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  What Works - The Work Program

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La Grange Remote Community School, Bidyadanga, Western Australia

Success has to be about the processes you put in place

Context | Beginnings | The secondary program | Attendance | Kindy and Pre-Primary


The context

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La Grange Remote Community School is situated in the Bidyadanga Aboriginal Community in the Kimberley region, on Karajarri country, south of Broome and north of Port Hedland.

When people from the Nyangumarta, Mangala, Juwaliny and Yulparija country moved from the desert into Bidyadanga, the Karajarri people accommodated these people into their country. Community members today still identify as being from one or more of the language groups.

Prior to 1982, a school was run by the La Grange Mission and in that year the Catholic Bishop of Broome transferred the management of the school to the state government and the school now known as La Grange Remote Community School (RCS) was founded.

La Grange is the largest Remote Community School in Western Australia and the current enrolment is 196 students, ranging from Pre-Kindy (2-3 year olds) through to Year 12. There are 60 students in the secondary component of the school.


Beginnings

Principal Mark Williams discusses his approach when he first arrived at the school.


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Mark Williams with What Works facilitator Marisa Kelly

When we arrived here we asked the staff what it was that they wanted from an administration team and quite clearly they said 'we want leadership and we want a sense of direction for the school'. We said 'we can do that and this is how we can plan'. And I think the staff does own the process.

So we put in planning cycles for literacy and numeracy and we knew we needed to set targets, so we looked at our data and Carolyn went through it very carefully. Then we were able to make statements about where we're at compared to 'like schools' and where we're at compared to the rest of the state. We were then in a position to set targets.

So far, we're above like schools in literacy and numeracy and we've definitely achieved our targets in attendance. NAPLAN is one big testing regime, and it might not be ideal but that's what we've got so we get on with it. We do try to triangulate our data, so we'll have targets set through checklists of outcomes as well as the big targets.

One of the issues in working in remote settings is the acceptance of low expectations. Some people think they can come here and that its just a question of getting the kids through the gate, patting them on the head and saying 'you're nice kids and we love you all'. Well, yes, it's about providing a safe environment and, yes, it's about providing a place where kids are respected and valued, but then its about teaching and learning. That's what we're here for. We get tourists just wandering into the school and asking to have a look around. My answer is no, this is a working school, it's a place of learning first and foremost.

We also did an audit of what we were providing. We did a lot of active listening at that stage — to the community and to the teachers. Then we looked at where our gaps were. We're both primary educators and primary administrators originally, but we quickly realised that there were gaps in the secondary program.


The secondary program

Mark:

For a remote school, 60 students is a large secondary cohort, but in 2007 when we arrived there were only seven secondary students actually attending. Some of the increase has come from students moving up through Year 7, some has come from non-attenders coming back to school and some has come because we've attracted back some students who used to go away for high school.

If they are here in the community they need to be coming to school, but what has happened before is that they were here but they weren't coming to school. And there was nothing on offer to encourage kids to come to school.

When you've got 20 kids in Year 9, and you're staffed as a primary school with a secondary top, you're not able to offer the whole range of learning areas. For the kids, that means a pattern of sitting in the same room all day like they did when they first came to school. A six foot two inch 17 year old doesn't need that and will vote with his feet.

One thing we did was to put in TAFE pathways and we've established a good, ongoing relationship with the TAFE people. We now offer three TAFE courses a week here on site, so kids don't have to travel and it's a normal part of school life. Parents don't want them to have to travel.

And for the first time we're able to offer the Western Australian Certificate of Education, which means that parents don't have to send their kids away. We think this should be their school of first choice. We can't offer a lot of different subjects, but the program suits a lot of our students.

By the end of our five year plan, we want to be able to tell kids that there is definitely a pathway at the end of Year 12, and you can go down an academic pathway or a vocational pathway. There's a certain amount of employment here in the community, but most people still have to go away. There's work for literate and numerate people, and people with Certificate level qualifications, in Broome and then there's tertiary study in Perth or Darwin.


Attendance

Mark:

First of all we have a strategic plan for attendance. Then we have an Attendance Coordinator, who is our Secondary Deputy Principal. We also have a school-based Attendance Officer, who is a local person who works at school.

Because everything is done electronically, we can tell by nine o'clock whether the kids are at school or not. He's armed with that list and he goes around to a house and asks about kids who aren't at school. Often, he'll bring them back.

We've been able to establish trends about particular kids attending or not attending. Then we work with the Attendance Officer, the Attendance Coordinator and the other Aboriginal workers in a joint approach to look at why those kids aren't coming to school. We're not about penalising non-attendance, we're more about finding out what we can do to help.

Every morning Carol and I do something called the 'Walking School Bus'. We go over and walk through the community about an hour before school starts, ringing a school bell and giving out bus tickets. We want to encourage kids to get out of bed, walk around with us and come to school.

We sought permission from the community before we started, of course. There are so many things that come out of the Walking School Bus, one being that people in the community see us and get to talk to us if they want to. Sometimes people will tell us particular things about kids or just talk about the school generally. The exposure for the school in a positive way is immeasurable.

Those informal, anecdotal conversations with parents are so important. Why should people trust you if they don't know you? But this way we get to establish a relationship gradually, and then they might be comfortable to call you over and tell you about, say, an incident between particular kids, so that later in the day you have the background when you react to issues at school. It takes time to build up trust here, and a lot of it isn't done in formal settings.

We think our attendance strategies have been a huge success. In 2007 our attendance was 63% and now its over 80%. But still we say that four out of five days isn't great, eight out of 10 days isn't fantastic, eight years out of 10 years is not brilliant. Look how much your kids miss out on if they miss a day every week!


Kindy and Pre-Primary

Lauren Tribolet is Kindy and Pre-Primary teacher in 2009. For the two previous years she only taught Pre-Primary. There are 24 students in her class, but only six are Kindy kids.


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Lauren Tribolet

The kids are so enthusiastic and motivated to be at school. I don't know what I expected when I came here but it wasn't that they'd just love to be here. And it's so exciting to find that.

I think sometimes people say Pre-Primary isn't very important because it's not compulsory, but I definitely see it as important because its preparing kids for school. It exposes them to the behaviours they need to know about when they're in Year 1. Without Pre-Primary, kids won't have any idea about sitting at tables together to work or the little routines they need. And there's a big focus on social and emotional development as well, so that they learn all those sharing and turn-taking behaviours that they need to be successful in their later years.

It's more than that, though, because they have the pre-literacy and pre-numeracy experiences they need through their play. There's a big push from some people that kids in Pre-Primary should be able to actually read and write, but what's really important is for their play to expose them to the many different experiences they need before they can learn to read and write. Concentrating on actual reading and writing at this stage is too early and the wrong way around. They need the foundations first.

Phonological awareness is one of the building blocks and I find it's one of the most important things about language development. Kids here really need to hear the sounds repeatedly but you don't have to push it in a 'this is the sound and this is the letter' sort of way. It's more about the kids being able to hear and distinguish the sound so that later on in Year 1 they can connect that sound to a particular letter.

A lot of kids here have otitis media, with blocked noses and hearing problems, so we have a sound system and I wear a microphone just to make the sounds louder. Without it, some kids wouldn't hear me at all and they definitely wouldn't learn to distinguish between sounds.


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I might focus on a sound for a whole week and we'll do different activities around that. It's really rich exposure but it's play as well. I have a monster called the Cruncher and the kids have to feed him the 'sound of the week'; so they might choose a picture out of a box, make sure it starts with that sound and then feed it to the monster. Then we might all paint a picture that starts with the sound or do a craft activity that starts with the sound and we'll have it in songs and stories, so they're really just hearing that sound all the time. This is very important for kids who are ESL learners, who need exposure to the language and the chance to play around with it.

A simple example here in Bidyadanga is the difference between the B sound and the P sound. We call it a problem pair and I know we're successful when kids can hear the difference and say the difference. Sometimes you can just see it in their faces that it clicks and they feel rewarded and happy. And so do I!

Pre-numeracy happens in the same way, where we might bring a set of scales into the play, for instance, so that kids can start to use language like 'bigger than', 'heavier than' and all those relationship things. We'd probably only expect them to count to five by the end of Kindy and even then it's really getting that one-to-one connection, matching with the fingers and knowing the numbers. Then there are games and songs about counting as well.


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We're lucky here to have access to a 'Getting it Right Numeracy' (GIRN) specialist teacher here, and she has been a lot of help in planning, especially for the Kindy kids. I was finding that because there are only six of them in Kindy, the Pre-Primaries sometimes dominated and took most of my attention. So we've worked on planning, and a bit more support so that I can sometimes concentrate on the Kindy kids. In other ways, though, it's great having the two groups together, because often the Pre-Primaries set the example and the Kindy kids copy their behaviours. That makes it easier for them.

We're also lucky that this year we have a pre-Kindy centre down in the community, so that's a program for three year olds. It's run by the GIRN teacher, who's Early Childhood trained and I know we'll see a big difference in the new Kindy kids next year when they come up to school.

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