WHEN Emma Beckett heard a school for Indigenous students was opening at Wollombi this year, she wondered if she should enrol her son, Djabarda.
She knew this would mean uprooting her son from a school he was happy at. But Ms Beckett, from Congewai, decided "it was too good an opportunity to pass up" for Djabarda, who is in Year 4.
"By having this school, it becomes a place where the local Aboriginal kids can learn, and the great things about our culture will be visible," Ms Beckett said.
The school's creators say it is the first of its type in the Hunter. It has been opened by the Sydney-based Barker College, working with the Kiray Putjung Aboriginal Corporation from Cessnock. The independent school already had a campus for Indigenous students at Yarramalong on the Central Coast.
The school at Wollombi is called Ngarralingayil Barker, drawing on a local Wonnarua word, which means "a place where learning happens".
In explaining why the school had been opened, the Head of Barker College, Phillip Heath, said the independent education sector had to do more to help closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners.
But he sees the responsibility more broadly than that.
"It is a lamentable disgrace that Australia, with all its prosperity and success, should have a gap at all," Mr Heath said. "This question belongs to all of us. It's not just a question of government policy. It belongs to every Australian citizen.
"Barker enjoys the beauty and resources of this land, and we have a responsibility to be involved in this great enterprise of making sure there is justice for our First Peoples."
Phillip Heath said Wollombi was chosen as the site for the school because the area had been an important traditional meeting place for Indigenous groups, and there was a strong and active local Aboriginal corporation and community. What's more, there was a vacant former school building in Wollombi that was "beckoning for reimagining as a school".
The sandstone building dates back to 1881. But its future was in doubt when the public school was shut in 2014. The local community pushed for the building to remain in public hands and hoped it could reopen as a place of learning.
Frank Ganino, the president of the Wollombi School Community Education Trust, said the opening of Ngarralingayil Barker on an initial five-year lease of the property was "a wonderful addition to the community".
"It's nice to hear the sound of kids running around at the school again," he said.
The school opened earlier this year but was effectively closed after a month, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The students were learning remotely. This week, they returned to school.
At this stage, there are only five pupils at the school, coming from as far away as Singleton. The students are in Years 4 to 6 and are taught by Mandy Shaw.
A Wiradjuri woman who has spent her life in Darkinjung country on the Central Coast, Mrs Shaw said, "This is the job I've waited all my life for."
"Because the drop-out rates of Aboriginal kids is quite high, I wanted them to really enjoy schooling and really understand how important their schooling is," she said.
The teacher of more than 20 years takes her students through the curriculum. Mandy Shaw also brings into each lesson something she didn't receive as a student, teaching the children "to be proud of who they are, to learn about their culture, and be able to pass that onto other people, to help educate them as well".
Kiray Putjung Aboriginal Corporation's Tracey Skene said the organisation was proud to be involved in opening the school.
"Ngarralingayil provides a culturally safe environment with an engaging curriculum that is interwoven with Aboriginal culture," said Tracey Skene in a statement to the Newcastle Herald.
Both Barker College and KPAC expect the student numbers will grow.
"We constantly get questions around the school; our community is very enthusiastic about this school," said Tracey Skene.
The school's capacity is 40 students, with two classes planned. Phillip Heath explained the students were nominated by KPAC.
The fees for a day student attending Barker College on Sydney's North Shore could be up to $30,000 a year. To help create a "more affordable pathway" to education, the Wollombi students were charged $100 a term, Mr Heath said.
The structure of Ngarralingay Barker's classes were designed to keep family members and friends together to promote learning.
"Aboriginal learners love family, that's their superpower," he said. "Family and community. This restores that superpower, restores confidence, restores belonging. Those three things - belonging, confidence, connection - are the soil in which education occurs.
"If we get the 'soil' right, growth occurs."
The director of the acclaimed film Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce, whose family has a vineyard in the Wollombi area, has praised the school.
"It's fitting really," said Mr Noyce.
"Wollombi was a major centre of Indigenous culture and lifestyle. All around the area are surviving examples of Indigenous lifestyle, artworks and sacred sites."
Emma Beckett has already seen the benefits of the school for her son, Djabarda.
"He's loving it," she said.