July 20, 1997

In School, Yet at Home, Outback and Down Under

By CLYDE H. FARNSWORTH

KATHERINE, Australia -- School starts with the news of the day. Frank Atkinson, the fourth-grade teacher, flicked the switch on his radio console and took in the reports of his 10-year-olds.

Out came the crackly voice of Rachel Chisholm from her home in Borroloola, about a three-hour drive southeast of here. Her uncle, driving in for a visit, had hit a kangaroo. Her news of the day: kangaroo patties for dinner.

"And very tasty, too," said Atkinson, recalling a similar experience of his own. "Yet certainly not what you want to do too often."

Then it was Christopher Barrett's turn. His parents run a fishing store on the Limmen Bight off the far eastern coast. Two tourists, he reported, had disappeared for two days after the motor on their dinghy broke down. "They're back now, over," he concluded.

"We're glad they've returned safely," Atkinson said. The teacher flicked the switch again, to Lindsie Craig. Her news: a bop on the head from a rope. Not serious and no black eyes. Luke Murray had trouble with a draft horse. His older brother Daniel is expected from boarding school.

And so it went -- children in the Australian outback checking in at one of the world's more unusual schools.

The Katherine School of the Air covers 500,000 square miles, about twice the area of Texas, in the upper reaches of the Northern Territory, a diverse region of deserts, crocodile-infested jungle rivers and only about 100,000 people.

Although other countries offer long-distance education, usually through correspondence courses, to those who cannot easily get to school, Australia is one of the few linking students and teachers by radio.

Australia operates 12 other schools of the air, but Katherine's has the greatest reach. It calls itself "the world's largest classroom."

From its palm-fringed headquarters above the Katherine River in this community of 10,500, the school provides both radio and correspondence lessons to students, ages 4 to 12, at cattle stations, fishing and mining camps, Aboriginal settlements and other remote sites.

About a third of the 275 currently enrolled are Aboriginal; for them English is often a second or even a third language.

It is a government school, free to Northern Territory residents. But acceptance means meeting its definition of isolation: at least 10 miles from the nearest traditional schoolhouse and 3 miles from the nearest transportation service to that school.

Every family gets a shortwave radio handset, providing three-way communication from teacher to child, child to teacher and child to child. The several levels of contact are intended not only to educate children but also to build a sense of closeness to the world outside.

They press a button to be heard, which can be a challenge during music lessons. "They're quite inventive," said the principal, Oriel Hawke, 40, who has lived in the Northern Territory for the last two decades. "If they're playing the recorder and want the teacher to listen, they simply press the handset between their knees or hold the button in with a toe."

Her office is a book-lined study in the center of the single-story building housing a staff of 34, including 22 teachers. From her open door she can peer at a hallway bursting with student art: drawings of crocodiles, spiders, whales and octopuses; poems and essays about 20-mile walks, swampings, bog holes and meetings with "crocs at the cross."

In addition to radio lessons and correspondence work, supervised by a home tutor, usually the mother, the telephone gets a workout. The school pays the bills, at least $40,000 a year, for the telephone tutorials that follow up radio lessons.

The school also provides books and other supplies, from brightly colored paper and pencils to Pogo Sticks and basketball hoops. Older children get computers. If they have no steady power supply, they get laptops.

Eventually students are able to match a face with a voice. Snapshots are exchanged and pinned on the wall. Teachers visit students' homes at least once a year to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs in the home environment. Because of distances involved, the teachers usually stay two nights and become friendly with the family.

"I've counseled people about cancer, when their children are very ill, family breakups, all sorts of things -- that's part of your role," said Ms. Hawke.

To ease their isolation further, students get together periodically for classes in a traditional setting and for a week of sports at school camp.

Maria Townsend, who chairs the school council, has three children in the school. They live at the La Belle Downs cattle station about 200 miles northwest of Katherine.

"School of the air is our life," she said one evening after driving into Katherine for a meeting. "It's part of the friendship in the bush. If we didn't have school of the air we'd be very lonely people."

The effort seems to pay off. The school's averages in math and reading consistently surpass the system's averages for the Northern Territory as a whole.

"It fits when you think about it," said the assistant principal, Jen Coad. "It's a one-on-one education without the distractions of a classroom situation."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company