Despite new funding for new providers delivering girls academies services, many community members and alumni are still coping with the loss of the Girls Academy.

The Girls Academy, which had been operating for 16 years, did not receive renewed funding for 2021 and ceased operation on December 31 last year.

Facilitated by Role Models and Leaders Australia (RMLA), Girls Academy worked with almost 3,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young women across 46 schools in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales.

Girls Academy made public its closure during the Christmas period, an announcement that shocked community, parents, some staff and girls within the program.

According to the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), RMLA was notified in June 2020 that funding would not continue. From there, the NIAA ran an open and competitive grant process to select new providers.

Criteria for funding focused on the provider’s need to have community involvement, cultural competence, capability and outcome delivery.

“The selected providers in each location were deemed to best meet the assessment criteria as outlined in the Girls Academies Grant Opportunity Guidelines,” said a spokesperson for the NIAA.

“The outcome of this process was communicated to RMLA on 22 December.”

The NIAA said it is working closely with outgoing and incoming providers to make sure that all existing staff are offered employment with the new providers where possible.

“Providers will work closely with students and the broader school community to ensure the academies are tailored to local needs and to ensure there is a smooth transition to the new academy program,” the spokesperson said.

Despite new providers coming in, many alumni and community members are still grieving the loss of Girls Academy.

Girls Academy Alumni Iesha Bero was enrolled in the program for two years at Clontarf Aboriginal College. Bero also boarded at the College.

“It helped me when I was away from home, having that sistahood. Coming into a room with all girls, we all come from difference places but we all understand each other and we’re all united,” she said.

“We brought the best out of one another through whatever.”

Bero, who graduated in 2020, noted the Girls Academy’s support as she moved into her next chapter.

“When I finished school they helped me get a job, the Girls Academy helped me apply for jobs and I got accepted to work in real estate,” she said.

“It did so much for us … we didn’t know anything like that after school, we didn’t know how big the world was going to be. It’s so hard to try and get on your feet.”

“Being Indigenous, [Girls Academy] built us to be strong leaders for our community … It empowered us to stand up, build ourselves up, have confidence and if we wanted something to happen, it gave us the courage to make it happen.”

Coming from the program and seeing its value, Bero is confused as to why it is being shut down.

“I was really surprised and shocked when I first heard it. I didn’t believe it at the start,” she said.

“It’s so sad to see it go, so many girls won’t get those opportunities.”

“At Clontarf there is the academy for the boys, [now] its one-sided. The girls get nothing. It’s not equal, it’s not fair.”

“It just doesn’t make sense. We need to be told why, you can’t just shut it down.”

Naomi Kelly’s daughter was enrolled at the Girls Academy in Geraldton. Kelly enrolled her daughter hoping that she would embrace her culture and build resilience and pride.

“She is a totally changed kid, she has come out of her shell, she is friends with everybody. She knows more about her culture now and she has those friendships,” said Kelly.

Kelly noticed a huge change in her daughter, despite her only being involved in the program for 18 months. Now, with it shutting down, Kelly doesn’t know what is left for her child.

“I don’t understand, particularly considering the work that has been done. Hearing bits and pieces on how it all started to what it is now. There is no feedback, just it’s gone. No explanation,” she said.

“I was so disappointed to see it gone and I want to know why. And To hear it is gone and to hear that there is some other mob coming in and taking over … I am concerned.”

“I’m worried for the girls. Why is Clontarf still going? It’s not fair.”

Kelly is keeping her fingers crossed that Girls Academy will come back.

“I want them back. I want them to stay. I don’t want these new providers coming in,” she said.

“Places like that connect girls with their culture, with their community and their Elders. The Girls Academy does that, mixed in with their education.”

The NIAA released the names of new providers who will be taking over from the Girls Academy last week. The providers will be working with schools and community to establish a replacement program which will begin in Term 1, 2021.

By Rachael Knowles