FORMER Ulladulla High School teacher Jihad Dib has been credited with helping the once-troubled Punchbowl Boys High School hit the headlines for all the right reasons.
Mr Dib spent six years at Ulladulla High after he finished his Diploma of Education at the University of Wollongong following his Bachelor of Arts degree, spending the years teaching English and history.
“I thought I’d landed in Summer Bay,” he laughed.
During his time of the South Coast Mr Dib married fellow teacher Erin, but a sense of responsibility to his people and his culture started nagging at him, drawing him back to Sydney.
The Lebanese Muslim man who moved to Australia with his parents at the age of two, and eventually became the oldest of seven children in the family that included IBF world featherweight boxing champion Billy, saw things were happening in Sydney that he did not like.
“There were a few things happening in Sydney – the drive-bys, the drug dealing – that made me feel like the community was falling apart,” he said.
“The Muslims and Arabs were struggling. I thought that maybe I could help people see that there were better alternatives in life.”
Punchbowl Boys High School suffered its own difficulties during the troubled time, with a newspaper article describing the school as “a principal’s battlezone”.
Gang members made their presence felt in the school, even holding a gun to the head of a previous principal, and former students were charged with murder and gang rape.
But Mr Dib was not prepared to simply let it be.
He spent two years as the school’s deputy principal before being appointed one of the state’s youngest principals at the age of just 33 in 2007, and has helped steer dramatic changes starting by showing the students he really cared and was committed to their success.
“Once you have that close relationship, it makes teaching so much easier,” Mr Dib said.
“The students think, ‘This person does care for me.’ And that’s all they want to know – that someone cares for them and believes in them.”
As a result the barbed wire that topped the fences has disappeared and the school, once one of the most difficult in the state to staff, has a queue of teachers wanting to move there.
Enrolments are up from 270 seven years ago to more than 420 this year.
While police were regularly called in to deal with problems, now they attend as guests on presentation day.
NAPLAN reading and numeracy results are rising, with “growth rates” for numeracy – the improvement in scores between year 7 and year 9 – among the highest in the country.
Kids from families that have never had anyone finish high school, let alone get a degree, are graduating year 12 and bound for university.
Perhaps most remarkably, in the past seven years not one student has been expelled.
“We’ll always find them some other pathway such as TAFE or an apprenticeship,” Mr Dib said as he pointed out graffiti was virtually non-existent and theft was such a non-issue that the bike shed was left unlocked during the day.
“We refuse to leave kids out on the street,” he said.
However, like his expectations of the boys he sends out into the world, Mr Dib’s role has also expanded beyond the school grounds.
The 39-year-old is a judge and ambassador for the Australia Day Awards, a commissioner on the Community Relations Commission, a prominent member of the Lebanese Muslim Association and is a sounding board for senior politicians.
In fact when a large group of Muslims recently demonstrated in Sydney’s CBD, a senior federal cabinet minister rang Mr Dib to get his thoughts on the issue.
He speaks at education forums, organises a multi-faith end-of-Ramadan feast also attended by Jews, Christians and Hindus, and manages to squeeze in a weekly tennis match with mates.
“I’m a sports nut,” he says, “but that’s all I really get time to play these days.”
Last year he became one of only two school principals in Australia seconded to Canberra for six months to help the federal government formulate its new, and controversial, Empowering Local Schools policy.
He has even been touted as a future political leader.
“I’d only do that if I thought I could make a difference and be a positive role model,” he said.
“Especially from the community, which is continually looking for a great role model who perhaps isn’t a sports person such as my brother Billy or Hazem El Masri, who are both great role models.
“We need the intellectuals who have to also come out and inspire the next generation.”
IN CONTROL: Former Ulladulla High School teacher Jihad Dib has made a real difference since being appointed principal of one of the state’s toughest schools, the Punchbowl Boys High School. Photo: SAHLAN HAYES
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