Gonski lifts a community

Jeff_Ward.pngBy Jeff Ward, principal of Sanctuary Point Public School

Sanctuary Point PS  is a great example of how a school, supported by Gonski funding, can help turn around a community.

We are a low-SES school of 500 students on the NSW south coast, which has lifted results and our engagement with our families and community.

All the research shows that about 50 per cent of student performance is determined by parents and family, so if you only focus on what happens in the classroom, you’re missing a lot of opportunities for your students.

We are the only school in town, and because of our levels of disadvantage we began getting National Partnerships Program funding in 2011, which became Gonski in 2014, so we are now in our 6th year of extra resources, with our extra funding to increase to $1 million in 2017.

Helping parents, helping kids

All the regional services which our students’ families might need are located in Nowra, which is 25kms away and hard to get to without a car.

We’ve made the school a de facto service centre for the community, we run a breakfast program and playgroups for young children to offset the lack of early childhood education options in our town.

We have our own support worker who can help parents with any issues they are having, from dealing with government agencies through to homelessness. It’s common sense that if a child is in a settled home environment they will be able to do better at school.

When parents are involved with their child’s school, their children do better. So to encourage families to volunteer at the school, I’ve set up a system of ‘Sanctuary Point dollars’. For every hour’s work they do, they earn 5 of these, which can go to things like excursions. As well as engaging parents, this also means that excursions become more accessible.

Of course, we need real dollars to pay for our Sanctuary Point ones, and that’s where Gonski comes in.

We’ve also trained parents to work with kids at the school on their reading, and we are now getting some of them more formal training so they can be employed as teacher’s aides.

Early support for kids is crucial

That’s what we do to support our families, but most of our Gonski funding goes to programs for students, to help break down the barriers that are stopping them learning.

We have a lot of issues with students who arrive here with poor speech skills. In our last kinder class of 60, there were 15 who were significantly behind with speech. This is generally due to a lack of exposure to speech, and if we get them intensive treatment early the results are astonishing.

Once these students receive sessions with a speech pathologist it kick starts their verbal skills and they have often caught up by the end of their first year at school.

Again, we rely on Gonski funding to ensure that speech therapy is available to these children as early as possible.

We also run a literacy program – MultiLit - which is great for kids who have some literacy skills but are behind where they should be. The essence of the program is 30 minute one-to-one sessions, and we have five Teachers Aides who can do those.

 It costs $6700 per year to put a child through MultiLit and most of that cost is the aide time. That may look like a lot but it has a proven effect on lifting performance in literacy, the foundation skill for every bit of learning that child will do in the future.

One of the issues the school has had is a high rate of absenteeism. We brought in a boys attendance mentor who has started a lot of programs to get children to school. For instance, he arrives at 8am and plays football or basketball with the boys, to give them a reason to get to school early. Our attendance rates are now at the state average.

We can’t lift student performance without lifting the quality of our teaching. So we’ve used some of the Gonski funding to invest in Professional Development. We don’t focus on sending staff away from the school for PD, unless it’s very high value. What we’ve done instead is build a three hour window into each teacher’s timetable where they can do professional development with either a curriculum or technology mentor who will observe them in class and give feedback.

Big plans for full Gonski

If we get the full six years of Gonski funding, I’d like to turn the school into even more of a community hub. We could get the Aboriginal Medical Service here one day a week, or Centrelink, and run parenting workshops.

With more funding, we could bring in an Indigenous cultural mentor and also set up a Nurture Group for some of our students who are identified as having a lack of empathy or who are disengaged. Staff need to be trained to identify these kids, and teach them acceptable behaviours, so that they don’t become more and more disengaged as they get older.

I’ve been principal here since 2009, and I got involved in the Gonski campaign because I’ve seen how funding is not just making a difference to schools, but to the whole community.

The kids are better in the short-term and their results are improving due to the support they are getting, but the ripple effect benefits the whole community and will do so for a long time. The change has been tangible because the community feels part of the success of the school.

We’ve gone from a community that was ‘heads down and hoods up’, to one that’s got their heads up high.

When we fund a school properly it sends a message to a town like Sanctuary Point that your kids matter, that they have not been forgotten, and that is very important.

Most of our students go on to Vincentia HS, and the feedback I’m getting from them is that they are changing, and it’s because of the positive effect of kids from Sanctuary Point coming through. Vincentia is another school which is doing great things with its Gonski funding, so our students will keep getting the benefits right through their school years.

I can’t believe any politician could look at what we have done and say this funding is not working, or not worth continuing.

Investing in every child, no matter where they go to school, has huge flow on benefits not just for the children but for a whole community.

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