KEVIN Pope sees a big difference between tolerating different nationalities and living in harmony. As the principal of Meadow Heights Primary School in the northern suburbs, he has students from 42 ethnic groups, with many from Middle Eastern backgrounds.
"Our school's ethos is about equality," he says. "There is zero tolerance of bullying, and, even though we don't say it, that means racism, too."
With 490 of the school's 600 students practising Muslims, Mr Pope has set aside quiet spaces for students to pray. The uniform was altered so girls could wear scarves. Important cultural events such as Easter, Ramadan and Bayram are explained and celebrated. New teachers have induction programs to learn about the beliefs of different groups.
"Lack of understanding creates fear and ignorance," Mr Pope says. "We are explicit about the fact that every child has the right to feel safe and comfortable." This includes 65 students with special needs.
About 42 of 100 new prep students could not speak English this year. Six multicultural education aides help to build a relationship between the school and parents. The school newsletter is produced in English, Arabic, Turkish and Vietnamese.
Mr Pope has developed strategies to deal with sensitive issues. If a child says something racist, Mr Pope will explain why it is unsatisfactory but also brings the parents into the school to discuss it.
As a result, the Education Department considers Meadow Heights Primary to be among those offering best practice in building a harmonious, multicultural learning environment.
Frank Sal, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, says some secondary schools also deserve special mention. "Schools work really hard on these sorts of issues, helping students to engage with each other, but sometimes there are issues within the wider community," he says.
Mark Kosach was the principal of Springvale Secondary College for seven years, and recalls a time when some friction between Sudanese and Vietnamese families outside school had to be dealt with at school.
"We had to build respect and tolerance. We asked some if they were replicating the same behaviours they had come to Australia to escape."
He brought in specialist teachers and experts to help students deal with trauma. Professional development for teachers helped. Multicultural events and language weeks brought the community together.
Now the principal of Mount Waverley Secondary College, Mr Kosach says about two-thirds of his 1846 students speak English as their first language, while the remainder are drawn from 46 nationalities. The two schools may be different, but he says the same principle applies. "You have to develop a culture where you celebrate difference and cultural backgrounds," he says.
He sees exposure to other nationalities as the key. "I have worked in schools where there is almost no one of non-English-speaking background. In those schools you do see more racism and a lack of tolerance. It's human nature. What you don't know, you tend to paint in a different way. It's a great challenge."
Bronwyn Hamilton, the principal of Carwartha College in Noble Park, sees her school's 57 nationalities as one of its strengths. It is a view echoed by senior students. Year 12 student Thierry Florent came to the school from Mauritius in year 5 and loves having friends of every nationality.
Classmate Raymond Comeros says respecting each other and a sense of teamwork arose from leadership and other year 9 programs. "It doesn't matter here where you come from or the colour of your skin," he says.
Emily Smith says school activities draw people together. "I learnt in psychology that having to rely on each other to achieve a mutual goal can defuse conflict."
At Brunswick Secondary College, year 11 peer support leaders Souha Abbouchi and Mimi Awad also see carnivals, camps and other activities as the key to the goodwill they have experienced between 46 nationalities.
"When you get a wide range of nationalities together, it's a good thing. You meet different people. When you form a friendship it's not based on race. It's on personality," Souha says.
Extra effort is made to understand the values of each group. For example, the school commissioned a DVD on its Pacific Islander students that has helped teachers understand their culture and needs.
Student welfare co-ordinator Helen Lambropoulos says a traditional Pacific Island dance workshop is being held, and dance will also be built into the curriculum. A night market with artwork, music and food will be held in November. "We focus on people's strengths," she says.
Principal Vivienne Tellefson says another DVD is being made, in partnership with Moreland Council, which examines friendships between students of different cultures and faith.
"These wonderful projects are a real celebration of students at our school," she says. In her 22 years at the school, Brunswick and Coburg have gentrified but the school's ethnic diversity has remained, as has its ethos: "This school is about valuing everyone and their individuality."
Russell Gascoigne, principal of Lynbrook Primary School, took a similar approach as he watched the school he founded eight years ago with a handful of different ethnic groups change dramatically due to an influx of new arrivals to the Casey area.
This year his 850 students come from 35 nationalities, a mix on display on Harmony Day, where students wear national costumes, show art and play music. Parents and church groups also perform.
His school is part of an Education Department pilot program to understand the impact of such a cultural mix on a child's education.
Mr Gascoigne sees the effect as positive. He can only recall one contentious issue, where a young man carried a small dagger as a cultural icon. Through discussions with a religious leader, it was agreed the child could wear an item around his neck to convey similar meaning. "We could have been headstrong about it but we try to accept differences and work out a compromise," he says.