BackTrack has another award to add to its growing trophy collection.
Last month, SPERA (Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia) awarded the organization its category one prize in the Australian Rural Education Awards, held in Perth.
The category is for existing projects that demonstrate a proven link between a rural, regional, and / or remote school or learning contact and the local community, and benefiting a defined group.
BackTrack certainly fits the description.
Since 2006, founder and CEO Bernie Shakeshaft has helped disadvantaged young people get back on track – keeping them alive, out of jail, and chasing their hopes and dreams.
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"We were stoked to find out that we had won the Category One award,” Mr Shakeshaft said.
“The Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia is really important, given the existing and growing gaps in our education systems.
“To have our work recognised by such a leading organization is a humbling experience."
Mr Shakeshaft was unable to attend in person. Dr Chris Reading, from UNE’s School of Education, accepted the award on his behalf.
Earlier this year, the documentary BackTrack Boys received the Audience Award (and a standing ovation) at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
Last month, the NSW Business Chamber named BackTrack Youth Works – which employs young BackTrackers transitioning into paid positions – its social enterprise of the year.
BackTrack has about 40 students, from Years 7 to 12.
“They come from all walks of life,” Mr Shakeshaft said, “from kids from the top end of town who aren’t succeeding at school, through kids who are really toughing it out.”
Some go to school three days a week, others are at the BackTrack Shed full-time.
Teacher James Warne is in charge of their education. He focuses on literacy and numeracy – but does so through tapping into their interests and real world opportunities.
"Instead of just forcing them to jump over what I want to prioritize,” he said, “I really keep an ear to the ground about where their hearts and heads are at, and bring their learning from that to where I need to go."
Students might read around courses and certificates they want to do, such as driver or boat licences; or events like Remembrance Day.
The class ranges from Year 11 boys who aren’t academically far behind peer norms, but who struggled with attendance and distraction, to 13-year-olds whose reading and maths are at a primary school level.
“It’s probably the toughest job in the business!” Mr Warne said. “You almost have to teach 20 different curricula.”
The students support each other; the older boys mentor the younger ones.
“They’re a keen enthusiastic bunch,” Mr Warne said. “There’s a great culture of acknowledging everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.
“We prioritize having a go. That’s the most important thing: not how well you actually did, but that you are willing to try.”
BackTrack’s other programs help the students to develop a sense of responsibility, and with it self-esteem.
Students might train cattle dogs (Paws Up); work in the agricultural sector (AgLads); and make metal dog boxes, farm gates, cattle grids, stock holders, and statues (IronMan Welders).
BackTrack also runs a girls’ program (Running Strong), and a school outreach program for disengaged young primary and secondary students across the district. BackTrack also provides accommodation for kids in need.
“We fill gaps in the system,” Mr Shakeshaft said. “There aren’t many programs in Australia that holistic.
“If a kid’s kicked out of school, and has nowhere else to go, we can find alternative pathways. We help kids if they're in court, or if they don't have somewhere to live, or if it's around education, or getting a job.
“We tackle it all at once, and definitely hang in for the long-term. Our programs are long-term until we get the young person sorted out. We just keep hanging in."
The first BackTracker is going to university next year.
17-year-old Balie McCormack started in the program five years ago.
"School was bringing out the worst in me, and not the best,” she said. “By having an alternative, I have achieved many things throughout.”
BackTrack helped her to return to school and finish Year 12; and complete a Cert III in Allied Health through a traineeship at the Armidale Hospital, where she works.
Previous kids have gone onto full-time paid work, including as youth workers with BackTrack themselves.
"To me,” Mr Shakeshaft said, “the success stories are when we see a young person who was headed for incarceration come through the gates; two or three years later, he's in a full-time job, and might have his own family.
“Just about every business in Armidale you walk into, you see a young person that's come through the other side.”
The BackTrack approach is being used elsewhere in NSW. Mr Shakeshaft and his team are sharing their model with communities across regional Australia, such as Dubbo, Lake Cargelligo, Condobolin, Bourke, and Grafton.
"The community has rallied behind what we do,” Mr Shakeshaft said. “It goes back to that old saying: it takes a village to raise a child – and that's exactly what we see here in Armidale."