A rare privilege

Recently I had the joy of sharing a life changing experience with a young high school student that reminded me why the work we do at SVA to support improved educational outcomes is so important.

It took place on a drizzly night in February when I accompanied Ruby Jordon and her mother to the Opera – not an experience that forms part of my average working day at a non-profit organisation!

Ruby Jordon is a vivacious, confident 17 year old, blessed with a beautiful singing voice. Her mother Robyn recognised her daughter’s love and talent for singing at an early age and supported by school and community, has actively encouraged and nurtured this passion.

Ruby at the Opera House
Ruby at the Opera House

Ruby attends Toronto High School in the Newcastle region. Toronto High draws its students from a diverse population where the majority are from low SES backgrounds. In 2011 members of SVA’s education team visited the school and were impressed with how the principal Mark McConville had addressed some significant social and education problems in the school and was creating new opportunities for the students to realise their potential. Mark McConville had attended a Stronger Smarter Institute (SSI) leadership course, resulting in Toronto High becoming an SSI Hub School.

Ruby’s association with SVA began late in 2011, following Mark’s observation to SVA’s Education team that the majority of his students had never visited Newcastle, let alone Sydney and would benefit from exposure to the corporate world. SVA organised a visit for a dozen school leaders (including Ruby) to several large Sydney-based corporations who were asked to open the doors of their organisations to the students for a few hours and share stories and career journeys as a source of inspiration.

During the visit Ruby shared her passion for Opera (she is studying Music for her HSC) but it emerged that in spite of her musical knowledge, she had never seen a live performance of an Opera. So tickets to the Marriage of Figaro at the Sydney Opera House were quickly arranged for Ruby and her mum, along with a private backstage tour.

In the afternoon before the performance, Ruby and Robyn visited the Conservatorium of Music, spending time soaking up the atmosphere, and watching the students rehearse. Robyn commented after the visit, “It was priceless to see Ruby’s face as she listened to the kids rehearsing, she was overwhelmed.”

When they arrived at the Opera House for the performance, they were armed with information about enrolments and auditions for 2013.

During the Opera, Ruby’s enthusiasm was infectious. She asked lots of questions and had read the Opera beforehand in preparation. She laughed and clapped and was so absorbed in the theatre of it all – I’m sure it transformed the experience of everyone around her– it certainly did mine.

Ruby says the evening has left her with a new enthusiasm for her studies this year and inspired her to achieve the marks she needs to pursue her dream of becoming a professional Opera singer. Since then Ruby has been selected as a featured artist in Starstruck, a school based talent competition held in Newcastle Entertainment Centre and is hoping she will be able to sing an operatic aria as one of her pieces.

And for me, I was left with a renewed understanding of how important the whole-of-community approach to education is. Spending a few hours with Ruby and Robyn, I realised how often we refer to educational aims in terms of students’ socio-economic status, statistics, and numerical measures of success and failure. And while this is of course important, perhaps we have a tendency to overlook the other essential elements of a good education: a supportive family, community and school environment, the presence of mentors and the exposure to new experiences.

As one of the ‘bright spots’ in education in Australia, Mark McConville is working to create at Toronto High School, a school that allows all these elements, and consequently his students, to flourish.

Ruby reminded me how important it is for each of us to provide whatever guidance and inspiration we can, furnishing an academic life with experiences that enrich the learning experience and inspire each individual to fulfil their potential. The evening was not only a rare opportunity for Ruby, it was a rare privilege for me.