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Executive Perspective                Page 40

 

Admiring Qualities of Schools Down Under

BY DANIEL A. DOMENECH


 Daniel Domenech

The 2014-15 AASA International Seminar, under the auspices of the People to People Ambassador Program, took us to Australia and New Zealand. Both countries have a reputation for quality education, and the participants, including AASA President David Pennington and Past President Amy Sichel, were eager to experience whether the hype was deserved.

 

The Australian government provides funding for all of its schools, be they public or private. We visited with Judith Poole, headmistress of the Abbotsleigh School, an independent Anglican girls’ school serving 1,400 students preschool to grade 12. Poole comes from New Jersey, but she traveled to Australia 18 years ago with her husband and they remained. Today she runs what is undoubtedly one of the best schools in the country.

The Abbotsleigh School charges a tuition ranging from $18,000 at the elementary grades to $30,000 for the high school years. That income is supplemented by some $4,500 per pupil received from the Australian government.

Research-Backed Ideas

Australia has a national curriculum, and all schools are obliged to follow it, including Abbotsleigh. But the school is blessed with ample resources and the ability to pay teachers a handsome salary and thereby attract and retain a highly talented staff. The school even boasts the services of a full-time director of research and innovative programs.

We were impressed with Katherine Hoekman, who fills that unusual school role. She shared with us that, although Australia has a reputation for their early advances in digital learning, no technology in Abbotsleigh makes it into the classroom unless it has demonstrated the ability to positively affect student learning. She has found, as often as not, technology can be as much of an impediment to learning as a beneficial resource: a valuable bit of information to educators everywhere looking to make the digital leap.

The Australians also are into school choice, so students have the opportunity to attend any school they select. The government provides a travel card granting free transportation to the school of their choice. Of course, admission to the better schools is highly competitive, and admission to a school such as Abbotsleigh requires a wealth that most students’ families do not have.

Choice and the federal funding of private schools have resulted in a precipitous drop in public school enrollment. Whereas not long ago that enrollment had been 87 percent, public school rolls today are down to 67 percent. To the chagrin of John Tuttle, incoming president of the National School Boards Association who was with us on the trip, we also discovered that there are no school boards in Australia.

Flexible Learning

Switch to New Zealand, one of the most decentralized school systems in the world. This is a country where every school has a school board made up of five parents elected by the community, the principal, a teacher and a student. The principal rules supreme with no central authority in oversight. There are no superintendents or their equivalent in New Zealand.

We visited with Carolyn Marino, principal of the Westmere School in Auckland, who has total control of the school. Yes, there is a national curriculum, but that is about as far as external interference goes. Marino admits she loves the freedom and flexibility she has in operating her school. She also happens to run a great school. It is basically a nongraded, multiaged, ability-grouped school with team teaching.

In New Zealand, children start school at age 5, exactly. They begin school on their birthday, whenever it happens to fall. That means that throughout the year (the school year follows the calendar year), when a child turns 5, that becomes their first day of school. Imagine the difficulty of planning for that when you have no idea of how many children you will have on any given day.

Marino handles it well because when a child arrives at Westmere, he or she is assessed and immediately grouped with students of equal ability level, regardless of age. There are no classrooms at Westmere. There are studios that incorporate at least the equivalent of two of our classrooms where the students mill about doing independent and group work under the watchful eyes of the team of teachers responsible for their instruction. No desks as we know them, but tables and chairs and beanbags and nooks and crannies. It is a learning environment that very much resembles the model of personalized learning we strive for in America. If only we could have taken Carolyn back with us.


Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org. Twitter: @AASADan

 

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