Guest columnist, Maxine McKew
Maxine McKew is a former Australian MP and award winning broadcast journalist.
So often in life it’s the gestures that matter.
At Toronto High School they’re still talking about the day that the newly installed Principal Mark McConville, arrived at the school swimming carnival and made straight for the spot where local Indigenous families had gathered. As the one-time footballer and PE teacher got close, he was recognized by some fellow footy players who came forward and threw their arms around him.
Onlookers stared in disbelief. Most still had memories of what’s known colloquially as the “Toronto Massacre”—the brutal encounter with a previous Principal where local families expressed their disgust with a school that was so obviously failing their children. Until recently, a school that is only 2 hours drive north of Sydney, had a dismal record. Not one teenager completed Year 12.
As McConville tells the story, the spontaneous hugs at a sports event represented a “break-through moment” for the once troubled and divided community that snakes along the shore-line of picturesque Lake Macquarie. It immediately sent a message to Toronto’s teaching faculty and to the wider community that things were going to be different.
Four years into his term as Principal, McConville now runs a school where attendance has shot up, where disruptive behaviour is no longer tolerated, and where the attitude for all students, including a significant indigenous cohort, is that “success is culturally appropriate.”
McConville has an easy manner and a natural authority. He is an educator who cares about every single child and wants them to be the best they can be. On the day I visited the school, he walked me through the grounds of Toronto and proudly showed me the new buildings made possible by the Federal Government’s BER programme.
But it was the other things I noticed. McConville knew the name of every student we passed and had a friendly and encouraging exchange for each of them. The school is tidy, orderly and everyone is busily engaged.
This shouldn’t be remarkable, but when you consider that only a few years back, a police presence in the playground of Toronto High was the norm, not the exception, then McConville has obviously achieved a remarkable transformation.
In part, McConville credits the Stronger Smarter Leadership programme for the important changes at Toronto.
“It turned out to be the most important professional development I’ve ever undertaken” he says. McConville completed the course, along with other local educators in the Hunter region, with strong support from NSW DET officials. As a result, Toronto now functions as an SSI hub, with strong partnerships having been developed with other schools.
So what is it about the SSI approach that is making a difference? Why is it that a school that only a short time ago was derided by local families as “a crap place” now turns itself inside out to ensure students finish Year 12?
McConville says that as much as anything his SSI training gave him added confidence about how he influenced others.
“It taught me how to listen to all voices, about community engagement and most importantly, it taught me that you can’t collude in negative attitudes.”
This gets to the heart of it. McConville has since had two other teachers at the school inducted in the SSI approach and this, as well as a range of other pedagogical strategies means that Toronto is now setting the bar high for everyone.
You can hear the ambition and the excitement in the voice of the Community Liaison Officer, Tracey Walpole, as she tells you how hard she is working with a Year 12 Toronto student who wants to quit school before the end of the year to join the army.
“Along with his Mum, we’re working really hard with this kid. We’re saying to him, hang in there, it’s only two more terms and you’ll get your HSC and be able to join the ADF and start officer training. The families can see that we care, so it means they care and they’re helping us with the personal learning plans we have for everyone here.”
McConville still has his challenges. In a state where there is a substantial over-supply of teachers, he can’t get a specialist Maths teacher. Equally, no-one is suggesting that the social divide that has been a feature of this community for generations, has suddenly dissolved.
But there is no doubt that McConville and his team have broken the cycle of mediocrity and failure that once characterized Toronto High.
Instead, there is energy discipline and a real sense of achievement for a school that now sees itself at the centre of a regional learning community.
Toronto has changed the tide.