‘What are you trying to do—turn this into a private school?’

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CHARLES LA TROBE COLLEGE

Maria Karvouni, Principal, Charles La Trobe (CLT), P–12 college Maria Karvouni took on the principalship of Charles La Trobe (CLT), a P–12 college in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, because she was ready for a challenge. She says that when she started there in 2010, she brought ‘an absolute laser focus’ to the job of turning a low-performance, dispirited place into a desirable academic school. Karvouni was realistic about what she was taking on, but at first the cocktail of problems seemed overwhelming. Where to start? There were demoralised staff, disrespectful and often violent behaviour by students, timetables that prioritised physical education over English lessons, cavalier attitudes towards homework, non-existent study habits and an indulgent rather than a demanding attitude towards poor results. Very few students were making a successful transition to the tertiary level. Add to the mix a messy area merger that took too long, and the result was that parents with even moderate ambitions for their children by-passed the school and enrolled them elsewhere. The local patois seemed to have it nailed, CLT was referred to as a ‘shit school’.

With the full backing of the Victorian Education Department, as well as a supportive regional director, Karvouni had a specific goal in mind, to turn the college into a high-functioning academic school. At first, Karvouni was told over and over, by the staff she inherited, that ‘these kids can’t cope with much’. It’s a defeatism that is common to many dysfunctional schools, and unless it’s challenged by change agents, there’s the risk that young Australians will be locked into limited life choices, if not outright failure. That’s no longer the fate of CLT’s students. While the school’s turnaround is far from complete, the standards Karvouni has set around behaviour, processes and performance are now part of the foundation and ethos of the college. But Karvouni, who is leading from the front, also admits that ‘my first year was the toughest thing I ever took on. For a long while I was just managing, from one crisis to another. I kept going because I had a sense of urgency about what I was on about. And you have to get traction early. If you let things go too long, nothing ever happens’ (pp 47-48).

Having raised the academic bar, Karvouni identifies a further challenge: ‘When the kids are struggling, the default position is always down. To ease off. My view is the opposite. You have to push them hard. You have to have high expectations and the belief that every child can be challenged’. In 2011, Karvouni delivered the Occasional Address for La Trobe University’s graduating teachers and stressed this message. Knowing that many would be heading out into the tough terrain of underperforming schools, she told the new teachers to fight against ‘being sucked into the predominant culture’.

Karvouni, confident she has cracked the old culture of mediocrity, is now looking to the next phase—sustained student growth and good academic outcomes. The big wins, measured via school surveys, have been in class behaviour, safety, connectedness to peers, morale and positive feedback from parents. Performance results, however, still throw up a mixed story—solid improvements in Years 7 and 9 NAPLAN data, but poor scores in reading and numeracy in Year 3. Reversing underperformance in the primary years rests on two things—explicit teaching, and being ferocious about good out-of school habits and routines around learning and homework. Karvouni says, ‘Habits are crucial. It’s about sustained effort, and that’s what many of our kids lack because it has never been reinforced. So much of learning is habit. You do it and the bar lifts’. (pp 58-59).

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This article is an extract from Class Act by Maxine McKew, published by MUP.

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