Ripples into Waves

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

Peter Hoehn

Peter Hoehn. Deputy Principal, Tullawong State High School, QLD

Tullawong State High School

 About the school

Tullawong State High School is situated in Caboolture, Queensland, about 60 kms north of Brisbane. The school is relatively new (1994), and has an enrolment of 1250 students of which about 70 are Indigenous. The school offers a diversified curriculum with about 20% of students going on to university and the others selecting either trade and vocational training or retail and hospitality. There are 90 staff including 3 Deputy Principals.

In 2006 Leonie Kearney took up the role of Principal and brought with her a determination and energy to make a difference. Surveying the school context with the objectivity that a fresh pair of eyes can bring to a new situation, Leonie identified a number of areas for attention.

A multi pronged approach was adopted that included building a shared vision that involved increasing leadership density and accountability. Resources were allocated to increase professional learning opportunities and implement structures to enable collaborative decision-making. By strengthening and enhancing communication processes there evolved a common language and vision that has resulted in a significant restructure of not only curriculum and organisation but also of values and responsibilities.

The modus operandi for change resembles Robert J Starrat’s 1 onion model which identifies the various dimensions of school life beginning with core values and beliefs at the centre and then moves through the layers that include policies, programmes, organisation and operations. The school developed its core values – REACH : Respect, Encouragement, Aspiration, Care, Honesty that underpin all decisions and accountability structures for the staff, students and the whole community.

“A lot of the stuff we do might be considered froth and bubble but essentially we are working towards those layers to the significant core”

Cultural changes included the development of a team concept of leadership whereby responsibility is shared for both the successes and failures thus eliminating the notion of blame when things go wrong. Leadership density was enhanced and included the formation a pastoral care structure of five vertical houses with leaders oversighting the development of citizenship, accountability, social skills and cultural awareness in their students.

Some restructuring involved the increase of VET provisions in the school to the point where the school now provides 1:3 academic and vocational courses including a vital partnership with Toowoomba Wine and Tourism School that has opened up a number of curriculum opportunities as well as scholarships and work placements. As Peter describes it “You’ve got to think outside the box.”


About the Stronger Smarter Cherbourg Experience : from the learning came the actions

Peter seems to have a knack for seizing the day and exploiting the opportunities. He approached Chris Sarra after having heard an interview with him and thinking that he could provide some useful support and, given the geographic proximity, it was something to be followed up.

He describes the program as providing the leverage for even more focussed change. ” It opened a window…I came away with the idea that whatever work we were going to take on had to be accountable, transferable to other sites – sustainable. It had to impact on everything.”

Peter says he came away with so many ideas and different ways of thinking. “It gave me greater knowledge and confidence.” But the challenge then was trying to translate his new learning into his school’s particular context.

The initial changes had been made and there was a general acceptance and appreciation of the school’s new direction but it was now important to focus on what is important for Indigenous students- the culture within education. Peter was passionate about this. People didn’t have a chance to argue. He had resolve and felt confident debating the difficult issues and asking the hard questions. “Good teaching is teaching for all – it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Indigenous or non-Indigenous students. It doesn’t matter whether you have 7 or 1 or none.”


More ripples and bigger …..

Since 2008 the school has moved onto next phase of focus and accountability ensuring that they are indeed focussed on the main game; improving learning outcomes for their students through further development of curriculum, values and community culture.

Analysis of NAPLAN data identified focus areas of particular need in numeracy and literacy. Funding was redirected to ensure the development and implementation of a responsive curriculum; teacher mentors were established across the School; the School joined the National Indigenous Programme. In Peter’s words, Tullawong State High School changed from “a place where you couldn’t come out of your office without doing suspensions to where you can do a teleconference at 11 am and know that there are people doing their roles and looking after things.”

“Not just for the school but for the whole community.”

Peter subscribes to the notion of “build it and they will come.” He speaks repeatedly of “profound understanding” and “a true understanding” that must engage the hearts and minds of all involved in order for real and lasting change to occur.

“Its about the community taking control. The community side is important in both the Indigenous and non Indigenous. There has to be community input. That connectedness gives learning the reality that it needs in a global context.” He has a passion for community involvement in schooling claiming it “gives him a corridor.”

So with this commitment in mind the school set about going out and targeting those traditionally unrepresented at school and community functions, seeking involvement from the Indigenous community. Initiatives included holding community meetings to explain how curriculum is set up at Tullawong, allocating responsibility to the curriculum heads for the meetings’ effectiveness; providing opportunities for the Indigenous community to share their expertise and understanding and have direct input into matters including curriculum, organisation, welfare and communication. The school has been committed to the inclusion of local families and groups “who have suffered so much loss.”


Some achievements include:

  • Involved the local Indigenous community in building The Bush Tucker Garden which serves both aesthetic and curriculum functions within the School
  • Focussed on numeracy and literacy including the establishment of a full – time teacher aide dedicated to Indigenous literacy
  • Introduced Well Persons Health Initiative
  • Organised Immunisation programs for the Indigenous school community
  • Began the tradition of Boys and Girls Health Days involving community health services, invited speakers, health providers
  • Introduced School cultural excursions into Sacred Sites. Elders have written stories about the area – its history, traditions, boundaries, tribal groups that existed in the area. This has been turned into a handbook for staff – “stuff you need to be aware of.”
  • Dedicated a space called the Wandi Room and Yarning Circle built by the Elders, Parents and students
  • Engaged in an Indigenous Leaders Activity Program
  • Introduced a Parent and Carers Program in relation to ICT’s
  • Introduced Community meetings that targeted Indigenous community members to build some capacity around community decision making – asking the hard question. “Why are our kids not achieving? What are you doing about your curriculum to improve Indigenous outcomes?”

“One moment that made a whole lot of changes for the future”. Aunty Val – a most significant Elder.

Peter is a great believer in talking to people. He believes it opens up possibilities not previously apparent. He approached a community member at a school function and started to chat. It turned out that Aunty Val was a significant member and Elder of the local community and a wealth of information and support.


“How would you like to help?”

Aunty Val came to the school and has been there ever since. She does a lot of the cultural stuff for the school and is employed for a couple of days a week. She works on the school’s Indigenous handbooks and provides support and advice on other significant Indigenous matters and issues. More importantly she has opened up the connections with other Elders and Custodians and encouraged people who have some connections with the school to become involved.


“no one works in isolation…..”

At Tullawong the notion of shared responsibility and distributed leaderships in working towards common goals and purposes extends across the whole school community. In 2009 the appointment of an Indigenous teacher in the Industrial Technology department occurred and another to the school Support Staff team. There is an Indigenous teacher aide who is appointed to the area of Indigenous literacy. Elders and custodians, families and family friends of students are all involved.

Most staff are happy to create programs and projects to support improvement. More than ten percent of the staff is involved in special projects. The new Head of Social Justice, the Heads of Department, the Chaplain, the School nurse with access to Community Health programs are all part of a growing team.

There is an acknowledgement that some may still question the school direction but there is also an understanding that this is not negotiable and that hopefully the momentum will continue to build and grow.


Using Data to Sharpen the Sword

Tullawong State High School is making sure that all their efforts are directed towards equity of opportunity and achievement for all students both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. This involves setting up procedures to “take the pulse” and to identify quickly flash points that would benefit from early intervention.

If students are failing more than one subject – analysis can identify the issues and ask the hard questions What is going on here and what are we going to do about it? More importantly – what can I do about it?

“What am I going to do to make sure that these kids have got something in terms of their future when they are failing 4 out of 5 subjects?”

The School, Heads of Department and House Leaders analyse the data and talk to the students. Everyone carries out their particular role and the network of responsibility is strengthened.


A community of schools

“We are becoming social fabricators – if we don’t take responsibility and take a leading role within the community…..I’d hate to think (what is in store for these kids)..”

When considering the social fabric of Indigenous communities it was realised that these communities do not work in isolation and the complexity of the ties and networks means that “everyone belongs to one another”. This seemed a sensible and functional model to appropriate in the education context.

Tullawong has joined with three high schools and a number of primary schools within an eight kilometre radius to create a community of schools linking with the Stronger Smarter Learning Community project and most importantly providing strength and solidarity for the broader community networks.

Peter believes that the important thing is to accept change, look out for every opportunity to improve outcomes for students and continually survey the educational landscape for these opportunities. Tullawong’s story is not an isolated one. It happens in schools everyday – sometimes it takes sharing the journey with others to help open the doors to other possibilities.
1. Robert J Starratt, Centering Educational Administration: cultivating meaning, community, responsibility. Erlbaum 2003 NJ

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