Parents as learning partners

Joyce Beck is building the capacity of Kaitangata School, in South Otago, to raise student achievement by involving parents as learning partners.

Kaitangata community

Kaitangata's early roots were in coal mining. With the closure of the mines most people have taken up new jobs in Balclutha, so it is now a dormitory town for industries further afield. It's a community with a diverse range of people. They are usually in the labour-intensive industries, like the freezing works and forestry. They work day shift and night shift, so it makes for an interesting lifestyle for children, and they are very adaptable.

The parent community supports the education of their children. Some of them may not have had a lot of education themselves, but they are very keen to make sure their children have the best, and they come to school and talk with us on many occasions. Parent interviews have 100 percent attendance.

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Lifting new entrant achievement

We felt some of our new entrant children didn't have the pre-school education that we would like. Our new entrant teacher was really concerned about the data she was collecting from the School Entry Assessment test which pupils do on entry. She found their knowledge of letter sounds, and initial number knowledge was very limited. Of the 54 alphabet letters, they knew very few, less than 10 in fact for some children. They weren't aware of the sounds the letters made, or of words that started with that particular letter. In many instances pupils didn't have a lot of conversation.

We believe it's absolutely vital that new entrants have more knowledge of letters and sounds, and understand how they link up with their early writing and early reading strategies. If they don't have knowledge of letters and sounds, they are actually losing six months of their reading and writing careers. The report Competent Children at 12 by Cathy Wylie indicates that children never really catch up if they lose that first year of schooling. It can take them up to age 12 before they actually catch up.

We want our children to be on the right step when they begin school. So to lift student achievement, we have organised, through the Ministry of Education, four pre-school parent meetings for those parents who are sending their children to our school within the next year. That is to acknowledge their role as 'parents as first teachers', and to give them some guidelines as to what they can do with literacy and numeracy ideas.

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Parents as first teachers

The parents believe that we recognise they are their child's first teachers, and they are vital in lifting student achievement prior to children coming to school and during the time they are at school.

Heather Browne, the Deputy Principal, is leading these meetings. As part of her literacy leadership course, she has looked at the Hei Awhiawhi Tamariki ki te Panui Pukapuka (HPP) project, which assists children engage in language through books. We've had one session on that, and then we looked at numeracy.

A librarian has come from Dunedin, and talked about what books are suitable for parents to choose for their children. She spoke of how parents should not only just read to their children at night, but should help them develop oral language, so the child engages with the book, rather than just passively listening to a story. That was very well received.

The final pre-school parent meeting was with Diane Grant, the resource teacher of literacy for South Otago. She spoke to parents about the levels of writing and reading their child will encounter as they progress at school, and she taught them some strategies which are in line with what teachers are using in the school.

So parents are actually reinforcing what children are learning at school, so we are working as a team with parents and teachers. That is our goal, so that children aren't getting confused by being told different things at home from what they are receiving at school.

Parents have practised reading to their children and engaging them in dialogue, and they have found it very beneficial. They've thanked us because they wanted the best for their children but they didn't actually know what to do to ensure they were getting the correct type of learning.

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Reporting to Trustees

The Board of Trustees has always been very willing to fund extra personnel in the school, and keep class numbers low, especially in the new entrants and the second class. To that end, they have spent at least a third of their budget every year on support staff salaries, and we have three full-time teacher aides in our school, mainly in the junior school, to assist children with their start to school. We believe that if we don't catch these children, and capture their learning at the early years, we feel the effects of that throughout their whole school career. So we actually target personnel and money, resources, everything into those early years of schooling, giving children at Kaitangata a great start to their education.

To help the board with the decisions they make for the school, we collect quite specific data on a number of fronts. Anneta Payne collects that data, graphs it out, and puts it in presentable form for the board. She also writes a synopsis of where that is taking us.
We are hopeful that it is going to show marked improvement in NCEA results in two or three years time.

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Data-driven teaching

The data isn't summative, it's actually formative. It's the starting point and that's where we have changed in recent years. In the past we used to collect data, think good, we have collected the data, that's the finish of it, store it away and report to the board. Now we actually collect the data, report to the board, but then we say what are we going to do with the data, and it becomes our springboard for further teaching.

Anneta presents the data she has collected on any curriculum area to the staff, and we have to come up with concrete ideas about what we are going to do with the issues that have arisen from the data.

A specific example is the vocabulary results we collected through the Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT), which were very low. We first identified that as being a problematic area in 2003, so we went back and we have said to teachers that each day, as part of their English lessons, they have to do some vocabulary development and we have results to show that during 2004/2005 we have moved the school quite considerably in their knowledge and use of vocabulary, and that has been very successful and that has been reported in the charter.

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Community outreach

We involve our wider community in a lot of our programmes. Every week we send out a newsletter that is put into the shops, and taken up by bus drivers and numerous other people who come to assemblies. We involve parents, and we have friends of the school who are not parents or grandparents, who will help with swimming coaching, or on athletics day.

So it's important that our wider community is kept in touch with what is happening at school. We will put questionnaires out to parents, but the wider community will see the results of those questionnaires in the community newsletter. We also like to keep them informed of what happens at the Board of Trustee meetings, so following the meetings we put in a wee little bit of information about what's happened just to keep them up to date.

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Future directions

We have been so excited about our pre-school parent focus, and we now realise we have parents of older children who have never had the opportunity to learn the strategies for assisting them with their reading, their maths and homework.

So now we would like to target some children and their parents in years 2 to 4, so that we can bring them on board in a similar type of programme to that which we have offered for the pre-school parents. We feel that parents have a lot to offer education, and in a community such as ours, if they understand the strategies we use at school, and if they can reinforce those at home, we are going to make our jobs so much easier. That's ultimately what we would like to do.

Our latest professional development has been bringing children on board with their own learning and sharing their learning goals with them. We take that a step further. The middle to senior children all attend their interviews with their parents, and they hear the same message that the teacher is giving to their parents. That also makes them a bit more responsible for what they are doing.

We have a plan for the next interview held in term 3, that the children are going to lead their own parent interview. They are going to plan what they want to say to their parents, what stages they are at with different curriculum areas, what their strengths and what their weaknesses are. So we are hoping to get children really into where they are at with their own learning, and be able to talk about it, and become responsible for themselves.

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