Flaxmere College, where student success is the only option

Issue: Volume 97, Number 12

Posted: 11 July 2018
Reference #: 1H9jaX

Principal Louise Anaru has a strong sense of moral purpose, and a belief in equity and inclusiveness, and her arrival at Flaxmere College in August 2010 meant change. Louise talks about their school’s journey from a culture of failure to a culture of success, culminating in two Prime Minister’s Excellence in Education Awards.

Prior to applying for the principal role, my research showed there was a lot of deficit theorising about the Flaxmere community in general but also about the school. You could sense this cloud of low expectation and externalising blame and students didn’t believe they could succeed. It was really heartbreaking for me to know that young people weren’t succeeding.

With student outcomes so low, I wanted to be part of turning the school around with others. The beginning of the journey was about building relational trust, walking the talk, having integrity and being honest and open.

Looking at NCEA achievement from the time it was introduced, results at Flaxmere College ranged from 3 to 30 per cent at best. This was positive because it gave everyone a sense of urgency and was a way to get quick engagement with staff.

We had to make changes and tap into our collective moral purpose to make a difference together, acknowledging that we were not serving our young people well and hadn’t been for some time.

Our approach had to be research evidence informed so whatever we invested in would have the biggest impact on student outcomes.
There was no time to trial initiatives so we had to be assured about our actions, which needed to be a collaborative effort with teachers, staff and students.

This was critical so we were on the waka paddling in the same direction – all of us together.

One of the ongoing concerns from ERO was ineffective amd inconsistent teaching and learning practice. One of the initial conversations as a leadership team was about how we spread the pockets of good practice we had across the school and how we could sustain that.

One of the strategies in 2010 was to unpack best professional learning and we looked at best leadership as well. In 2011, we co-constructed with staff professional learning and development that addressed what was considered best practice for teaching and learning for our Māori and Pasifika communities, as well as addressing ERO’s concerns.

Teachers opted into different professional learning groups such as literacy and culturally responsive pedagogy, and undertook action-based research. They reported their findings and held workshops on what effective practices looked like. We then negotiated what we call the Flaxmere way, which is shared teaching practices and an agreement that this is how we teach in the classroom. There is also one for students around learning practices that we co-constructed with them.

We focused on accelerating achievement and building emotional intelligence. Cooperative learning was a great way for students to learn safely and experience success among peers. Those who may not have been comfortable in a whole class setting could feel more confident in smaller cooperative learning groups and could develop their social skills.

In terms of the early engagement with our school community, I met with all the students, all staff one on one, and with parents and whānau. Following this, we held a celebration evening with about 400 parents and whānau. We used appreciative inquiry to find out what worked well and what we need to develop and improve.

It was clear from the outset that every teacher, student and whānau wanted all students to be successful and achieve so we had a shared vision already.

There was a strong response to develop a whānau within the school and that is something you will hear from teachers, students, families and ERO is now embedded. We are all part of a whānau and we look after each other and each other’s learning. That is one or our school’s core values – whanaungatanga.

Through that process, we came up with a shared vision for success, strategic goals, a graduate profile and a school charter was developed from that, which cemented group ownership. Developing our school motto Student Success is the Only Option was part of this process and it came through in student and whānau voice and is now part of our staff mantra.

We know from the evidence that we can make a difference and we will together. This is the only option because we are not going to give up on any student. It’s about accountability and responsibility, and it’s also affirming and empowering for our teachers to know they can make a difference.

Our normal conversations now are about high expectations and we celebrate every bit of success, which includes celebration evenings where we have a sit down meal with our community. A staff member sits at each table and in this informal setting we can catch those emergent issues.

We are mindful to keep celebrating achievement across our school, to keep thanking people and building on that culture of success.

I am the lead principal for Te Waka o Māramatanga Kāhui Ako, which has helped to build that trust and collaboration with our community. This is important for me because I have never bought into that competitive model.

I believe if we turn things around authentically over time, our community will know their young people will be served well in terms of teaching and learning. I want all whānau to know that their local schools are great schools.

In terms of turning the school around, I don’t think we’ll ever finish that journey. There are always going to be improvements and things to change but with changing the culture of the school, some of the outcomes shifted quite early and substantially.

In the first year, attendance went from 50 to 80 per cent and NCEA pass rates doubled – the starting point was low but we did see big shifts initially and we have an upward trajectory.

It is such an honour and a privilege to be able to turn things around together.

Students Sharma Moss, Matekairoa Butler and Adam Ioane tell us why they are proud to go to Flaxmere College.

Sharma says, “Everyone is one whānau and I feel safe here.” Sharma knew the school motto and FLAX: Focus on learning, lead by example, act with respect and excel. She wants to work in hospitality and is going to the Pacific Hotel Management School in New Plymouth this month. Sharma has also done Outward Bound, which involved a lot of perseverance and endurance. “It taught me a lot about myself”, she says.

Adam likes the subject options at Flaxmere and he is doing chemistry, bio, stats, calculus, English, physics and music. Adam wants to be an engineer and study at the University of Canterbury. Adam takes trades at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT), which he gets academic credits for and is doing 3D design and designing robots. He says, “I’m the 2nd eldest of nine siblings and I feel a responsibility to be their role model.”

Matekairoa likes how engaging and caring the teachers are. He says, “They really care about our education and what we plan to do after school.” Matekairoa participated in the Spirit of Adventure and is looking forward to extending his education.  Matekairoa plans to attend Waikato University to study a double major political science and law degree. His future career pathway is Law.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 1:30 pm, 11 July 2018

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