For everyone Reengaging the disengaged

Clockwise from top: Lisa Holt, Robert Last and Robert Pyers. Photos: Meredith O'Shea (Lisa Holt), other images supplied.

Schools are more focused than ever on making their schools safe and welcoming places for students who have become disengaged from learning. Here are three very different approaches finding success for their students and their local community.

Student disengagement is a growing problem in Victorian schools, with rates increasing by 50% in the years between 2018 and 2021. This data, from a Victorian government submission to a Senate inquiry earlier this year, shows that around 12,000 public school students were officially absent during the second year of the pandemic. According to the government, the actual number might be much higher.

Many Victorian government schools are working hard to make their schools more welcoming places for vulnerable students who – for a variety of reasons – have disengaged from learning. Just as there is no one reason for students to switch off, schools are finding success with a range of different approaches.

“Whatever’s going on in their lives, when they come into school, they know what to expect.”

Lisa Holt

Spelling out the rules

Lisa Holt, principal at Rosebud Secondary College, says the main challenge her school faced post-lockdown was helping students readjust to life outside the home. While students were generally compliant and respectful, many struggled on returning to the school environment. After a difficult year managing their children’s wellbeing, some parents also struggled.

“When the students came back, we had parents completely and utterly obsessed with the kids having to be happy,” Lisa says. “They would say things like ‘my child doesn’t need to do maths because it stresses them out’.”

The answer for Rosebud Secondary College wasn’t to ease off on the academic side of things, but to be more explicit about exactly what was expected. Lisa was inspired by the Berry Street Education Model, an Australian initiative designed to support student self-regulation and wellbeing to boost engagement and academic achievement.

All teachers undertook training to ensure a consistency in how expectations around behaviour – from lining up outside classes, to how questions are asked and answered – were taught across the school. This might sound strict, but Lisa says it’s actually about making students feel more secure.

“Whatever’s going on in their lives, when they come into school, they know what to expect,” she explains. “It’s predictable, so they can feel safe to learn. The cognitive load is reduced because it becomes automated – students just know this is how we operate at Rosebud.”

Rather than feeling limited by a prescribed approach to classroom conduct, she says teachers have also found that having an explicit set of expectations for students has reduced their stress levels.

“If I put my student lens on, we’re getting more teaching time, and the kids feel safer,” Lisa says. “If I put my principal lens on, I’ve got a staff with improved wellbeing, who are now feeling more supported. Because of the coaching we’ve given them, they are able to teach three or four weeks ahead of where they were in the curriculum during the last couple of years.”

“Obviously, you can’t cure every impairment. But you can remove barriers so someone with an impairment can participate fully on the same basis as their peers.”

Robert Last

Removing barriers

While Rosebud has had remarkable success by standardising expectations, over at Western Port Secondary College, inclusion learning specialist Robert Last has developed a program that is more about customising the classroom environment for students with specific needs.

Students who access the Elevate program have generally been disengaged from school for a while but are keen to return. After being inducted into the program, they attend between two and 12 contact hours a week and are given space and time to increase attendance up to the full 25 hours.

For Robert, the program is about removing obstacles to education. “It’s informed by a social model of disability where you proactively remove barriers. Obviously, you can’t cure every impairment. But you can remove barriers so someone with an impairment can participate fully on the same basis as their non-disabled peers.”

Elevate aims to make the transition as personalised and painless as possible. “For the first hour of the day, we run independent learning sessions, where every student works through an individual learning plan that they’ve co-created with teachers in the program,” Robert explains.

“That highlights any skill gaps through the lens of their individual interest areas. For the other two hours of the day, we run a literacy session and a numeracy session to plug up any gaps that exist in those areas, but also to align their learning with the curriculum.”

While the hours are reduced, the commitment to the curriculum is not. “We teach the curriculum grade standards. We know from all the research that a culture of presumed competence is beneficial to students who are currently performing below expected grade level. And we believe that positive connection to learning will boost engagement and connection to school.”

Removing individual barriers to education can be surprisingly straightforward. Robert gives the example of a student with sensory issues, who struggled to feel comfortable in a mainstream classroom. He was initially educated in an outreach program but was referred to Elevate because he wanted to spend more time at school.

“This kid needed deep sensory experiences, like scratching into things. That had caused a lot of conflict for him because he was scratching things absentmindedly in classrooms. The answer there was as simple as putting a piece of wood next to him.”

These small tweaks can have a broader impact on engagement in the classroom. Robert says a couple of other students have since requested their own piece of wood, which teachers have been happy to provide as part of the program’s inclusive approach. They also work with the mainstream teachers to help them change their practices to be similarly inclusive.

“We want to make sure that when our students are transitioning back into a mainstream setting, they’re going back into an inclusive education. We’re constantly trying to erase the need for our program.”

“We had to go back to some fundamentals about building relationships and building trust.”

Robert Pyers

Bringing in the community

Creating an inclusive education environment can involve thinking beyond student needs to those of the families and the communities that surround them. Robert Pyers, principal at Horsham Secondary College, says that engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students has meant working to change broader community perceptions of schooling.

“For us, it’s about engaging parents and bringing them into the conversation. One of the things we had to acknowledge as a school is that a number of our Indigenous families didn’t have a great school experience. So, we had to go back to some fundamentals about building relationships and building trust.”

One way of doing this has been to host large family events away from the school grounds, so families can more easily put faces to names and start to view the college as an important part of the town’s community.

“We always have food at the event, be it ten pin bowling, swimming or a barbecue in a park. It’s really about trying to build a social relationship, and a level of trust and understanding that we’re all learning together,” says Robert.

Key to that shared understanding is a willingness to learn. “The only way forward for a school in engaging the community is actually understanding what you don’t know. That means making yourself vulnerable and being prepared to learn. I would, without hesitation, say I’ve become a much better principal since this became a strong focus for us as a school. I’m a better person for the interaction that I’ve had and what I’ve learned.”

The process of reconciliation isn’t always easy, but it has allowed the school to reshape its relationship with the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. “I’ve had a member of the community say to me that it made such a difference to them walking into the office and being greeted by a face that they knew. It meant they were no longer concerned about how the issue they were there to raise was going to be dealt with.”

If there is one constant in the differing approaches taken by Horsham, Western Port, and Rosebud, it’s that reengaging disengaged students should not come at the cost of academic progress. In the ten years since Robert arrived at Horsham, the college has changed from being a school in “significant distress” to one with a 33 average study score last year and a 100% completion rate. He puts the boost in student achievement down to increased trust in the school from the parents.

“Something which resonated very early on was a parent saying that they expected me to have high expectations of their child, whatever their background,” Robert says.

“You can acknowledge the fact that there are some really significant challenges in some of our students’ lives, but that should never stop a government school from having the highest expectations of the impact that we can have.”

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