Imagine a school where a Year 12 student leader says to a visitor, ‘Our teachers aren’t here for the pay, they’re here for us’. Or where a relief teacher says, ‘This is such a great place, you can really teach here’. If a school’s success can be defined by how students and faculty feel about each other, and about their joint mission, then St Albans Secondary College well and truly deserves the attention it is now attracting.
Located in Melbourne’s western suburbs, St Albans is a Years 7–12 government high school that caters for a culturally diverse student body of over 1000. Principal Kerrie Dowsley has to ration the visits from those wanting to know ‘How did you do it?’ I’m not surprised because it’s a great story. Though not a heroic one, or a particularly dramatic one. Those looking for quick wins won’t find a tale of a snappy three-year turnaround. But for thoughtful educators and bureaucrats who are interested in our most significant challenge—how we achieve a system-wide lift for all our schools—it’s hard to go past the lessons contained in the trans formation of learning at St Albans. It has been a gradual, sustained effort, one that has evolved over a twenty-year period and has been driven by three different principals.
St Albans proclaims its success in every way imaginable. I visit the school in April 2014, just after the Easter break, and on display in the school reception area are the inspired fashion creations that saw the school pick up awards at the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival in the schools category. One student, My Tran, won Best Student Award for a harlequin creation that has the flair of a Catherine Martin design. Portraits of school leaders and high achievers adorn the walls, as do pictures of significant school events. But it’s the stories of academic success and individual student growth that really grab attention. Over 90 per cent of Year 12 students at the college now further their studies at university or TAFE, with over three-quarters receiving offers for their first preference. Four years ago, the dux of the school, Joanne Ha, received a perfect Year 12 score in eight VCE subjects (the requirement is five) and is now studying medicine at Monash University. In the challenging PISA tests for 2012, St Albans was on a par with other participating schools in reading literacy and ranked above average in the area of problem-solving.
Most impressive of all is what St Albans does with whomever walks in the door. Its primary-to-highschool transition program is remarkably effective in addressing significant under performance. Each year, St Albans takes students from five local primary schools, ‘a cohort of huge variability’ according to Dowsley. In any year, up to a third of the new Year 7 students are assessed as being four years behind in basic literacy and numeracy. But by Year 9, most have caught up. Intensive and differentiated programs mean that Year 9 students are close to the state average, but it’s the rate of student improvement
compared with other schools that is the real achievement. It is substantially higher.
Major changes in the pedagogical practices of staff, together with the provision of a rich and comprehensive curriculum program, have helped make the college the destination of choice for many local families. A central feature has been the way the school has genuinely embraced the views of students. No mere add-on, the concept of ‘student voice’ is an embedded feature of the school, with structures and regular meetings with the school leadership team. Matters raised are acted upon, whether it’s an issue over facilities (toilets and lockers loom large in discussions) or, in the case of one of the student representative leaders, a concern over limited teacher feedback in a Year 11 class.
Teachers at St Albans all talk about the motivation of their students as being ‘almost off the chart’. Dowsley backs this up, saying that ‘students here take learning very seriously. They demand a lot of themselves and of their teachers. So the constant question for us is how we further develop our students as self-regulating, self-evaluating learners who seek and demand feedback. If we can prepare students who are constantly asking questions, have a sense of where they are going and can articulate the next steps in getting there, then that’s our job. That’s what we need to do’.
This article is an extract from Class Act by Maxine McKew, published by MUP. Class act is available now. RRP $19.99, ebook $9.99.
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