Radical surgery saves colleges on the brink

Since 2006, the northern metropolitan region’s 195 schools have been involved in a strategy focused on improving classroom tuition to lift each school’s academic performance. A book charting the strategy’s success, Powerful Learn-ing, written by Wayne Craig and other co-authors, was published this year. But by 2009 it was clear the reforms were not making inroads at Fawkner and Box Forest. “It would have taken too long to turn the school around,” Mr Napoli says of Fawkner. “The school was in real danger of not being viable. We needed to make a clean break from the past.”

After consulting with officials in the state government and the Australian Education Union, Mr Craig went to the schools in the last term before the summer holidays to tell staff they would be shut. He expected a hostile audience. “At Glenroy I didn’t get a question, there was stunned silence. At Fawkner I had three questions from staff who wanted to get out and those questions were about packages. But in both cases, after the meeting, significant numbers of teachers came up to me and said, ‘This is fantastic, something has got to change.’ ”

Under a one-off agreement negotiated with the union all staff were declared in excess. Those keen to continue were interviewed and selected for jobs by the principal, who also hired new staff. The staff, students, school council and department officials planned how they would reopen both schools as reinvigorated colleges. Box Forest is now Glenroy College.

At Fawkner, students helped design the uniform, devise a school name and logo and describe the attributes of a good teacher. To hasten the break with the past, the school council voted to spend $100,000 to give every student a new summer and winter uniform. “It had a powerful impact,” Mr Napoli says. “It meant students had no excuses for not wearing the uniform.”

Mr Craig used department funds and money from the federal government’s $1.5 billion Smarter Schools National Partnerships program to bring in specialists to help staff improve their tuition skills in literacy, numeracy and student management. The flagship program and other state initiatives are signs that policymakers are taking a more interventionist approach to underachieving schools.

Government secondary colleges are viewed as the toughest to fix. They mark the point where community confidence is weakest, with growing numbers of parents shifting their children to Catholic and independent schools. The northern metropolitan region’s evaluation of its reforms show how difficult the task is.

It has lifted its student performance level in literacy and numeracy from worst to second best among the nine regions that make up Victoria’s government school system. Much of that success has occurred in primary schools. Over the next two years the region will intensify its focus on secondary schools.

Predicaments unique to high schools are highlighted in a report by Harvard University researchers, How High Schools Become Exemplary. The report examined the results of 15 public schools in five US states that recorded high, sustained growth in student achievement. Its analysis of the problems could easily describe those in Australian schools. High schools tend to be fragmented organisations where order is sometimes hard to maintain and where responsibility for improving instruction lies mainly in isolated academic departments and classrooms.

“Principals are often distracted by crises,” the report says. “Many defer routinely to the subject-matter expertise of department leaders, seldom interfering with how departments monitor, evaluate or attempt to improve teaching and learning.”

Most of the schools in the Harvard study were racially and socio-economically diverse. But all shared one key characteristic: “Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction,” the report says. All of the schools took teacher evaluation as seriously as professional learning. Colleagues routinely visited one another’s classrooms and discussed their work, creating a shared accountability among the staff.

The newly opened John Fawkner College has adopted the same approach. Every teacher is given a handbook of explicit rules to get everyone implementing consistent standards of classroom practice and student discipline. It includes a strict dress code for teachers that bans short skirts for women and T-shirts for men.

Stricter rules and higher expectations for students and staff are starting to pay off.

“The most obvious change is the change in student behaviour,” says teacher and year 9-10 co-ordinator Graham McKee, who joined the school in 1990 but was so dismayed by practices at the former college that he considered resigning. “The students didn’t have a work ethic, partly because of the culture. Often kids wouldn’t bring the right equipment to class. It was a way of avoiding work. Now we have a consistent, whole school approach to classroom management rather than leaving it to individual teachers.”

Student detention has been replaced with a demerit points system linked to an online reporting program. If a student consistently misbehaves, is late to class or fails to bring the correct equipment, a demerit point is recorded.

After three demerit points a warning letter is sent to the student’s parent. Four demerit points earn a suspension.

Literacy and numeracy results for years 7-9 students from online tests show steady improvement. The school’s VCE performance is rising, with its mean study score improving since 2008 from 19 to 22. The number of suspensions for bad student behaviour has fallen substantially.

Enrolments have climbed to 440 as the school’s enhanced reputation spreads along the parent grapevine.

For Matina Konstantinakos and 16-year-old Mohamed Nahi, Fawkner’s rebirth has led to noticeable improvements in learning and morale.

“The teachers push us harder but not in an autocratic way,” Matina says. “The new uniform had an amazing impact on attitudes, it made everyone feel more united, more respected.”

Mohamed intended leaving school at the end of year 10 to do a TAFE course. Fawkner’s transformation has convinced him to finish year 12. “It’s no longer a mucking around school,” he says. “People no longer look at us and say, ‘There are some ratty kids from Fawkner.’ ”

Extract from The Age. Continue reading:  http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/radical-surgery-saves-colleges-on-the-brink-20110624-1gj98.html#ixzz1RZbjTZlk


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