Thursday 27 April 2017

A common purpose: Piritahi CoL

Schools in the Marlborough region were early adopters of the Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako (CoL) initiative, and two such communities have come together to form Piritahi CoL – also one of the first to formally include an early learning service. Two years on, members of Piritahi CoL share their experiences.

Left to right: Gwenda Jones and Wendy Logan from Marlborough Kindergarten Association; principal of Renwick School Simon Heath; and Karen Stewart, principal of Marlborough Girls’ College.
A Blenheim-based community of schools shares more than a high number of sunshine hours.
Piritahi (meaning ‘coming together as one’) was an early adopter of CoL and as the name suggests actually represents two CoL, each with its own leader, working together as one. It’s also one of the largest in the country, encompassing 21 schools and the Marlborough Kindergarten Association.
While acknowledged as one of the first early learning services to formally join a CoL | Kāhui Ako, Marlborough Kindergarten enjoyed strong working relationships with neighbouring schools before the initiative was established.
In the 1990s, the schools worked together on professional development projects and later developed a shared learning management system. As a CoL, those involved believe these relationships are shifting from collegiality to a more collaborative connection that consciously moves away from competitiveness.
Renwick School principal Simon Heath, together with Marlborough Girls’ College principal Karen Stewart, are co-lead principals of Piritahi CoL, and both believe there is strength in numbers.
“Initially, we were still competing in our own schools and pushing our own schools out there, but the CoL has changed that. We’re stronger together than we are on our own,” says Simon.
“Sometimes though we do default to that old way of thinking, because that’s all we’ve known for the last 20 years... and still we’re all principals and leaders of our own schools.
“It’s taken a wee while to break that down but over the past year schools have begun to think more broadly about ‘our kids’.”
“They are our kids, no matter what school they go to. We have schools that have actively brought in their schools zones to support other schools growing. So it’s not about widening your zone or casting your net as wide as possible to get as many kids into your school to fatten the staffing and budget – it’s actually about what’s best for the region and the CoL,” he says.
POOLING EXPERTISE: ECE INVOLVEMENT
Wendy Logan is general manager of Marlborough Kindergarten Association and she says that by sharing their learning environments and teaching strategies, Piritahi CoL is making progress in smoothing learning pathways for children.
“Kindergartens and schools want all children to succeed and they’re working together on that seamless path to achieve it,” she says.
There have been more school teachers visiting kindergartens and vice versa.
“It’s about awareness but also valuing early childhood education – we’re all in the same business, we’re just teaching different sized shoes.”
Relationships within Piritahi CoL are growing stronger over time.
“A couple of years ago our association held a function and very few principals attended but a recent function had a fantastic turnout of both principals and early learning teachers,” says Wendy.
Senior teacher Gwenda Jones has been an early childhood teacher for many years and believes kindergartens have a lot to offer CoL.
“At kindergarten, we work really well with whānau and already have them involved in education,” she says.
“It’s important to connect with families and whānau when their tamariki reach school to nurture meaningful relationships and keep them engaged in their children’s learning.”
Teachers from Renwick School have recently spent time in their feeder kindergarten and come away inspired with the work going on there. 
“They have started to reflect more on their own practice, which is helping us to smooth those links – the learning happening between both groups of teachers is phenomenal,” says Simon.
MOVING FROM COLLEGIALITY TO COLLABORATION
Co-leaders Karen and Simon highlight the need for the members of Piritahi CoL to move from “collegiality to collaboration,” and maintain a “laser-like focus” on the achievement challenges set by the group.
“The main challenge is that everything is new, and when you’re in an initiative like this as early as we were, you’re treading carefully,” says Karen.
“We also had to make sure that we focused on the achievement challenges and didn’t get sidetracked.” 
“For our CoL, we need an understanding of what collaboration looks like, how to sustain it, how to make sure it’s actually adding value towards student achievement but also in terms of moving towards best practice, whether that’s in teaching, leadership or change management.”
It’s about creating a whole new set of conditions where courageous conversations can take place respectfully around practice.
“It’s also about having that focus on equity rather than equality, which is part of the shift from collegiality to collaboration. We’re all responsible for learners in our community whether they’re in early childhood, primary or secondary. We need to identify where the greatest need is and then resource it appropriately.”
From the very beginning, Piritahi CoL agreed to pool their funding allowances, and this has allowed them to purchase specific expertise relating to the set achievement challenges.
“We’ve run or coordinated PLD this year for teachers, and developed Spirals of Inquiry as our key driver for improvement and raising student achievement outcomes,” says Karen.
“A lot of professional learning has been around building understanding of Spirals of Inquiry as a process and next year writing is our achievement focus.”
ACHIEVEMENT CHALLENGES FOR PIRITAHI COL
One of the achievement challenges set by Piritahi CoL is to improve writing skills, in particular for Māori, Pasifika and male students.
In the primary setting, a two-year action plan is underway, with the end achievement goal of 85 per cent at or above national standards.
But it begins at the early childhood level.
“We’re working to improve participation of Pasifika children through a Ministry contract,” says Wendy.
“This involves one of our head teachers supporting Pasifika playgroups by encouraging regular attendance.”
“We believe that everyone needs to be engaged right from that level and all feeding through to other schools. There’s a degree of innovation within each kindergarten, school, classroom or curriculum area but we’ve all got a common purpose and we know the outcome we’re trying to achieve, and what the checkpoints are.” 
All of those involved know they need to improve the participation of Pasifika students, and working together as a team allows a clearer picture of what needs to be done.
Student retention in the education system is another area of focus for Piritahi CoL, in particular, keeping students in school so they can earn NCEA credits.
“In the past, the achievement, retention and transition processes would have been developed within our own school and with the boys’ college. I can now see that this is developing across the CoL with teachers starting to work collaboratively,” says Karen.
An example of the community working together to boost attendance can be seen in one principal who has taken responsibility for working with truancy services long-term in order to bring consistency across schools.
“Sometimes when the pressure goes on a family regarding attendance, they might shift schools. It will help to have a consistent approach across our schools with the same protocols in place, and I think the CoL is strengthening these types of links,” says Karen.
In the same way, focusing on attendance during the early childhood years can positively influence a child’s learning pathway later in life.
“Marlborough Kindergarten Association teachers work hard with whānau to convey the importance of regular attendance so there’s that strong foundation that can be carried over into school,” says Wendy.
Kindergarten also provides an inspiring model when it comes to whānau engagement with school.
“Kindergarten is a very bicultural environment so whānau feel really welcome and they see early learning as successful education.
“They feel their culture is acknowledged and they can see it in all the learning that their child is doing therefore it becomes an important part of the child’s life. This supports Piritahi CoL thinking and early learning teachers are setting those foundations and habits early.”
Simon describes visiting a kindergarten and observing the children at play.
“Watching four-year-olds actively making choices about what they’re going to do and who they will do it with, all with minimal supervision, is uplifting,” he says.
Schools aren’t set up as easily for whānau engagement as kindergartens. When whānau walk in the door of an early learning service all the staff are there.
“Parents have to come to kindergarten to sign their children in, so it’s very clear that they too can be part of the learning programme – in fact we try hard to involve them in what we’re doing,” says Gwenda.
Improving transitions
Karen says that involvement in Piritahi CoL has made all parties more aware of the importance of transitions – both between and within schools.
“Outside traditional transitions, we’re seeing the need to pay more attention to transitions within the educational pathway,” she says.
“So for example we are also talking about the transition of children moving from the junior primary years and into the senior primary school.”
Karen highlights the need to think about other kinds of transitions that are possible within the CoL.
“We worry about points of change in terms of campus, but we also need to concentrate on within the school, classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher and also school to school movement.”
DEVELOPING SUSTAINABLE RELATIONSHIPS
Karen and Simon point out that as principals, the absence of a university or college of education in Marlborough has led to an increased dependency on each other’s expertise.
“I think that’s a key reason we’ve been able to get ourselves established so quickly as a CoL,” says Karen.
But developing strong and sustainable working relationships in the wider community is crucial to the success of Piritahi CoL.
“We took time to explain the IES initiative to our community and we explained that we were interested in pursuing it.
“At the time we had draft achievement challenges which we presented, so everyone could see where we wanted to go with it.
“People were quite engaged with the idea that schools and the Marlborough Kindergarten Association were actually working together to raise learner achievement. Since we’ve formed as a CoL, there’s been a huge amount of work to do and we hope to be able to consolidate next year and really see some traction.
“We’re learning too – no one’s trained us for this job. We’ve been principals of a school and leaders of early learning services but not leaders of a CoL and that’s a very different ball game,” she says.
One of the unique challenges of belonging to a small, tight-knit community where people know each other socially as well as in the workplace can be having professional learning conversations.
Both Karen and Simon say that the traditional expectations on principals can also present a challenge.
“There’s still an expectation that the principal will be at school every day but when you’re away two days a week, people can find it hard to understand that the deputy principal is totally responsible for the running of the school – and that’s been a challenge so far.
“We’ve learnt a lot, we’ve made mistakes and we’ve shared those mistakes and we’ll make probably a whole lot more...and that’s part of the work and how you learn as well.”
Wendy and Gwenda say that involving early childhood education services from the beginning is important – the earlier in the process the better. The next step is working out how to involve more early learning services.
Wendy believes the inclusion of the kindergarten association in Piritahi CoL acknowledges the expertise and importance of early childhood teachers.
Despite some resistance in the region to the involvement of early learning services, and the extra workload it demands for already-busy teachers, everyone is excited about what lies ahead.
“We all see so much potential in this work that can not only benefit our learners but also our teachers,” says Simon.
“It’s about accelerating achievement for our learners but there are other benefits within that as well which sometimes are not seen.
“For example, when early childhood centres invited principals and year 1 teachers together – they had never networked or shared best practice but they are now – how do you capture that?”
All agree that in the establishment of a Community of Learning| Kāhui Ako, it’s really important not to rush but to leave time so that strong relationships, culture and trust can develop.