Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Schools within schools

Over the last five years that I have been teaching at Hagley College I have been lucky to have been heavily involved in setting up and running two "Schools within Schools". These were both developed to improve student retention, engagement, learning and achievement.

My first project was the School of Music. Hagley was already running fulltime schools of Fashion, Dance, Cuisine, Early Childhood and the Theatre Company so it wasn't a totally new idea, but these were mainly aimed at students who had finished school and were looking for the next step, whereas the School of Music was to be based at Year 12, then hopefully following on to Year 13 the next year if it was successful. The School of Music was intended to be a separate, self-contained community with a unique ethos, organisation and a distinct curriculum with qualifications based around a student’s passion or interest, and grounded in their world.

The course was designed to cover numeracy at NCEA Level 1, if students did not have it already, and literacy in the form of English and History at Level 2. However, it was with a difference, all of these
were to be taught with music as the basis. Mathematics using tasks such as your budget for your CD or tour, or dimensions of drums relative to pitch - all things that were relevant to music students. English and History covered songwriting, protest songs, large musical events and biographies of musicians as well as music research topics. We were lucky enough to have staff at school in those departments who were also keen musicians and were motivated to give this idea a go. A lot of work went into designing these tasks and assessments and the staff have done an amazing job.

The students have 12-16 hours of music each week, as well as 4-8 of Literacy and Numeracy. The music time is split between 4 music staff who all have their own area of expertise. The students get the benefit of a range of teaching and knowledge and feel they are part of a family, even to the extent of me having been called Mum a few times. Students are given instruction on the work required then
work as individuals at their own pace. Students can be working on a range of standards at any one
time and have the flexibility to work in depth on one then return to another at a later date. A general pattern is followed but most students are flexible in the order in which they finish work.The teacher sometimes acts as an advisor, sometimes a facilitator and sometimes we have transmission based learning.
Not often are staff in front of the class as a whole and when we are it is only for a short time to impart information on how to start the next unit of work, or on a specific piece of knowledge we need to get across.

One of the strengths of the course has been the pastoral care and the communication with home. All students are interviewed with their parents before they start the course and parents are kept informed of all events and notices via email. We have been very clear to parents, who are a big part of our community, that taking the School of Music narrows students tremendously. The feedback we have had is that students and their parents feel that if it had not been for the School of Music, the students would have left school, or been very unhappy.

These are students who live only for their music and struggle with anything else. It is amazing how they manage to achieve Literacy and Numeracy, when in some cases, they have been told they are not capable of doing so.

This went on to Level 3 in it's second year and we are, 4 years on, in a good place to enable our students to gain UE, NCEA Level 2 and 3 and a National Certificate in Music over the 2 years they study with us. The majority go on to tertiary study and those that don't are helped into the workforce, generally with a music focus.

My next project was the School of Apps. This started up just this year so is still in it's early stage of development. The idea for this was thought up by Brent Ingram and Andy Gorton when they were at a conference in 2014. There were many seminars and discussions there about needing more creative skills, especially around digital technology. When they came back to school a small group of us then took the idea and worked out how we could combine it with the School within School idea. Andy and I then worked on the content and I am now teaching this course for 14 hours a week (and teaching the other 6 hours in the School of Music).

The School of Apps is aimed at Yr 13 students who are keen on developing apps and have creative ideas. The idea is to study, design and create mobile apps within a business environment. It is based on 5 guiding principles:

  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Self-Management
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
The students work on projects both as an individual and in groups using these 5 principles. We use Scrum which is an Agile Project Management framework which enables us to have good teamwork and a structure for projects.The students also do English, through their report writing, and Business Studies, working on marketing their apps.

The outcome is for the students to have a portfolio of skills and designed apps, as well as the opportunity to gain Level 3 NCEA and UE if they wish to. This year, the students have ranged from age 17 to 70ish and not all have wanted NCEA credits.

We have the most amazing work environment in which students feel very comfortable and are keen to be in all day.
As this is the first year, I am still in the learning process and I know I will be changing things for next year to make it even more responsive to student needs. I have been continually reviewing the course and am looking forward to 2016.

I am a strong believer in the Schools within Schools idea. I have seen the change it has made to people's lives. So many students have been re-engaged with learning and are now fully focused and enjoying school. What more could you ask for?

This blog is also posted on the Christchurch Connected Educators site http://chched.blogspot.co.nz/

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