Making human connections

Issue: Volume 95, Number 10

Posted: 7 June 2016
Reference #: 1H9d2E

For the past two years, staff from a Wellington law firm have joined Porirua students after school as part of the Homework Help project. Education Gazette finds out how it began and what it means to the participants.

A project that brings together primary students from decile one schools with corporate lawyers began with a casual request.

The Homework Help Club started with Holy Family School in Cannons Creek, Porirua, and a group of lawyers from Wellington firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts.

Lawyer Stacey Shortall developed the initiative as a way to forge meaningful connections between staff at the firm and children at the school.

She chose Holy Family School from the Ministry of Education website at random.

“I looked on the Ministry website, then in the phone book, and Holy Family School was the first I called,” she explains.

“I proposed my idea – that I could come out with a couple of colleagues, we could stay for an hour after school each week and help with any homework the children might have.”

The school accepted the offer, and soon a regular Wednesday afternoon routine was established. Three or four staff members from Stacey’s firm piled into her car with a box of fruit and joined the students for reading and maths.

“My idea was to try and get different role models in front of these kids, not better role models – they’ve got great ones from their community and families – just different role models who work in corporate or professional jobs and might be able to help with schoolwork from that perspective.”

“The support of the whānau and teachers is just amazing in the Cannons Creek community. These are kids who are in fantastic homes with loving parents who are doing absolutely everything they can for their children.

“Sometimes, English is not the first language at home, which of course makes helping with homework more difficult. And many of the parents are extremely busy with work and other responsibilities.

“We are just another resource that can be used, if it helps,” she says.

Bringing an idea home

Stacey Shortall spent 11 years practising law in the United States, where she was involved in various pro-bono and community work projects, particularly initiatives involving women and children.

Upon her return to New Zealand six years ago, she noticed a lack of opportunities for corporates to easily give back to the community.

“When I came home I was wondering about what I could do in a similar vein here. It felt to me that there’d been a bit of a breakdown in those platforms by which people were connecting with one another.

“I was struck by the fact that Cannons Creek, for example, was only 15 minutes away from our central Wellington law firm office, but it had a large number of decile 1 primary schools,” she says.

“At the time, my two older children were heading towards starting school, and so I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could just take a car out and see if I could help any other kids with their homework.”

The project, involving Stacey and her colleagues at the law firm, Holy Family School teachers, whānau and students, has had a powerful effect on everyone.

“Our people just love being part of the project,” she says.

“It has had a huge impact on all of us. By going into the school each week we get to know and feel closer to the community.”

A learning support hub

Holy Family principal Chris Theobald says the Homework Help programme has helped to lift achievement at the school by providing a space where students can consolidate their classroom learning.

Stacey’s initial idea led to an expanded after school programme at the school.

“The Homework Help Club first started at our school in 2014.

“Stacey and her colleagues would come once a week, and between 40 to 50 students joined in each session.”

He says it was fairly informal, with a number of parents and some teachers coming along too.

Based on the success of that programme, the school secured Ministry of Education funding to expand the initiative to create a ‘learning support hub’ three afternoons each week.

“With the support of the Ministry, we have been able to employ three staff members who work with the children, and to prepare some of the academic work that is done.

“If there isn’t any set homework, we put out some educational games, reading books and maths work,” he says.

Chris believes the programme is largely about normalising tertiary study, and making strong connections with others.

“These students really see being a lawyer as a viable option now. When we ask them about what they want to do when they leave school, it’s not just a police officer or firefighter anymore – lawyers get thrown in the mix too,” he says.

“And it’s also about forming a close relationship with a group of people in our society that we might not otherwise connect with, and learning about the work they do.”

But more importantly, Chris believes the programme is a practical way to help relieve some pressure on his students’ parents and whānau.

“Our families are very talented and very committed to their children. They also work very very hard, and this usually means long hours, which can inhibit some of our parents doing homework with their children. Many of them do – but for some it’s late at night or difficult to fit in.

“We are always mindful that our families have a lot of time pressure and responsibilities, and so the Homework Help Club can assist with that, while at the same time building on our students’ oral, written and mathematical capabilities,” he says.

Ripples in the pond

Stacey hopes that initiatives like hers might eventually improve diversity in the corporate world.

“I’m really hopeful that in 20 years from now, the children that we’ve been working with will be our colleagues,” she says.

“We have lots of challenges around lack of diversity in our profession. And it certainly doesn’t need to be that way.”

“I’m big on us trying to think about New Zealand as one large national community. We do end up with these silos in our society. And there’s no doubt that socioeconomic factors are a big part of this.

“Silos can have some really unfortunate side effects – we just can’t afford to have them in our country. We need to make more human connections between all of us.”

She says the entire project has been made possible with those who have supported it from the start.

“It’s really a testament to our firm, Minter Ellison Rudd Watts. I’m just one person who had an idea, but there are scores of people who have volunteered over the years and keep it going with enthusiasm,” she says.

“And frankly, the teachers who welcomed us to their school and let us support them with these homework clubs – they have made it happen.

“The management, especially, at the school has been fantastic – they’ve grown it to another level well beyond our involvement.”

Trying on court gowns

Stacey is now working to expand the Homework Help Club programme to more decile 1 schools across Wellington and further afield.

“I know there are other schools, and other corporate organisations, firms and companies that could really benefit from having a similar partnership to the one we have with Holy Family School,” she says.

“There’s obviously some benefit to the school and kids, but I also think there is a very big benefit to the organisation taking part too.

“So I’ve launched this idea for multiple homework clubs, across the country. And since then we’ve had more clubs starting up with other firms and organisations providing volunteers, and there are more schools interested in joining in too.”

The launch of the expanded Homework Help Club project was held in the corporate Wellington office of Minter Ellison Rudd Watts and Holy Family School was represented by Chris and 30 students.

“It was fantastic to have them there,” says Stacey.

“They had a good look around the office and tried on the court gowns and wigs.”

Another launch was held at the firm’s Auckland office, and principal Brenda Martin attended with a group of Wesley School students.

By running the Homework Help Clubs the children are now thinking about their own potential and the types of career paths and opportunities open to them.

“It’s about breaking down our own misconceptions about everyone’s potential,” he adds.

More information about signing up for a Homework Help club can be found at link)




BY Melissa Wastney
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 6:57 pm, 7 June 2016

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