Re-writing the narrative at  Halls Creek District High School 

by on Aug, Mon, 2018 in News, Stronger Smarter Stories | 0 comments

High school attendance at Halls Creek District High School is heading in the right direction.  While they still have a long way to go, the school has seen a 50% increase in high school attendance over three years.  Associate Principal,  Jake Petterwood, says over that time they have worked hard to make the school a calmer, more structured place, with a focus on learning.

“We’re treating the kids as the research says they should be treated,” he says.   “We’re teaching them in a way they would be taught in Perth or Melbourne and providing them with really good teachers.  Of course, they’re going to want to come to school more.”   

High Expectations 

When asked what has made the difference, Jake says, “the credit goes almost exclusively to the young, passionate teachers who have made the commitment to the kids and challenged themselves to provide quality experiences each day. Their passion for the school and the kids means that our students have genuine relationships with each of their teachers and pastoral care that has history and meaning.” 

The reform started three years ago when they moved to a genuine high school model and hired an entire high school staff.   Associate Principal, Jarred Ritchie, and the school leadership at the time fought hard to hire the best possible high school team.  Jake believes these staffing decisions were the critical point.  “It was based on a consistent belief that kids at this school are deserving of the same education they would get in a city school,” he says. 

Three years later, the majority of these teachers are still there, but the school has seen a series of acting principals.  Jake says when Eliot Money became a permanent principal in 2017, and Jake also took on a permanent position, they were able to move the pace of school improvement from a slow simmer into a short, sharp burst.   

Stronger Smarter training 

Jake says the organisational culture part of the Stronger Smarter Approach provided a platform to get the staff talking about shared values. They started in Term 1, 2017 by completing the Stronger Smarter online module as a group, meeting after school to discuss and reflect on the learnings.  Jake says, “the overwhelming thing that came out of that was that people wanted to do more of it”.   As a result, in Term 4 they took the staff through two days of cultural action planning based on the Stronger Smarter training run by the Broome Education Office, Western Australia. 

Jake says in their discussions, common themes appeared.  “The most obvious was ‘stay above the line’ and commit to the highest levels of expectation for our students socially and academically. I believe this was a turning point for the staff.  We had that collective light bulb moment that prompted us to commit to each otherWhen we all agreed to place attendance and behaviour at the front of our minds in every class of every day, we rapidly got traction.” 

Jake says, “Stronger Smarter has been the vehicle for us to genuinely talk about our organisational culture.  Halls Creek District High School has an incredibly tight-knit and positive organisational culture that has been brought into the light and examined and played with and talked about through the medium of Stronger Smarter.  So Stronger Smarter has been very important.  The positivity of it has been unbelievable.” 

Owning the data 

As a staff, they agreed it was time to make their attendance data visible.  “We have a board up in the office and every day a 2.00 pm I write what percentage of the school has been at school today,” Jake says.   “The data is discussed, and we celebrate or commiserate.  If it’s a bad day we think about what’s happening in the community, we talk to people, we talk to kids, we’ll go out and do home visits.”  

Jake says making the data visible is important to ensuring that all staff takes personal responsibility. “It’s a simple step. Every day we are saying ‘why aren’t there more kids at school?’  Staff have to own that. The expectation becomes if they haven’t been at school for a couple of days, you phone the parents, or you jump in the car with an AIEO and have a chat with the parents.”  

Making the school a calmer place 

It used to be acceptable for the kids to choose not to be in class, sitting around on the grass or in the lunchroom.  “There’s one rule in the High School: ‘there’s no excuse for not being in class’,” Jake says. “That’s been a complete cultural shift.”   Every administrator is a visible force in the school. Jake says, “We’re there at transitions and we’re there when students are out of class, and if something happens you can be sure an administrator is not far off.” 

“In remote communities, kids can vote with their feet.  If they don’t want to come, they won’t. The one thing that keeps kids coming back is the positive relationship they’ve got with their teachers, ” Jake says. 

Supporting learning 

The school’s next focus is to support learning.   Jake says this has been an important step forward.  “When attendance was low, the focus was simply on getting them through the gate and keeping them happy.  As we have developed stronger relationships we have been able to demonstrate to students and families that the aim of the school day is learning, not simply attendance.”  

The school is gradually taking control of their narrative using print and social media to tell positive stories.

“What better way to do that than celebrating each kid who came through the gate. By creating a daily focus on attendance, we flipped the narrative, ‘yes, the attendance has been low, but let’s push it, change it and celebrate when we do’. This shared success and positive storytelling have been a powerful tool.”  

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