Winter 2005 Newsletter
Australian Educators Intend to Build
A "Community Campus" Based On NSBN Principles
As in so many areas, Southern California's movement toward schools as the centers of communities is being looked at with interest from around the world. In this panel interview, David Hinton, the principal of Wodonga South Primary School in the State of Victoria in Australia, and assistant principals Jody Grimmond and Ross Sceriha talk about their recent trip to the U.S. as part of their effort to build a new community campus that meets multiple community needs and better serves Wodonga families.
Welcome to Southern California. What has brought you to the United States? What is your mission?
David Hinton: Our mission is to explore in greater detail the "community school" movement. Our current school facility is a very traditionally-designed school in a landlocked neighborhood. We are planning to relocate to a brandnew site, giving us an incredible opportunity. In Victoria, a new school is allowed to create its own facility design, which gives us a great deal of freedom. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our school community, and we want to make sure that we design a facility that not only meets the educational, social, and emotional needs of the children, but also those of their families and of the community at large.
Therefore, we are exploring having community services located in and around the school site. We are looking at the concept of what we call a "community campus" - a facility that is open from early in the morning to late at night, 365 days of the year. There are not a great number of community campuses in the Australian educational landscape, but the federal government and state governments throughout Australia are now seeing the great opportunity of this concept. They are therefore encouraging schools to develop partnerships with their local councils to look at joint facilities and effective use of taxpayer money.
We are here in the U.S. to investigate a number of community schools. In particular, we are attending the National Community Education Association's conference in San Diego to listen to a wide variety of speakers on a range of community school issues.
You shared that you found information about NSBN during your research into the community schools movement. What about the NSBN planning model attracted your interest?
Jody Grimmond: The goals of NSBN are in line with the questions for which we want to find answers, such as: What is the best process for us to work through? How can partnerships be established and relationships developed between schools and community agencies? Where do we start, and how do we make it happen?
Our own school goals are also very much in line with NSBN's mission statement. We think that your experience could guide us through a proactive and positive approach.
Ross, you have been at the Wodonga Primary School for ten years. What changes are needed, and how is change looked upon by other state schools and independent schools in your community?
Ross Sceriha: It often seems to just be the "same old story" in our part of the world, but I think that there are a lot of opportunities we could be taking advantage of. Other schools are watching us with great interest, because we are using new concepts. So far, we have seen a lot of interesting things in the United States. When we get back to Wodonga, our colleagues will be very inclined to hear what we have learned.
The trick, though, will be to develop something for Wodonga that involves all of the stakeholders. At the moment, everyone works in their own empires. Linking to the other educational institutions in Wodonga will be the key to making it work.
DH: Probably the biggest driver of change for us is the changing nature of families, and so the shift in the issues that we have to deal with in a school environment. By that, I mean the issues of single-parent families and families that have no breadwinners and are on the welfare system. We are starting to see a whole range of basic welfare issues that have been thrust upon the schools. To some extent, the community looks upon the school as the one social institution that can intervene and can help. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the case because we don't have the resources or the expertise.
The issue really is that schools are the centers of the community. That is an undeniable fact. Therefore, schools are in a really powerful position to assist and support families and the wider community. A growing trend that I see in education in Australia is the acknowledgement that schools have a huge impact - socially and emotionally - on the welfare of students, but more importantly with families. Therefore, it makes logical sense that we look at building a new school that has extra facilities to support the community.
How have your educational colleagues reacted to the idea of a community campus, which typically requires a larger investment and more planning?
DH: Educators and government officials have realized that building a new school is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. People want the best school facilities, and our government encourages schools to form partnerships with community organizations and in particular the municipal councils. If we can demonstrate that we have made genuine partnerships, the government will provide extra state and federal funds. The upshot of that is that we will be in a position to build better facilities, and that is very easy to sell to school communities.
JG: The social profile of Wodonga has changed quite drastically over the past 10 to 15 years, and so the Wodonga City Council was challenged. They had done quite a lot of data gathering and analyzing about service provision. So, they definitely knew of the needs that could be met by the sort of school we are proposing. There was sort of an instant synergy with the City Council about the community's needs and common goals.
Our experience here in the U.S. has been that public agencies typically function within their silos rather efficiently, but most shy away from the notion of working collaboratively with outside parties. Is this the situation in Australia? How might your community campus jointuse goals convince more communities in Victoria to adopt such a model?
DH: That is one of the greatest challenges that we face. Community support services in Wodonga function beautifully, but they are very territorial and operate under a whole range of separate funding models. It actually detracts from their efficiency. We believe that, by co-locating a number of services at one site and under one community vision, we can get greater efficiencies of service delivery. Hopefully, we will also see some watering down of very restrictive financial accountability systems, to allow greater flexibility so that we will be more connected and supportive of real community needs.
To accomplish these goals, you musthave some champions at the state and federal levels. Who are your champions in Victoria?
DH: The minister of education has, on a number of occasions, publicly advocated that there must be closer connections between schools and local communities. She has been a champion of that cause in terms of providing funds for those school communities that come up with innovative designs, models, and delivery of education that really develop community connectedness.
JG: There is a blueprint document that was released by the state government, which sets the agenda for the future of education in Victoria. A very strong element of that blueprint is the idea of including service to the community not only in the physical setup of schools, but also within the curriculum. So, it goes all the way to a culture within the school of partnership with the community.
What do you say to those at home, or to those you meet during your US trip, who say that they have enough problems just doing their jobs, so why should they take on the added responsibilities of planing & engaging with the larger community and other public institutions?
RS: We are aiming to work smarter not harder, and we are hoping that the synergies created in this project will make it more exciting work. We will be working harder, there is no doubt, but it is exciting what we can achieve for our students. Hopefully, this will become a model for the whole State of Victoria. We know that our colleagues, from the local schools right through the Minister of Education, will be looking closely at how our project unfolds.
Is it your intention to draw new students to your school by offering this better, more comprehensive model?
DH: No, actually, we are not looking for growth. Our school population is around 480 currently, but it is projected to grow to about 560 to 600 within the next two years, and we believe that is big enough. Some of the research we have read about enrollment size says that 450 to 500 pupils is optimal. We are a family, most of the staff know most of the children, and we would hate to lose the connectedness and the family atmosphere that we so vigorously promote within our school.
People in Australia, Canada, and England, as well as in California, are seeing a movement toward early education and preschool, and integrating that into their K-12 school systems. Is this true for Austrialia, as well?
RS: The Wodonga Council has the responsibility for 0-5 education, and they have been looking at quite a number of programs, particularly the Sure Start Program in the United Kingdom. School doesn't just start at five years of age, and a lot of social values and patterns are established well before children get to school. So, it is very important that the community invests in facilities and support structures to assist young families and ensure that children have a healthy start. Our school council is heavily involved in that discussion. The Wodonga Council has undertaken a research project with young families, and the number-one thing that families have said is that they want maternal health and related services located at one location. The one spot that is the common link for families is at the school. So, we are working with the council to look at what facilities and services we can provide for families with young children.
JG: Now that we have raised this agenda in our city, other schools around us are suddenly jumping on the bandwagon and looking at how they can take on the same sort of effort. They are not looking to build new facilities, but are asking how they can incorporate preschools on their existing sites.
Lastly, now that you have learned about the NSBN model, how has it helped you to get a better idea of the challenges and opportunities involved in planning a community school?
RS: After talking with the NSBN staff, I think that the biggest challenge we face is the need for a holistic overview. That worries me a little bit, because the organizational aspects and some of the low-level decisions could become the stumbling blocks. We probably need an overview from an organization or individual without a foot in either camp.
It will also be a challenge for our group to create a climate of trust, so that we don't perceive each other as competitors but instead promote the good of the whole.
DH: The biggest benefit for me has been confirmation that our vision and concept are not isolated, but are shared by many western countries in terms of the provision of education, the development of social capital and the development of healthy communities. So, I have had what I already firmly believed in reinforced. I have been interested in the processes that NSBN has used to develop their projects, and it is fascinating to look at the design features that have been incorporated to accommodate a wide variety of community needs.
JG: This experience has certainly consolidated everything that we had thought, and it has been a positive reinforcement that we are on the right track. We want this to be something that lasts, so that in the future people will come to our school and agree that we went about it the right way. This trip is an investment in that success and in our future.