Southern Cross Campus

John Clarke knows that robust data empowers a school to answer the question; "Is the decision we are making going to improve student achievement?"

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Data-based decision-making

When I started three years ago, if somebody was to ask me what the most critical problem on this campus was, I would have said expectations – low expectations of students for their own success; low expectations of the students' mates as well, which is very powerful; low expectations of staff. And of course, low expectations of the parent community as well. So we had to move all of those.

The needs of our schooling environment had been reported widely in terms of the statistics on Pacific and Māori students and those statistics were not good. They basically showed that the education system had often failed them. The SEMO (Strengthening Education in Mangere and Otara) Project looked at addressing many of the educational issues in the Mangere/Otara areas. However, they were primarily targeted at the governance level and not necessarily at the teacher, student, or classroom level.

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Robust data

The AUSAD (Analysis and Use of Student Achievement Data) Initiative arose from the SEMO Project. There had been a lot of collection of data but very little done with it. In fact, when we looked at data when I first arrived at Southern Cross, it actually painted quite a good picture. But when we looked deeper we found that the data was quite flawed, with teachers actually prompting students in their assessments.

So we had a lot of work to do ensuring the assessment tools we would use were appropriate, were being administered correctly, and that what we got would be robust. The board was satisfied, as long as we got accurate data, that was the most important thing - that we started from an honest point.

Each school formed a sub-cluster and we brought in a contractor to do a complete audit of assessment practices, then to sit down and write a series of action plans. These included the methods of assessment we would use and what baseline data we needed. We also identified the need to develop skills around how we would interpret the data. We brought in an expert to help lead this with the staff.

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Mangere initiative

MAMT (Mangere AUSAD Management Team) was established to develop the initiative and thinking across the Mangere schools. One of my school directors, Karen Mose, is the chairperson.

MAMT initially identified lead assessment teachers who were going to receive the first professional development. The enthusiasm that was generated in the first stage of that project was amazing. And in fact, one of the things we found was that the principals were kind of getting a little bit behind the eight ball; the professional development was happening within the lead teachers, and they were going back to their schools and saying, "What's the next step?" And the principals were going, "Well hang on a minute, I'm just not quite up with this."

So the next stage was to work with the principals and bring them up to speed to make the decisions that were required. They tended to keep their cards quite close to the chest. They were a little scared about data being bandied about, if you like. They'd been punished a bit by ERO reports and so they weren't that keen on opening the books. What developed, however, was a real willingness to use data and the effect of that data was seen in improved student achievement.

Initially it was really simple stuff. Set your baseline data, work out what your assessment was going to be, and determine the programmes that needed to be put in place.

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The power of data

We looked at what our boards were doing and saw that not a lot of really rigorous data was used. Most boards were making decisions that were based on gut feeling, if you like. So we set up a professional development programme for the boards around what they needed to know about data and the terminology around it. They needed to understand what the NCEA processes were.

Almost all of the schools in the AUSAD development had board representation at professional development. So what we're finding now in our particular board at Southern Cross is that they're really data driven. They look at health data, data on the social workers, guidance data and of course they're looking at assessment data on a regular basis.

And I guess it's not that every time they receive some data they're going to make some vital decision. But in immersing themselves in the data, when the key decisions about resourcing are being made, they will be asking the question, "Is the decision we are making going to improve student achievement?"

Teach the kids. Assess the kids. Evaluate the data. Sit around the table. What have we learned from the data? These kids seem to have improved their achievement, these kids haven't. Look at the students who are not achieving, what can we do about those? Focusing on the individual. Going back into your curriculum teams, devising further strategies, setting your baseline again. Going through and implementing the change that you've decided is required. So it's a continuous cycle of improvement.

The power of the data allows us to go into an area of literacy and break it down into strands. We can then start to see that students are achieving in certain strands and not achieving in others. We can see where we've had significant shifts, say from one year to another, and actually use that data to inform the thinking and expectations of the teachers who are taking on that new group.

We needed to be able to show teachers where the next steps were and what needed to happen to move the student to the next step. We also needed to show the students what they needed to achieve to move forward. So a lot of work was put into developing that continuum right from level 1 through to level 8 in very small, incremental steps. And that's informed the teaching.

The benefits for the campus in sharing data are immense. What we see, right across the campus, are teachers and students talking about achievement. Students saying, "I want to be two levels up in my test by July and this is what I'm going to do to ensure that happens." There is feverish talk in the senior school about NCEA and units and credits.

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Achievement is cool

We've put a lot of work into making achievement cool. Three years ago, students were embarrassed to stand up in assembly and receive accolades about achievement. They used to shuffle from one foot to the other and really didn't want to be there. Or they wouldn't arrive at prize-giving because they didn't want to be shown up in front of their mates, perhaps as being the guy that was working a little bit harder than he should have been. We now see students come up with pride to receive their awards.

Student reports now include their academic and personal goals. These goals might be associated with their behaviour in class or how they get on with their mates, but also include their own targets in terms of achievement. Teachers are seeing this and they're saying, perhaps we can set our targets a little bit higher now.

We have been developing a theme across the campus of 'Together we're strong' - the concept of every part of the campus working together to raise achievement. But this year we decided to add a little layer to that which is 'Building on success'.

We've had substantial improvement in our NCEA results and we celebrated that. We celebrated the shifts in the middle school and the junior school as well. Because the school has been together long enough, teachers in the junior school could see those students who had received 120 credits, remember them from their classes, and recognise that everybody had played a part.

We're talking about students having greater confidence and more examples of where students are excelling. We have a hospitality group that went off a couple of weekends ago to perform within the secondary division of their competition. They competed in the tertiary sector as well.

They went with a total belief that they were going to do well. They cleaned up the secondary school division and got four 3rd places in the tertiary section. They came back and said, "There were some schools that had two teams in the competition. We had one team and we cleaned up." The team is soon off to compete in Hong Kong.

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Parent involvement

It was recognised very early on that the engagement of our parent community was absolutely vital. Historically I guess many of our families have looked at Southern Cross and said, "I'll get my children to the gate and please give them a good education."

We get our parents in at the beginning of the year and have an 'expectation evening' where we say, "This is a partnership. We can't do things by ourselves. We have to have you involved in supporting the learning. This is your role. This is what we expect you to do to support the learning."

Momentum is starting to happen. We've got a Tongan parent group now that runs a homework centre in the senior school and we're getting 80-100 students along to those evenings a number of times a week. We now have a very strong Samoan group as well.

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngā Tapuwae have had a very good model of how they've linked their school to their whānau. They have outstanding parent evenings where you look around the room to see which parent is not there.

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Focusing our energy

We have been through the growing pains of dealing with student behaviour – all of those issues of getting kids to come to school and into the classrooms. We're finding that student behaviour is very much stronger and students want to come to school, so we're now able focus on the really important stuff.

We're going through some wonderful debates using research, for example, the Best Evidence Synthesis. What does the research tell us are the most important ingredients in teaching and learning? And we can see that the data tells us very much it's teachers, teachers, teachers. It's what teachers are doing in classrooms. And so now the excitement is that we can be very focused about our input and ensuring that our students are engaged.

The campus is now at a very exciting stage. Where do you look to find another model like ours in New Zealand to see effective practices, or challenge what we're doing? We did go and look in other schools, but comparable schools from years 1 to 13 are often in high-decile environments.

We needed to have somebody come in and look at the effectiveness of our organisation, so we brought in two business consultants who had not worked in an educational environment before. Working with these consultants, we agreed on a set of principles that we felt would be operating within an effective organisation.

They interviewed approximately 30 teachers and support staff. They produced reports assessing each school and the campus against these core principles. What we found was, with four schools working on a campus, a lot of 'rub' was occurring. We knew we were still getting significant shifts in student achievement, so what could we achieve if everything starts to match up and our energy's focused on the core purpose of our organisation? We're starting to get a sense that we're on the same track now and that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Not another train coming, I hope!

It's not an easy journey in a low decile school where literacy and numeracy issues are major, so we have to use all possible sources to find the solutions within the school, our unique Mangere area, the wider educational circle of New Zealand, and worldwide. Our core business is that of significantly raising student achievement. We're not going to settle for anything less.

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