Long-term vision helps get students back in the classroom

Punchbowl Boys High has been working hard to get students back to school after several COVID-affected years. Glenn Cullen reports.

Students and a teacher pose for a photo holding tickets to a football game. Students and a teacher pose for a photo holding tickets to a football game.
Image: Punchbowl Boys High Relieving Principal Robert Patruno with some of his students. The school has introduced a reward system for students who maintain good attendance, which includes football tickets, excursions and camps.

With COVID-19 leaving a big mark on Sydney’s southwest in 2022, the lure of ongoing paid work for some students at Punchbowl Boys High School seemed like a sweet deal.

Construction was one of the few industries to remain operating during that time and given the labour shortage and an inability to call upon overseas workers, opportunities for work abounded.

“A lot of our boys were given workplace opportunities during that 16-week COVID break, especially in the building industry,” Punchbowl Boys High School Relieving Principal Robert Patruno said.

“Our challenge was to re-engage them after that and get them back.”

With students as young as 14 able to earn $200 a day, it was no mean feat to win them over again – particularly following a pandemic that left many in the community confused and disaffected.

But Mr Patruno was determined to communicate a message to students and their families that a short-term financial boost should not replace the long-term benefits of education.

And it appears to have resonated, with attendance at the school of 470 boys continuing to climb.

Second term data from 2023 shows the current attendance rate is 76.7 per cent (up from 71.8 per cent at the same time in 2022), while 46.4 per cent of students are now attending school 90 per cent or more of the time (up significantly from 21.6 per cent at the same time last year).

“We had to reconnect with families. We looked at our attendance data and broke kids up into various groups in terms of risk,” Mr Patruno said.

“For our most at-risk families, we would immediately engage the families.”

Mr Patruno said the ball was already rolling during the initial COVID period, when the school made hundreds of check-in calls, working with parents during the 16-week hiatus from classroom learning.

“At that time parents got a really strong understanding that we were there for the benefit of their kids,” he said.

“We were promoting that long-term vision instead of that short term gain, which a lot of them were motivated towards.”

After the return to classroom learning, further measures were put in place.

For students attending school less than 75 per cent of the time, it meant immediate intervention from the head teacher wellbeing, while for those in the 75-85 per cent bracket, there were conversations with the year advisor.

There are also regular meetings to tackle the issue and modified learning programs to help re-engage students.

A reward system that includes football tickets, excursions and camps has provided further incentive for students, encouraging them to be at school at least 90 per cent of the time.

The school is now among the top 25 in the state when it comes to improved attendance figures over the past 12 months.

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