Our six year old son has just completed his first year at school. In Queensland this is his Prep year. When I was at school this was Kindergarten. Things change.
Like most parents we thought hard about where to send him to school. I was keen on the local public school. I wanted him to develop resilience and to encounter a greater range of peers than he would have encountered at a private school. We discussed the pros and cons. In the end we enrolled him in our local public school.
The school draws from a mixed demographic. There are different cultures, a large Indigenous population, a statistically relevant low socio economic cohort as well as those from a more economically comfortable cohort. If we had taken into account local crime statistics and reports in local media we may have opted for somewhere else. But that would have been a mistake. We found a caring school community, dedicated staff, a culture of learning and expectation of school attendance. The school had created a strong community around the school and this made the difference.
What Were They Doing to Achieve This?
Many years ago when I was a teacher in a Primary (Elementary) School we saw the school as separate, our “turf”. Parents were not openly welcomed into the school environment and the staff room was certainly not of bounds to community members.
This school was different. From our first meeting with the Executive Team there was an open and welcoming attitude. They wanted to know what they could do to make our son’s time at the school a success. This approach has been consistent during his first year at school.
There were little things that mattered. The Principal and other teachers knew my sons name and would greet him by his name when they saw him. He wasn’t “just another kid” but was treated with respect as an important member of the school community. If there was an incident during the day his teacher would talk to us about it after school, just to give us a heads up.
Parents were invited into the school as often as possible. Of course, COVID-19 reduced the possibility for this to occur. But where possible we, as parents, have been invited onto the school campus. If we were not permitted there for an event the School we were provided with early notification about the event, what was to happen and that we couldn’t attend due to the pandemic. In short, communication was high on the agenda of the school.
School attendance was a high priority. This is really a “no brainer” the more a child attends school the greater the opportunity for engagement and learning. Arriving on time was important. If the records showed a child had not been to school or arrived late without a note form the administrative office an email was sent home to parents about the absence or lack of reason why the child was late. High school attendance has a correlation with educational attainment and success. If people are to move out of poverty then educational completion is important.
Communication was maintained through an active social media presence that highlighted achievements of students, with all classes recognised at some time throughout the year. There is a regular newsletter to parents about what is happening in the school. In a time when the pandemic had limited attendance this was essential.
The staff at the school were a united front. They all appeared dedicated and committed to the success of the school and the success of the child.
There was a “Coffee Club” for parents during the last hour of school each Tuesday afternoon. Parents were invited to the school to meet each other and basically to build a sense of community and support.
There was a breakfast club staffed by volunteers who provided a healthy breakfast for those children who didn’t have breakfast at home.
There is an active P&C that arranges fund raising activities during the year and other activities to support the school Meetings provide another opportunity for parents to engage with school staff and each other.
I’m certain there is much more the school is doing to create a sense of community. In short, they have been working to connect the school with the local community, to connect parents with each other and build an environment of trust and care.
Schools as Assets
Our local school has shown that it has a valuable role in connecting the community, not just to the school, but to each other. I’m certain that the efforts of the school in providing a positive educational environment as well as acting a social agent of change will have a future impact on the area. Already they are connecting children with other local assets such as a swimming program hosted by a Private School in the same suburb, an excursion to a local hobby farm providing children with experiences with farm animals as well as a fun day.
Schools are one of the important institutional Assets identified by Kretzmann and McKnight in their groundbreaking work on Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Building Communities from the Inside Out.
The school has been rewarded for its outward looking focus and building successful educational environment by being recognised as Demonstration School where other schools come and observe what they are doing.
One further step the school could do is to partner with Community Development practitioners in the community to work together on building an even stronger connection and creating a great community. But perhaps the barrier lies not with the school but with some of us as practitioners who haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity to connect. In this I point the finger at myself.
Let’s see where the journey takes us next year as our son progresses from Prep to Year 1.