From little things, big things grow

Campbelltown Performing Arts High School has lifted attendance 11% in one term, and the key lies in small, consistent changes. Olivia Grey reports.

Image: Building engagement: Students from the Haka Warriors program

Like most schools across the state, COVID-19 impacted attendance rates at Campbelltown Performing Arts High School, on Dharawal land in south-western Sydney. Students had become used to learning from home, and for some, priorities shifted to things other than school.

Enter Deputy Principal Jo Leighton and the wider staff community, who were ready to make changes to encourage students back to school to ensure they did not miss out on vital learning time.

“Fractional truancy was a significant issue at our school. We noticed students missing days here or there, but what they didn’t realise was the significant time this can take away from learning,” Ms Leighton said.

“One of the key strategies we’ve implemented is ensuring students are aware that the days, hours and minutes they miss can add up significantly. Missing just one day a week can add up to 2.5 years of lost learning over their school life.

“Providing students with the bigger picture understanding of what this means for their education has made a really positive difference so far.”

Attendance is a long-term focus at CPAHS, with the entire staff community working towards the same goal. Staff work together to provide consistent messaging about the importance of regularly attending school to their students and ensure they work it into conversations often.

“An example of the way we’ve streamlined our communication with students on attendance is by all staff using the same language when addressing potential truancy,” Ms Leighton said.

That can mean something as simple as saying ‘where should you be?’ to students who may not be in the right place at the right time, and, according to Ms Leighton, the results have been promising so far.

“When we keep the communication consistent across the school, we ensure all staff members are sharing the same message. The wording we use allows kids to self-reflect and redirect their behaviour, so they are given the opportunity to make good choices long term,” Ms Leighton said.

“We also use assemblies and meetings as opportunities to address attendance. Regular, bite-sized reminders really drive the message home for our students.”

Community outreach and engagement has also been a gamechanger at the school, with a dedicated Attendance and Engagement Officer and Community Liaison Officers working with groups on a more personal level to support them to attend school regularly.

“Engaging the different communities at our school on a more individual level has been really effective so far. Great examples of impactful community liaison projects are our school’s participation in the Haka Warriors and Ohana program. These programs help connect our young people with their culture and has been incredibly successful,” she said.

“Offering this to our students means that they had something at school that was important to them and, in turn, encouraged them to attend school more regularly and engage better overall.”

The group that participated in the Haka Warriors program, a Blacktown PCYC initiative, spent time writing and practicing their own cultural performance and a compulsory Haka each week before performing with 15 other schools at the PCYC Haka Warriors Competition Day at Rooty Hill.

Not only did the program encourage attendance, engagement and positive relationships, but many students also found a new talent with CPAHS being awarded most outstanding Tongan performance and overall most outstanding school.

Another vital piece of the puzzle is the school’s focus on the wellbeing of all students.

“Wellbeing underpins all aspects of school. It impacts on learning, socialising and of course, attendance. If a student’s wellbeing needs aren’t met, they won’t be able to engage in learning, so we’ve been prioritising wellbeing across the board for all students,” Ms Leighton said.

Staff across the school have worked to create a safe and supportive learning environment for all students where they are known, valued and cared for. Through an extensive process of consultation and collaboration, core values that foster positive learning and excellence were identified. As a result, the RISE (respect, integrity, safety and engagement) Value’s Platform was developed, which underpins the approach to wellbeing across the school.

“We have developed a suite of bespoke lessons that focus on each of the values and have specific links to prosocial behaviours to facilitate and support student learning,” Ms Leighton said.

“Students also participate in engagement days regularly to connect with each other and staff during lunch times. This has fostered respectful relationships, student voice and provides students with a sense of belonging. This planned approach drives wellbeing and engagement to improve student learning at CPAHS.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve undertaken, and how receptive and engaged our students are, and I’m really looking forward to our progress continuing.”

Find out more: Every Day Matters

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