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  What Works - The Work Program

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Mildura Primary School, Victoria

We saw the power of people working together

Background | The leadership team | Year 5-6 attendance | Student engagement at Year 3-4



Mildura is in the far north-west of Victoria on the Murray River. Across the river is New South Wales and the South Australian border is only about 100 kilometres away. The district is known for its production of fruit, olives, grains, vegetables and wine and has a culturally diverse population.

In Mildura's total population of over 50,000 there are more than 1000 Indigenous people. Apart from Indigenous students, school populations reflect the character of the local community and there are students from a variety of non-English speaking backgrounds. Unemployment is above the state average, and other indicators also show relative socio-economic disadvantage.

Mildura Primary School has about 100 Indigenous students, in a total population of about 275. The school is located to the east of the town centre and students are drawn primarily from three estates where most of the public housing is located. Unemployment is quite high in the area and there are many single-parent families.

Although only two of them are featured below, Mildura PS had four teams working on What Works strategic planning.

The leadership team

Here is a short extract from a conversation between Karen Modoo (Principal), Sue McGinty (Assistant Principal) and Kylie Sanders (Curriculum Coordinator). They are discussing the What Works initiative.



(left to right) Sue McGinty, Karen Modoo and Kylie Sanders

We saw What Works as an opportunity for us to further our understandings of the Indigenous kids and community, for which we have a significant responsibility. It was a way of initiating those conversations and developing our thinking around what else we might need to be doing, or what ways could we be doing things differently. In other words, how could we really make a difference for the kids?

We know that we are doing some things well, but there are still things we need to do better and it's all about making a real difference for the kids.


The way I looked at it was that we needed to contextualise our situation and What Works helped us to grow our understanding a bit. It didn't try to tell us what to do, but it helped us see opportunities for action.


And we had the opportunity for the whole school to be involved, so we saw the power of people working together. Actually, that's part of the distributed leadership. As a leadership team we're all involved in working out the action plan and there might have been an assumption that we would intervene later, but we haven't in fact been as big a part of the doing. In fact, in some instances, no part of the doing. So when people presented [at the final What Works workshop] and said 'this is what we did and this is how it turned out' then I think they deserved the credit for what they had done. And it was great for them to be so well received by their colleagues from other schools.

We've now included the What Works model as a part of how we do planning and we're looking now at how we use it as part of our overall school improvement plan. We're going to roll it out next year and it's not formidable because we've already had success with it. It's a process that people understand, that they can make their own and they feel they have control of it. And it helps them deliver. As a leader, you privilege time to enable the What Works process to happen, and it becomes part of the weekly planning.


I must say though that the biggest benefit for us has been doing it with the whole staff and having these conversations as a whole staff. We were able to move ahead because everyone had worked on the issues at the same time. And working together like that also gave people a positive boost at the start because you realise that in some ways, yes, the school is already doing well. Although we have a lot of challenges we work very very hard and we are actually good at what we do. It's good to recognise that at the start.

Year 5-6 attendance

The Year 5-6 team was concerned about the attendance of a group of Koorie students.

Their first step was to examine the attendance data for all Year 5-6 students. It was found that only the following four students had attendance rates less than 90% and those were considered at serious risk of falling behind in their education.

It was agreed that an improvement of 10% for these students by Week 5 of Term 3 would be a good first step and that was set as the initial target. At the same time, however, the team wanted to make the program inclusive of all students, so they made 'Attendance' a focus for Terms 2, 3 and 4 in the whole Grade 5-6 Unit.

Initial general strategies were to focus on

  • talking with parents and carers about the issue. It was also hoped to take this opportunity to promote the link between home and school.
  • talking with Koorie Educators to promote the program and continue ongoing support; and
  • addressing the issue at Three Way Conferences between parents, students and teachers.

Initial classroom strategies suggested were

  • providing ongoing support and encouragement to students;
  • holding individual discussions with students;
  • class meetings where students can discuss their needs;
  • providing incentives to students individually and as a groups and
  • day to day positive reinforcement.

Although these strategies were largely implemented, the team believed strongly that the curriculum program must itself be engaging, because an engaging program promotes and encourages high attendance. It was also believed that giving students a certain degree of autonomy would promote attendance.

So the team generated a survey that allowed students to nominate specific activities they enjoy at school and at the same time opened up discussion about what makes it easier or harder to learn.

Student responses overwhelmingly indicated that there was a range of activities that they would like to do at school that were not currently available. These ranged from gardening through sewing to puppet making and fishing. The team realised that providing a range of electives could be motivational for students and, further, that such electives were easily justified as part of normal curriculum guidelines.

Survey results were also analysed further, but the electives program was the immediate strategy chosen. First it had to be publicised, through being announced at various assemblies, discussed with particular classes and promoted through posters.

The team was able to organise for six electives to take place, and it was decided to run the program on Mondays, which were seen to be key attendance days. In the end, the offerings were

  • Gardening
  • Knitting
  • Sport
  • Experiments
  • Cooking; and
  • Jewellery Making

The target group of four students received their first preferences, as did 95% of other students. Student feedback about the electives program has been generally positive, and the attendance data for the four targeted students at the end of the nominated period was as follows.

The target was met for two students, and almost met for the other two.

The team believes that their action planning has been successful because allowing students to have some say in their own learning is motivational and provides encouragement and hope to all. As well, they acknowledge the roles of

  • good communication with parents and carers;
  • positive rapport with students;
  • a supportive learning environment;
  • enriching and engaging learning activities;
  • negotiated learning activities; and
  • ongoing positive reinforcement and encouragement.

Student engagement at Year 3-4


The Year 3/4 team was also concerned about student engagement, and data showed that students were more likely to be away from school on Fridays. So they set a target of improving Friday attendance by 20% by the end of Term 3, 2007.

Their strategy also involved an electives program (on Fridays), but the focus of this section of the case study is on the collection of further baseline data.

Kylie Sanders talks about what they did.

In the past few years, we've used an electives program as a way to start building community engagement. Volunteers would come in and teach some real skills to the kids, who then develop real connections with the community people.

It's an almost immediate success and you can see certain kids who had been disengaged from school suddenly become activated and involved in other work as well. But we didn't have any data to show that, so here was an opportunity to collect data right from the start. We were going to have data from the period when we weren't running electives as baseline and see whether we actually could improve attendance on Fridays by 20%. We discussed that figure as a group and decided that it was realistic because it actually represented extra attendance by the four or five kids in each room who were not really engaged.

But we also thought that we could measure engagement by actually asking the kids about it. You can't do that directly, so we wanted a survey that would: ask specific questions about the things we wanted to focus on; be easily read and comprehended by all students; be a simple, short task that would not be onerous; and be used in addition to our attendance data.

In the end we looked at a number of other models, but used them as a guide in developing our own. The intention was to get a measure of kids' attitude to school before they started the electives program, and then to do the same after the electives program.

What came out of this was something we hadn't expected. We highlighted the results of two questions, but concentrated particularly on the finding that 18 of 104 kids said they didn't feel safe in the yard. So we decided to give the kids individual maps of the school, so they could identify areas they felt safe and areas they didn't. And it came out that many of the students were feeling unsafe around the toilets. We hadn't expected that, but we do have a number of students who ask to go to the toilet just after breaks, so we are in the process of correlating whether these are the same students.

This has been a spin-off from the data gathering process, but an important one. We've investigated the situation and found that although we thought supervision was good, there are some antisocial behaviours that we need to deal with. That's our responsibility and we're following it through.

The kids are actually excited, because we're acting on the information they gave us. And at the same time we're building trust. The What Works model provided us with the chance to find out this information. It's not just a matter of blindly collecting data, it's a matter of interpreting the data you have.

As far as the electives program goes, it's allowing kids to develop those relationships with people outside the school. Some of them might not have grandparents or might have other disconnection issues in their families, so it's important for them to get to know other people in the community.

And seeing kids having a say in their learning, and being involved in active learning, provides a constant challenge for us to incorporate those things in our daily classroom routines.

At the time of writing, the electives program is continuing. Friday attendance is improved, but it is not yet clear whether the 20% increase in attendance has been achieved.



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