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An urban fade is neither a city monument nor a hip-hop groove. It is a style favoured by teens and men in which the hair is closely shorn on all sides, leading to a neat thatch of hair like grass atop a sheer cliff face. It's the latest grooming style popular among the style-conscious students attending Granville Boys High.

It's a tough cut to get right, particularly if it's your first day on the "tools", as instructor Charles Lomu is at pains to point out as he supervises his inaugural students at NSW's first in-school barber shop.

"Don't go too fast" Lomu says. "Slow down. Let the clipper do the work, gently, slowly, see?"

Mahmoud Chanukah in the barber's chair at Granville Boys High.

Photo: Jessica Hromas

Three chairs have been set up in what was an art classroom and the novice barbers are fussing about their models, fellow students who are sitting in various states of nervous anxiety.

In the "groom room", it's week two of an intensive 10-week training and creative program for students aged 14 to 17 that teaches the skills of a barber to boys who might otherwise disengage from school and drop out early.

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Elsewhere, in the school's groove room, a group of young musicians and would-be music producers are learning to explore and experiment with music created by the school's Arabic band and Islander choral group to compose and create recordings inspired by the barbershop and then make a video.

Another group of bright minds in term two are visiting the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences' Sydney Observatory and its basement collection and the Sydney Town Hall Clock to broaden their horizons. A fourth group are exploring social media and film-making.

The multi-strand program is the work of Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE), a western Sydney arts organisation that has been active for 30 years to create art, build cultural programs and enhance the region's cultural vibrancy.

According to ICE's John Kirkman, the project aims to engage 100 at-risk young men in the Auburn and Granville area where fewer than 40 per cent of high school students stay on to year 12 and a quarter of youth are jobless.

Rabin Elkheir gets an urban fade cut courtesy of fellow students at Granville Boys High's new barber shop.

It's been largely funded by a new donor network in Sydney's north, Impact100 Sydney North, with each participant chipping in $1000 for a total contribution of $100,000 and personally invested in the "good works" they are supporting.

Arts Minister Don Harwin, whose department Create NSW gives multi-year funding to ICE, part of his government's commitment to boost arts funding in western Sydney and regional NSW, gets a short back and sides on his already short back and sides.

In their first week, the boy barbers have been taught more than the basics of working the trimmer and blade: they have learnt facial symmetry, the anatomy of the head and dealing with hair texture, the value of customer service, personal grooming and self-respect. On the inside of the door are listed the rules of participation, including the promise to refrain from swearing, mobile phone use and fighting. They are all but redundant because in here it's the hair that matters.

The initial results have so impressed the school that its executive is keen to approach the Board of Studies to endorse a year 11 two-unit course, the first in the state.

Out of the course, the boys get real job skills but Harwin says that's not the ultimate purpose. "We all know the arts have the power to transform people's lives and it's always a challenge to find ways to reach out to disengaged kids. The barber shop is creating a huge buzz and a lot of interest in the school about what is going on."

Bashir Kalache has the biggest smile of the models in the chair. He has opted for a low urban fade, and going to a school barber saves him $35.

Ayman Atameddine is confident on the buzz cutter. "I'm keeping the customers happy," he says, repeating Lomu's mantra.

A music producer as well as running a home barber shop in Blacktown, Lomu says the barber shop is mostly a "place where you're exposed to all age groups, it gives you a true sense of being in a community which confronts a teen's sense of internal growth".

"What I tell the boys is in a technology-driven society, this will be a job for the rest of your life."

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Linda Morris

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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