Family So’otaga programme encourages whānau participation

Issue: Volume 97, Number 11

Posted: 21 June 2018
Reference #: 1H9jLE

Holy Family School in Cannons Creek is getting results with an initiative that has whānau/aiga at the heart of learning. Families say they feel a renewed sense that they are part of the school their children attend, and that the knowledge they can contribute is a valued commodity.

Senior students work with fashion designer Pania Greenaway as part of the So’otaga programme’s focus on careers.

The wonderful sense of community at Holy Family School seems to come down to two interlinked factors. First, the student population is predominantly Pacific people and Māori, meaning parents may be used to a less formal approach in many aspects of life. Secondly, a project called Family So’otaga.

So’otaga means ‘connection’ in Samoan. Deputy Principal Gina Lefaoseu, who leads the project, says that through her own experience, she knew that Holy Family School whānau didn’t feel as though they had much agency in the education of their children – it was generally assumed that as parents you did as you were told.

Gina knew that, when they began designing Family So’otaga, the formality that can sometimes be a feature of educational institutions, even if it’s only a perception, can be a barrier for families.

“[In So’otaga meetings] we talk from a parent perspective, not from a teacher or professional perspective,” says Gina. “We’re equals, because we’ve learned as much information from them as they have from us.

“We wanted to encourage our families to feel really comfortable, so that we could really hear their voice. I’ve found in the past that families have agreed with a lot of what we’ve said, and I’m not sure if they totally felt comfortable. So it was really important that we hear their needs, in terms of their children’s education.”

Family So’otaga is different for every family, but there are features that are common – meetings, workshops, careers expos and facilitation for those who need to find help with other organisations.

What Gina and her team are trying to do is help each family member realise that they are part of the school – that they have the power to make a positive difference; that they should be asking the hard questions; that the school wants to know what they need; and that they have knowledge, skills and stories that mean they can often make a classroom contribution themselves.

Learning from experience

Cannons Creek is an economically poor area. We know beyond doubt that life affects learning, and in poorer communities that effect is too often negative. Gina says they’ve learned from their early experiences.

“[Family So’otaga] isn’t a parent-teacher interview. [In initial meetings] we kind of had a bit of a script, to begin with, but we found that didn’t work; the meetings navigated all over the place. Our community has lots of different needs. We learned to let our parents lead the meetings, and from that we create reciprocal relationships.

“Parents might want to talk about data, they might want to talk about a transition to another school, and what they should look out for. It could be personal reasons, and it might be us connecting them with other agencies. But having it open allows for us to ultimately help the child.”

Arming with tools

Principal Chris Theobald knew that he and his staff needed to answer one question: ‘What kind of school do you want for your children?’ Chris says that he sees the job they’re doing not just in terms of helping families navigate the school he leads, but to arm them with the tools they need to succeed well after they’ve moved on.

“Family So’otaga is a programme that is designed to equip our families with the skills, attitudes and belief that they can take control of the next 13 years of their children’s education.

“We want to make parents realise how powerful they are in the learning journey of their child. They’re not passive recipients of an education system. We also want to make sure that our students believe that they will achieve. That it’s not an if, but, or maybe – we know that all our kids can achieve, and we need them to know that too.”

Gina keeps returning to the word comfortable – because that’s what Family So’otaga is fundamentally all about, she says.

“You’ll hear a lot of laughter coming from the So’otaga room, because we like to embrace humour to help create connections. It’s about exchanging stories, because we’re parents, and we’ve experienced things like low teacher expectations with our own children.

“We talk to Family So’otaga parents about how we’ve responded. You’ve got to want to listen to someone’s story in order to make that connection.

“We had a workshop, and we were saying that if your child has maybe stayed at a certain level for a while, you have the right to ask their teacher. All our parents were going, ‘Oh, we didn’t know if we were allowed to.’ We hadn’t given them a forum where they felt comfortable.”

Parent responses

Family So’otaga parent Adelaide Matthews says she feels like Holy Family School really lives up to its name.

“[After starting in the programme] I sort of became more comfortable walking in, sitting down, listening, or just walking into my son’s class and watching him learn.”

Parent Diana Fa’apo says that Family So’otaga has made a big impact on her son’s enthusiasm for learning – something she puts down to the fact that the Aiga Education Plan, one of the more tangible outcomes of the programme, is co-constructed among parents, students and teachers.

That means that her children are being armed with the self-belief they need to try hard in class, but they also get the message that with support comes responsibility – with family and school behind them, they know that if they do their part, they will succeed.

“Before So’otaga, we didn’t know how to push them along. They didn’t care about goals, it just wasn’t important to them. After So’otaga, and having goals and the Aiga Education Plan, they get to see their world in front of them. It’s not just air – it’s there.

“They can actually see how far they’ve come, and when they complete a goal, it’s great. It pushes them to set another one, and they aim higher.”

Gina says that Family So’otaga is like an extra layer that sits on top of everything else they do, continually reminding them that they’re not experts on an island, but that they’re part of a whole.

“So’otaga permeates our whole school. For example, our families text our teachers a lot. I remember a teacher from another school was a bit shocked: ‘You give out your phone number?’ To me, that’s the very least we can do, if it’s going to build that connection.” 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:18 pm, 21 June 2018

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts