A powerful change process

by on Nov, Tue, 2009 in Articles, Stronger Smarter Stories | 0 comments

Dyonne Anderson

Dyonne Anderson. Principal, Cabbage Tree Island Public School, NSW

Cabbage Tree Island Public School

 About the school

School and Community Location: 22 Km South of Ballina on the North Coast of NSW

Traditional Indigenous Country Community in Bundjalung Country

School population: 31 students (K-6) – all Aboriginal (some travel from Ballina) plus 9 preschoolers

Dyonne has been Principal since 2004. She has been very active in Dare to Lead, NSW Primary Principals Association Executive and an Executive of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principals Association and is currently Co-chair of NATSIPA.

She participated in Stronger Smarter Leadership Program in 2008

Aboriginal staff: Three Aboriginal teachers including the principal, three teacher’s aides, the general assistant and the dance teacher. Other community members assist especially when there are special events and celebrations with specific program focus eg Aboriginal art, local history and culture.


Elevator highlights

Two of the Aboriginal staff from Cabbage Tree Island Public School are now relieving in promotional positions away from the school. They are leading change on critical issues such as cultural Identity for other groups.

In 2004 few students were working at age appropriate levels. A high proportion of students are now working ‘at or above’ their age appropriate level and the lower group are also making improvements.


A powerful change process in the small and unique community of Cabbage Tree Island Public school is producing strong learning outcomes for students and ripples into a wider world.

When Dyonne Anderson attended the Stronger Smarter leadership program she was already leading the school in a change process which had begun in 2004/5 when she became principal.

The school’s journey has been well documented through a number of stories and case studies including a Kids Excel school development case study in Term 3 2007 and a recent Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations ‘Good Practice case study on Personalised Learning Plans for Indigenous students’. They highlight in detail the positive and systematic changes that have occurred to mobile resources, revitalize the school in the context of its community and produce significant improvements in learning achievements across the school.

Now, Dyonne finds herself in a position where instead of feeling somewhat isolated as an Aboriginal principal wondering if she was expecting too much, she confidently shares about her experiences with other educators and school communities knowing that she has strong support from her staff team and an engaged community in the evolving story.

Maybe my expectations of my Aboriginal students were too high

While many of the participants in the leadership course are challenged about low expectations of Aboriginal students, Dyonne had found herself wondering if her expectations of students at Cabbage Tree Island Public School were too high. ‘It’s hard to know when you’re on your own’.

The leadership development course for Dyonne happened in the context of the Executive of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principals’ Association. Chris Sarra was providing guidance and support in the establishment of this new leadership network and he invited executive members to participate in the Stronger Smarter leadership experience. Dare to Lead supported her participation.

‘The course was a reassuring experience for me as an Aboriginal principal. When I heard what Chris was saying it strengthened me as a principal – we had very much in common. One of the things that I clarified for myself was that in asking my students to succeed I am not asking them not to be Aboriginal. ‘

Dyonne was the only Aboriginal participant in her group. ‘It was a privilege to meet with all the leaders there with their different personalities and backgrounds and experiences. And I loved getting a feel for the range of geographical locations across Australia.’

‘The program was set up to encourage us to be open and honest. I felt very valued in the whole process. It was definitely the best quality leadership and cultural training that I have experienced. The process evolved over the five days with much questioning and also affirming of the contributions we could each make in our push for high expectations.

‘The Stronger Smarter team empowered me to persist and to hang on to those high expectations.’

‘They also promoted the need to work better in a team effort with Aboriginal staff, in school and regions and communities. And as I reflect, I think we needed the five days so that we could ‘dig deeper’ in what was a very personal journey for everyone.

‘When issues were identified we were given the time to work through the complexity of them in detail. I loved the fact that we weren’t just identifying ‘issues’ as is often the case in Indigenous education. We were challenged to develop solutions – and often with the resources of the team we could see that many things could be solved easily.’

‘It was very emotional for me and hard hitting. I connected strongly with the social justice aspects of a number of the role plays. They were so true to life – you could see your own children there.

‘And as I have moved on with my journey, I have really valued the strong research base of the Stronger Smarter approach.’


Emerging priorities and plans

‘At Cabbage Tree Island we had already travelled some hard roads and were in the midst of a major change process. We had engaged support from a range of sources locally and within the educational context of NSW through the Quality Teaching Framework, Priority Schools Funding Program, and Kids Excel as well as with NSW Health, the Bunjum Cooperative Community Development Employment Program and Jali Land Council.

‘My first priority had been to develop behavior plans with staff and parents so that we could establish some agreements about acceptable behavior in a learning environment and the importance of regular attendance. We were already focused on turning attendance, literacy and numeracy around and we were getting results. A School Working Assembly Team was in place providing useful advice as a staff, parent and community consultative group. So when I set my next stage priorities they related to strengthening our practice in three areas:

  • Supporting our community capacity building including within our community of schools
  • Supporting capacity building with our staff
  • Consolidating directions and affirming high expectations in learning.


Exciting signs of our community capacity building

‘We have built up the community’s confidence. They see us being the same all the time – applying the same consequences – regardless of which family. We are very up front about sharing what’s going on at the school with the community.’

‘I listen. Parents and community have ideas about what they would like to see happen. I am very open to including new strategies or programs where they can be incorporated without us losing our teaching and learning focus.’

‘At our most recent community meeting, nine families were represented and others rang to apologise that they couldn’t be there.’

‘On Harmony Day recently we hosted a visit by Durrumbul Public School which is part of our community of schools. We had members of our community leading many activities. We used our Boardwalk for a range of activities related to the need to protect the environment, including preserving native plants and also learning about traditional practices such as mullet hopping. Traditionally community members would go out at night with lights in their boats – the mullet would be attracted to the light and jump into the boat!

‘ We also played traditional games and some new ones our community has developed based on traditional local practices related to water and the wetlands including hunting and gathering. We have all taken on new learning in this context and the community is empowered. They feel valued for what they have to offer. And I am delighted that leaders from Durrumbul Public School will participate in the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program in 2010.

Our parents have responded very positively also to the learning aids that staff have made for them to explain what their children are learning and to show them how they can help their children practise new skills. These include number cards, colour cards, vocabulary lists and small pages of maths symbols and language from programs such as Count Me In Too. They certainly help with making homework sheets would make more sense.’

We have reached the stage now where many students are more literate than their parents but parents are no longer too embarrassed to ask questions or to participate in activities. Our parents are not to blame for the poor educational experiences that they have had, yet they are all supportive of their children having access to a quality education. A parent came in last week saying ‘My husband’s been playing so many games with the children.’

There is still one area where Dyonne is keen to see progress but where she is needing to be guided by the community in terms of its timing. ‘I would love to have a strong community Bundjalung language program in the school. I have been asking people to help me look at this differently. I am cautious as this is not my community. I am very respectful of our Elders and they need to make the decisions in relation to local language. To date we have had more open conversations about it and made plans to visit the language centre at Nambucca Heads – where the local language is taught as a Higher School Certificate language.’


Our staff is a great team

‘I have a cohesive staff now who are supported by a network of services and resource people who provide the students and their families with assistance in relation to health and learning development. They are a great team who are very loyal and also prepared to ‘have a go’ at something new if it means we might get results for the students. We established a climate of openness and honesty with each other early on when daily debriefings were essential to free staff to leave the challenges of the day behind and to start each day fresh and well. We don’t need frequent debriefing any more but I am pleased to say the same climate prevails in our professional conversations about literacy and numeracy. ‘


Consolidating directions and affirming high expectations

‘We now do our Personalised Learning Planning twice a year and they involve 100% of our students including preschoolers. Teachers comments that the conversations are so positive and they are prepared to be flexible and go out of their way to talk to parents in Ballina for example when they are there for some other activity.

‘We’re as one and I feel excited to be leading a great school within a very vital community.

‘I want the community and the school to be seen positively. The contribution of the community has meant that our students are achieving much better than they did in the past.’

Our days absent have been reduced by more than 50 percent over the past five years with parents valuing education and being happy to support the school by sending their children to school regularly.

In 2009 the school celebrated receiving a national Dare to Lead Excellence Award with the school story being captured on the Dare To Lead website. We are all very proud of our school, our students’ effort and our communities support. Collectively we have a lot to celebrate.

The school has been using the PM Reading Benchmark Program for many years. In 2004 80% of students were achieving below benchmark with 20% of our students achieving at and above benchmark. In 2008 there has been a total reversal in results with 80% of students achieving at and above benchmark. A remarkable turnaround and students have continued to be working at and above their stage appropriate level.

In 2011 the principal was seconded to the Stronger Smarter Institute as a Principal in Residence for 12 months. The relieving principal is a past participant of the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program; she is an Aboriginal teacher from the school who had decided that she was prepared to take on a very challenging new role. She continues to instill the importance of high expectations so that CTIPS continues on its journey to promote that Aboriginal education is everybody’s responsibility and that our Aboriginal students can expect only the best possible education at CTIPS.


Parents have the last word:

‘They are different kids. They know how to be respectful now.’

‘My children have benefitted a lot (from this school). Their work has improved in numeracy. Their literacy skills and their manners have improved a lot. They want to go to school. They like school. They want to learn.’ Leanne, parent of three students.

‘It’s a community school. All the community is involved in activities at the school and the school lets the community know what’s going on.’ Rani, parent of two students.

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