to society from decreased welfare dependence and prison time.

The journey began with Mr Crews’ search for an education program that could prove its benefit in statistics. At Macquarie University’s School of Special Education he found exactly what he was looking for — even though the program devised by Professor Kevin Wheldall was not in the form he anticipated.

The program wasn’t the school for homeless kids he’d originally envisioned but rather a method of preventing homelessness.

Mr Crews determined to take the poorest, most disadvantaged kids from disadvantaged schools, kids who were behind in their schoolwork, and offer them a reason to stay.

According to Glenys O’Riley, Exodus Foundation’s National Education Manager, teaching behaviours that are conducive to good learning can be just as important as the lessons on literacy skills like fluency, spelling, reading and grammar.

“Teachers here pass on skills like having the courage to handle making mistakes,” she said.

“When the kids come in — especially the older ones — they are experts at avoiding tasks. Using positive teaching, we shape positive methods for learning.”

Children receive encouragement for literacy progression and achievement and also for mastering good learning behaviours such as paying attention, listening and folding arms.

On any given weekday around 30 children sit divided into small and specific skill level groups in the Ashfield Exodus Literacy Centre, located near the Uniting Church’s Ashfield Parish Mission.

MULITLIT (Making Up for Lost Time In Literacy for kids aged 4 and up) lessons take place within a colourful and welcoming classroom.

To enrol, children must be at least two years behind the reading age of their peers, but some have no reading ability at all. They then spend three hours per day for 18 weeks in lessons minutely tailored to their ability across various skills.

There is no single reason why children fall behind, said Ms O’Riley. Sometimes a teaching style is not suitable; some children do not know how to behave in class or they have not been taught to focus.

They may be from a non-English speaking background or they may have been sick or experiencing problems at home during key literacy lessons that are not repeated later in schooling.

“Basically they’re not coping in the classroom,” said Ms O’Riley. “They can’t read. And by the time you are in years 4, 5 and 6 everything is based on reading and writing.”

The Literacy Centres aim to aid the children to prove to themselves that they can progress if they put in effort and learn to compete against themselves and not others.

“That’s very powerful because if you keep comparing yourself to others you are always going to feel disappointed,” said Ms O’Riley. “But not if you set goals to better yourself.

“If they can take that away and bring it back to their usual classrooms, we’ve done our job.”

The feedback from parents is frequently heart warming.

“It has a repercussion not only in their academic life but on their social life at home as well,” Ms O’Riley said. “They are more motivated. Parents see how their child now believes in their ability to achieve. It’s not only about them having higher self esteem, it’s about them saying, ‘I know I can do this and I know that if there is a problem I can find a way forward.’”

There is also a spin-off from that in their relationships with siblings, parents and teachers.

One memorable example of the Centres’ rippling positive effect came during the 2011 mid-year graduation ceremony when a shy father of 11 celebrated his son’s achievement by doing a haka-like dance of thanks.

An accident had left the man with the use of only one eye and significant damage to one foot that affected his ability to work. During his son’s time at the Literacy Centre, his improved skills had in turn inspired the father to improve his own reading to the point where he now reads the Australian every day.

One former student is currently undertaking a PhD and has returned to the Centre to work as a volunteer, but Ms O’Riley believes achievements needn’t be that grand to be impressive.

She’s also happy when she sees that literacy assistance has helped students find and settle into stable or full-time work when they finished school.

Pre- and post-testing shows the centres succeed in bridging the entire literacy gap for many students. Their main aim, however, is to bring everyone up to a functional level, which is a reading age of ten-and-a-half — allowing people to read the paper or Harry Potter.

Each child Ms O’Riley works with teaches her something in return.

“You feel like you are actually making such a difference for every child. You can change their whole perception of their ability to achieve plus you are ensuring they get those skills.

“And we know how to do it because that is all we do: we teach the skills of reading and related literacy. I’ve been doing it for so long now. Having said that, every child teaches me how to be a better teacher.”

Lyndal Irons


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