St Albans Primary School: Engaging parents and creating partnerships
St Albans Primary School has been in existence for over 100 years. Currently, there are 240 students attending, with 98% of these coming from a non-English background. The school is culturally ‘rich’ with representation from around 34 diverse cultures.
In the 2014 Foundation year 38 languages were represented, with African languages the most common. The school also has many refugee children, including some from families currently in community detention. The school has seven multicultural education aides who speak a range of languages including Arabic, Dinka, Amharic and Tigrinya.
The principal and assistant principal were interviewed for this case study.
The Western English Language School (WELS) has an outpost at the school with five classrooms and the capacity to cater for 50 students. This section of the school is invariably full and students are often placed on a waiting list until there is an opening.
St Albans Primary School is 15 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, located in the City of Brimbank.
Over 50% of residents in St Albans were born overseas, and 67.5% of those speak a language other than English.
Building relationships with EAL children and families begins when students are enrolled.
Engage with families at enrolment
The principal and assistant principal engage with families at enrolment time by assisting them to complete the forms, using interpreters where necessary. This is a critical first step in the process of relationship building, where families tell their stories and important information can be shared. This information includes how the children might get to school, what their understanding of school is and a bit about their background, including the families’ level of English.
Working closely with WELS
The school works closely with WELS to build relationships with new families, meeting most families both when they start at WELS and when they come to St Albans.
The school’s community hub (one of five in the City of Brimbank) actively promotes family engagement with the school through a range of activities including Kinda Kinder (KK), a free, play-based program for preschool-aged children and their families.
There are also parent programs and workshops, English classes, cooking, computer and internet access and playgroup. The hub offers a community-friendly space and activities.
Families are encouraged to bring their preschool children to KK so that teachers and aides can get to know children and families before they start school. Once children start school, informal activities are held with families to familiarise them with the location, facilities and school expectations.
Challenges to engaging families
There are challenges in engaging families in the school community. A lot of families do not engage in a preschool program so they are not linked into a transition to school program either (only 47% of foundation families attended kindergarten in 2013).
Many families who have recently arrived in the country are not yet familiar with the education and care system, and are already engaged in compulsory activities as part of visa status, such as English classes.
Other families have different expectations of schools. For example, they may have an implicit trust in the school and believe it is the school’s responsibility to provide the education. They do not see an active role for themselves. In this instance the school strongly supports and encourages families to get involved.
The investment made by developing strong relationships means those families will provide information about other families who intend to send their children to the school. Families who are not already connected to the school often arrive on the school premises as soon as the child turns five, which could be mid-term or mid-year. Having knowledge about the family means the school can make contact and children will turn up in the new school year.
Promising practice: Engaging parents at St Albans Primary School
St Albans has a unique approach to encouraging families to contribute and be part of the school community. It is important to reframe parental involvement within the school for EAL families, especially those who are newly arrived.
‘Schools have a very stereotypical view of parental involvement and you have to challenge that and think outside the square. And you have to look at what parents can do and what they want to give because our parents don’t feel comfortable working in the classrooms. If you’ve never been to school yourself and you can’t read or write in English, what would you know about your child’s education? How could you possibly help them? The school is the expert. This is the view.’ (Principal)
Locals run the KK program
In response to this prevalent view, through its community hub, St Albans offers activities that aim to engage parents in ways they want to be involved and in which they will feel confident.
‘Two of the mums run the KK program, that’s what they are good at, working with younger children. The hub leader got the job here, she was a volunteer first with the Smith Family and when we got the hub project, someone recommended her so she encourages the mums to volunteer to get the skills and it’s something they pride themselves in, their ability to look after their children and others, do cooking and invite staff to come and share it. They also make food for the school council.’ (Principal)
The school has also developed a unique activity that responds to the fact that while parents are reluctant to get involved in the classroom, they will come to see their child participate in activities.
As part of orientation at the start of the year there is a community afternoon where children are given a ‘passport’. Various locations in the school feature on the passport and children take their family to each location, meet a teacher, view their work, and their passport is stamped. When all locations have been visited and stamped the passport goes into a draw to receive a lucky prize. At the end of the tour there is a barbeque. These sessions have been a huge success and are very well attended.
‘The key is working with your community and building that sense of community, seeing the school as not separate from the community but part of the community.’ (Principal)
Supporting home language and acquiring English language
The school supports both a rich linguistic diversity and the acquisition of English for the majority of its students.
Many students attend their own language schools on the weekends, and given that first language is often the only one spoken by parents, home language continues to be the primary language spoken at home.
‘Celebrating the cultural richness of the families is an important way to value home languages, we try to foster that celebration of cultural diversity, we have Harmony Day, Multicultural Day, art works from different countries.’ (Principal)
Promising practice: Partnerships for supporting language and learning
Many students and families at St Albans Primary School are newly arrived migrants and some are also from refugee backgrounds.
Assistance for newly arrived families
In 2013 the school welcomed 10 new Foundation children who were recent arrivals at the end of 2012. Their families needed a great deal of support.
The school responds to families when significant need arises. This includes providing a range of supports to assist students to effectively access the curriculum, assistance completing forms, transport to get to school (via a school-run bus), multicultural aides, and migration information.
Multiple partnerships with other organisations have been developed. These partnerships include participation in the Best Start program to support transition to school, working with the Migrant Resource Centre to support family migration information and advice, and with Brimbank Council to strengthen the connection between private childcare providers and the school to support transition.
‘A significant number of students experienced trauma in leaving their countries, some lived in refugee camps, or suffered violence. The school community has developed and employed strategies to support these families. Some families don’t want to talk about their situation and don’t want assistance. The school works on developing the social skills of the children in these situations without necessarily calling this “help”’. (Principal)
Partnerships with other services
Partnerships have been developed with the
Foundation House has provided individual and family counselling, and worked with both CAMHS and the school.
The school is also part of the
Australian Childhood Trauma group:
‘They are psychologists that have helped us develop a positive choices program for the children and they do professional learning with the teachers. Teachers now understand a lot more and have more strategies, and we do reflective sessions where teachers discuss one or two students with the psychologists and discuss strategies to work with the students.’ (Principal)
Students with language development issues or Autism Spectrum Disorder
A significant number of the student population at St Albans have delays in language development or Autism Spectrum Disorder. This presents additional challenges in terms of student support. This has led the school to develop partnerships and strategies to equip staff to support these students.
These include a Student Support Group meeting every term, which is attended by a network psychologist, school nurse and a paediatrician. More than one hundred cases are managed by the school with the assistance of this group.
Transition to school
Transition to school is ongoing and multifaceted at St Albans Primary School. This is in response to the diverse backgrounds, situations and pathways that students take to begin at the school.
More than half of all students who begin at St Albans have not attended kindergarten prior to starting school. Many arrive in the country mid-way through the year, and some have student visas.
Relationships with private childcare centres
Some children attend private childcare centres. The school has built strong relationships with these providers to ensure that information about incoming children is forthcoming. Brimbank Council supports this work and is working with private providers to strengthen their practice in providing details about children as they transition to school.
The community hub assists transition
The schools’ community hub, including its Kinda Kinder program is an important part of the transition process for many families.
‘It is common for families to think that learning starts once they start school. One of the goals of the hub is to work with families to develop their children as first learners and build relationships with families. This is an important component of transition, as transition goes on forever with the families, once you build that relationship with the families they come in for everything!’ (Principal)
Relationships with local kindergartens
Some preschool children attend local kindergartens. The school maintains strong relationships with these kindergartens.
‘In term two, kindergartens are invited to come to the school, and this sometimes involves an incursion. This year there was a visit by a guest speaker who spoke to the children about insects. He went into the Foundation classrooms to sing songs and have morning tea.’ (Principal)
Step into Prep
This is followed by a comprehensive transition program in term four called Step into Prep, which runs every Friday for three hours and is for all preschool-aged children planning to attend the school. The kindergarten teachers also attend these sessions, and ‘we send all our aides to the kindergartens to help walk the children across and back again.’ (Principal)
Informal visits to kindergarten
If a child begins at kindergarten part-way through the year, the school is informed.
‘The kindergarten teachers are very good in this area, they will call us and let us know someone is coming in...Foundation teachers go out to services every term and kindergarten teachers visit the school. Sometimes I might do five or six visits, especially if the families don’t participate in the Step into Foundation program.’ (Assistant Principal)
The kindergarten runs information sessions:
‘There are two information sessions which talk about starting school and what families can expect, including topics such as what it’s like on the first day, what it’s like leaving your child, expectations around uniform, what sort of things they’ll be doing at school, what to put in their lunch box. The school nurse and teachers come, they talk about healthy eating. The school reassures families that it’s okay if children don’t know how to read or write when they come to school. Interpreters are used, and the whole process is handled very sensitively. Some families have sufficient English to participate. Others ask questions quietly after the session to avoid embarrassment. Speakers speak slowly and clearly. Some families are very uncomfortable about their language abilities and can get offended. Others are keen to have an interpreter.’ (Assistant Principal)
One-on-one teacher meetings
Teachers also meet with families at the start of the school year, before the children start, and the transition statements are used as a stimulus for families to talk about their children, their learning needs, their interest and strengths.
The school has a strong assessment focus, undertaking a number of assessments with all students. One of the benefits of having a comprehensive transition program, where preschool children attend the school for three hours each week in term four, is the time allowed to observe and test students.
'We test all children in in our Step into Prep Program – this helps us to keep continuity when the children start school. Teachers can access information to inform their planning, and the teaching program is not interrupted by testing. Each child undergoes BRIGANCE screening (BRIGANCE tools screen children and monitor progress, and assist teachers to plan developmentally appropriate instruction),