Wilmot Road Primary School: Respectful relationships for better learning and settlement support
Wilmot Road Primary School (WRPS) is located in the south of Shepparton. The student population currently comprises 71% of Arabic, Afghan, Samoan, Sudanese and Turkish origin and 8% Koorie children.
The school was a finalist for the State Victorian Education Excellent Awards in 2014, in the Outstanding Partnerships with Families and Communities category. In the same year the school won the Education Award at Victoria’s Multicultural Awards for Excellence.
The school has 20 full-time staff, two principal class teachers and 16 education support staff. Interviews were conducted with the EAL coordinator and two Multicultural Education Aides in May 2015 for this case study.
The City of Greater Shepparton is located approximately 190 kilometres north of Melbourne and has a population of around 63,000.
Currently, just over 13% of the population in Shepparton identify as being born in a country other than Australia, and in 9.9% of these countries English is not the first language.
WRPS is proud of its strong partnerships with families and the community. Key to building relationships with families at WRPS is face-to-face engagement, with a holistic focus not just on current education.
Enrolments are face-to-face
All enrolments are face-to-face and, if required, involve an interpreter and caseworker. This ensures that a complete context is gained about the student, their family and their background, and a more meaningful connection with the school is made. Standard enrolment and background information is sought, including previous schooling, connections in the community, immunisation records and enrolment in kindergarten for other children in the family.
Multicultural Education Aides liaise with families
The school’s three MEAs (who speak Farsi, Arabic and Dari) are key to ongoing communication and engagement with families. The aides are the first point of contact with families when interviews or clarification are required. The aides also liaise more broadly with key community leaders and other services to ensure families receive the support they require.
Facebook is a useful interface
Families use the school’s Facebook page and blog to access additional activities in English for their children.
Policy documents are translated
Key school policy documents are translated into various languages, but translation is not necessarily always the best way to engage families:
‘We tried translating newsletters into different languages but found they weren’t being read, so now there is a mobile phone alert system called Tiqbiz, which makes receiving newsletters, notifications, calendar events and information easy. It sends alerts from the school to families. We also do phone interviews with families and explain important information in person.’
Additional activities outside school hours
The school provides activities that engage parents outside the school curriculum, and that are designed to meet broader family needs. Playgroups are run for children aged 0–5 including ones in Dari, Farsi and Arabic. These are particularly important for those who are not formally engaged in any other form of early learning in their year before school.
English classes are run for parents and a MEA provides classes in Dari. The school also runs a breakfast program and homework club twice a week, to meet the additional needs of their families.
Home cultural celebrations are recognised
Children are supported to follow their customs. Cultural diversity is valued and significant celebrations are recognised, such as Ramadan. During fasting, Grade 5/6 students are sent home at lunch time as they tend to get tired. Harmony Day is also celebrated. There are Halal options at the school canteen.
Students are encouraged to be respectful of culture, and strong messages are embedded into the curriculum focusing on respect for difference.
Professional development helps ensure cultural awareness
Professional learning for staff includes formal professional development sessions organised with Foundation House, and the LEAD project (an anti-discrimination course). MEAs also provide hands-on information sessions for staff on the topics of Ramadan, cultural respect and safety.
‘It is tricky as PD is often in Melbourne. Teachers come to visit us, but you can’t beat experiences.’
Promising practice: Strong community partnerships
The school works in partnership with a range of organisations and individuals to meet the needs of its students and families, while also strengthening relationships. One of the key services made available to students and their families is a paediatric clinic at the school, where a local paediatrician offers pro bono services.
‘We are lucky to have a paediatrician in the school and an interpreter. This is helpful for students with a disability or impairment. There is a lot of shame for families with a child who has a disability. There would be a very long waiting list to for these services elsewhere. This way, families can receive a quick diagnosis and appropriate support. Immunisations can be kept up-to-date through this service also.’
The school has developed ties with the local mosque and Imam, and staff members are invited to attend significant events. This community connection has been important in building strong relationships.
Services provided by other partnerships include:
- The Good Shepherd Youth and Family service donates food for the breakfast program
- The Smith Family provides scholarships
- The local Rotary Club has refurbished the eco-centre and science kitchen
- A local legal firm has provided scholarships for older students.
Promising practice: Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs), a key link between schools, families and communities
MEAs provide an invaluable service to schools, EAL students and school communities. MEAs are able to assist with:
- effective communication between students and teachers in the classroom
- integrating EAL learners into school activities by helping them to understand school expectations and goals
- assisting teachers to understand the home cultures and expectations families have of the school and of education in general
- assisting newly arrived families to settle into the new educational community.
There are three MEAs at WRPS, one of whom is an ex-student. They are all qualified as early childhood professionals. The MEAs provide an invaluable link between the school and families, as well as the broader community.
‘You can’t underestimate their impact, they are so well respected in the community’. (EAL Coordinator)
Holistic relationships with families
The MEAs’ role with families is holistic and ranges from welcoming them into the school, to conducting home visits and cultural translation into the school curriculum. They are often the first point of contact for families. They ensure families are kept informed about opportunities and key school events, as well as supporting them to participate.
‘We (MEAs) develop close relationships with parents, so they feel more comfortable coming to the school and supporting children more. For example, when there is a numeracy session, we ring them and encourage them to come, saying “it’s for your child”. Relationships with families are most important during primary school, if parents support school then it usually goes well (later). Once parents have got to know teachers, they come in and ask how their child is going, and want more homework to learn at home.’ (MEA)
‘We undertake a lot of communication with families - phone calls, reminders, letters are always followed up with a call. The school is very caring about families. Any incidents, we call the family and let them know; there is good relationships with families. We assist families with cyber safety - how to use technology, cyberbullying sessions and boundary setting with their children. It is harder to use over the phone interpreters that families don’t know, they know us, we are like a second family here, they trust us.’ (MEA)
Settlement and transition support
The MEAs assist with the settlement needs of families by providing social support, assisting with connections to agencies and linking parents into language and learning opportunities.
‘Their role goes way beyond teaching. They assist with filling forms out during transition and work with kinders during this period. They support families in a holistic way, such as visiting hospital if families are ill, assisting with transport to and from school in emergencies, link children into breakfast club if they haven’t eaten.’ (EAL Coordinator)
MEAs support learning at home
The MEAs work closely with families to help them understand the school system, and to understand language learning processes. This can mean adjusting learning activities to take account of cultural norms.
‘The Harari people have no formal education and have trouble with reading, so we have developed a course for parents (ACE). Once per week 16 mums come along to learn about citizenship, the basics, and to write in both their language and in English. The parents (also) really like the playgroups.’
‘The sessions on numeracy involving cards are traditionally perceived as gambling in some cultures, so aides explain how the cards are being used in this context to teach numeracy. Parents haven’t seen numeracy this way, they think pencil/paper.’ (EAL Coordinator)
‘We work with parents to undertake activities at home to supplement classroom learning, such as when shopping to ask the price, or working out the amount items add up to (real life learning). We assist with learning the new habits of the new culture. We have also worked with parents to get to school on time.’ (MEA)
‘More broadly, leaders in the community have such trust in the MEAs, they are friendly and approachable, networked to their communities, they are how people find out about the school and come here.’ (EAL Coordinator)
Supporting home language
At WRPS there is a need to continually work with parents to encourage them to use their home language. Families are encouraged to see themselves as the child’s first educators.
MEAs support home language use
MEAs support families to maintain home language, reassuring them that English acquisition works best in tandem with home language use.
‘The MEAs are key to working with parents to encourage maintenance of home language; encouraging them to continue to share books through looking at pictures and talking in their own language. Parents are worried about how they can help their children if they don’t speak English. Parents are encouraged to continue storytelling, by telling in their own language, then children at school can listen in English and then tell in their own language.’ (EAL Coordinator)
Sometimes learning the concept first in home language makes it easier to then learn in English.
‘There is a need to provide the basics (such as colours and numbers) as we had a child in Foundation that didn’t know shapes or colours or how to hold a pencil. We spoke to her dad and worked together to reinforce learning in her own language.’
Supporting English language learning
English language learning is promoted among parents and students, with the school insisting students speak English. Teachers model complete sentences. This is supplemented by the provision of language classes at the school for adults/families to learn English, as well as parenting courses to supplement what is being done in the classroom.
‘We all want the best for the child but sometimes parents don’t know what to do. We have run parenting courses to target families to bring out the best in their children. We also try to ensure every child is heard by an adult every day at school. Families start learning English too, once their children come to school.’
Assessment outcomes are delivered face-to-face to families, with flexibility being key:
‘Assessments are shared with families in parent/teacher interviews in first term. Reports are not sent home during the year, but are delivered face-to-face in an interview. At the end of the year reports are sent home and families are provided with the opportunity to attend an interview to discuss the report.’ (EAL Coordinator)
Supporting transition to school
WRPS works hard to engage families prior to the school year in a range of ways. They liaise with local kindergarten teachers, and in term four school tours are held and enrolments are taken.
Education week provides an opportunity for families to visit the school, and staff to gain an understanding of the children who will be enrolling.
‘For education week they had 26 parents coming to the classrooms. There were interpreters from a variety of backgrounds, asking questions about the school. The early years teacher/coordinator sets a program for NESB children, as they haven’t read books or had toys or played board games, so there’s a focus on basic educational skills required in the Australian system. We work with the Prep coordinator and families so they are confident to leave their children during transition and in Prep.’ (EAL Coordinator)
Transition to school sessions
There are four transition to school sessions before orientation occurs. The Prep coordinator visits the early learning centres to access the transition statements and to network with the feeder services.
‘When students come in for transition, we look at their language and interaction and take notes of where they think they are up to.’ (EAL Coordinator)
Shepparton is involved in a pilot for joint professional learning between early childhood and schools, to better determine where the opportunities for connection can be made.
Parent orientation session
There are also parent orientation sessions, and follow-up with parents and siblings is undertaken to maintain communication and gain feedback about experiences. Children who are already at the school and who have siblings who are about to enter school age also help staff identify any potential issues.
WRPS has learned a number of important lessons in working with EAL children and families:
- Building relationships with families involves face-to-face contact at the point of enrolment (and before) to ascertain early on the context of the family and identify any issues which may impact on future settlement and education.
- MEAs are key to maintaining good relationships with families. This includes meeting ongoing settlement needs, working with families so they understand and support the education their children are receiving and broader community relationships.
- Transition to school occurs early and involves contact with early learning centres, school tours and orientation sessions, providing interpreters and using the transition statements, where available. Follow-up with parents and siblings is an important way to maintain communication and gain feedback after the transition process.
- The school’s family playgroups are facilitated by an early years trained teacher and are an important part of the transition process for families for whom English is an additional language. The playgroups build early learning skills prior to school.
- Cultural diversity is valued in practical ways by providing activities that engage and support families, such as language classes and playgroups. This also assists to build strong relationships.
- Developing strong community partnerships enables students’ educational and settlement needs to be better met, as well as developing trust among key organisations.
- Both home language and English language learning need to be prioritised for EAL students and families.
- Working with parents to support learning in the classroom is key, through providing strategies to cement learning at home in the home language.
- Delivering assessments to parents in person (rather than only in written format) is important.
- Staff need ongoing support and professional development.