Golden Sands School

Key points

  • Use of their vision to develop a learning community
  • Focus on mentoring and developing leadership across the school
  • Ongoing experimentation with flexible learning spaces (FLSs)
  • Rich-task curriculum improves outcomes in mathematics

Introduction

Golden Sands School opened in 2011 with a roll of 83 students, which has since grown to more than 500. The learning spaces are all modern, open-plan and flexible.

The board and the principal established the initial vision for the school. In 2013 it was revised in consultation with the community and in 2014 it was confirmed. It now drives everything that happens in the school.

The school chose te rito o te harakeke (the heart of the flax bush) as a metaphor for their vision and as their logo. They explain the logo in this way:

‘The heart of the flax bush is where the new life grows, supported by the adult leaves.

The notches in one of the leaves represent the values of the school, to be proud:

  • Proactive
  • Respectful
  • Open
  • Understanding
  • Dependable.’

This is an image of the school logo it is on a purple background and a yellow symbol

Once the vision statement was confirmed, the school employed an external facilitator to lead the staff through a detailed visioning process. Together they chose an image to represent the school vision, and icons for four ‘critical success factors’:

  • hope and inspiration,
  • together united,
  • [a] holistic approach to growth
  • the heart of the community.

Staff created stories to explain the factors and their icons and they developed a specific goal for each. These goals informed the strategic goals found in the charter.

School leaders also reviewed plans for stage two of the building programme, making refinements to better meet the needs of their students. They based these on their experience of working in the first-completed buildings.

For much of 2016–17 the school was in a state of continual change, with a significant number of new staff appointments, a rapidly growing roll, and turnover in the board of trustees.

The vision is the glue that holds it all together.

- Principal

The focus is kept on the vision statement and values at professional learning and development (PLD) sessions, where teachers share stories about what the critical success factors look like in their classrooms, and at teacher-only days where they refine goals and action plans. It is by regularly revisiting the success factors that teachers become increasingly confident to bring them to life in everyday practice.

System changes

School leaders know that the relationships that staff members have with students, each other, and parents and whānau are important and need to be carefully nurtured. Because every staff member must model the values it is vital that they are supported to build trusting relationships with their team.

Rock stars don’t translate so well to collaborative environments. We don’t want stars - we want a galaxy.

- Principal

Rapid roll growth has necessitated the appointment of additional teachers. Leaders have thought carefully about the attributes they need and look for these when considering applicants. In line with the school’s vision, new teachers are expected to be open-minded, flexible, risk takers, prepared to work collaboratively, and to have high levels of professional accountability.

Appointment processes are designed to explore whether applicants will be a good fit with the school’s vision. For example, they are asked to present their view of a ‘dream school’. They are also required to deliver a sample lesson to a large group of students and then reflect on how it went.

The principal meets with each leader each term and with each teacher each year. This helps cement relationships. It also provides an opportunity for the principal to identify successes, ambitions and where support may be needed.

It is important to know what is happening on the ground. The culture of the school can slide very quickly.

- Principal

PLD is a high-priority item in the board’s budget because it is seen as important for realising the school’s vision. PLD is focused on co-teaching, modelling, providing feedback, doing observations and connecting theory to practice.

Given the rapid roll growth, leaders are very conscious of how they induct newcomers, whether teachers or students and their families. Newcomers must buy into the school’s vision and ethos if they want to join a learning partnership and succeed, and if the school is to sustain its principles in the long-term.

Leaders note that students who are new to the school, even those who come with a record of poor behaviour, quickly settle into the proud culture.

Organisational frameworks support learning

The school has a culture that encourages learning for teachers and leaders as well as for students. Teachers have time specifically allocated for their own learning.

The timetable is sufficiently flexible to support effective teaching and learning in the school’s FLSs. While there are still challenges (for example, the scheduling of specialist classes), the timetable is constantly under review and improvements are always being made.

School-wide organisation can help or hinder development for teachers and as leaders we need to be very deliberate about our actions.

- School leaders

The school’s operational frameworks are enabling rather than restrictive. They provide clear parameters for teachers but they are not prescriptive. Everyone knows what is expected and why. Within these parameters teachers plan how to best meet the needs of their students.

Children sitting at tables working

Students at Golden Sands School are trusted to choose where they will work, and with whom.

Equipped with FLSs, the school is continually considering how best to use these in response to student needs. The principal says that, particularly with the ongoing influx of new staff, how the teaching spaces are used changes every year. 

Teachers plan and teach collaboratively. They provide opportunities for students to exercise a level of choice and develop agency, but also tight underpinning structures that ensure they stay on task.

The school has one Chromebook or iPad available for every three students. Though students are often fluent users, staff teach them how to use particular apps for particular purposes. Digital devices are excellent tools for carrying out many types of task, for example, geographical modelling, but leaders view them as a means not an end, and students are free to choose whichever tool they prefer, which may or may not be digital.

Change management

Developing a vision focused the school community and generated a sense of urgency.

Teachers were motivated by the challenge of visualising what the school would look and feel like when the vision was realised. In the early days staff would regularly share how the vision and the success factors were finding expression in their classrooms. Such activities helped staff to understand and commit to the vision.

Decisions that affect the wider school are always informed by theory and referenced to the vision. Progress is measured against the four success factors. Student, teacher and community voice is sought as part of evaluation processes and to inform change.

School leaders appreciate that major change is demanding for teachers. They are aware of the stages people can go through when confronted with new circumstances or expectations and support staff to successfully make the changes that have been asked of them. Leaders know they must understand their teachers, what is happening for them, what is worrying them, and what they are excited about. They have also found it important to engage with family and whānau who are new to the school and may expect a more traditional approach.

Leaders have established a clear, experiential learning cycle to help them and the staff understand and systematically effect improvement:

  1. Act What happened?
  2. Reflect What did I experience?
  3. Conceptualise Why did this happen?
  4. Apply What will I do?

Teachers use digital portfolios to record reflections about their professional practice and use these to inform their inquiry processes and provide evidence for appraisal.

Curriculum and pedagogy

Minimise distractions so teachers can focus on one area of improvement.

- School leaders

Teacher collaboration

Teachers operate in learning teams. Each team uses a data wall in their planning area to monitor student progress. Assessment practices have been refined over the last two years to ensure that teachers collect meaningful data that is both useful and used. Data is analysed for trends, to identify student needs, and to inform planning. Teachers say they are actually spending less time on planning now, even as outcomes for students have improved. Teams feel a shared sense of pride when targeted students accelerate their progress.

Rigorous professional discussions lead to increased learning opportunities for students and groups of students besides being a valuable source of learning for teachers, especially those who are provisionally certificated. Learning-focused professional discussions reinforce a culture of continual improvement.

Leaders recognise there is a risk that collaboration will spread bad practice. This risk is mitigated by PLD, which spreads good practice, and by sound accountability processes. Furthermore, teaching in collaborative environments is like living in a goldfish bowl – practice is public. This makes teachers accountable to each other as well as through formal appraisal processes.

A curriculum inquiry team supports improvement across the school by trialling new approaches, developing the school-wide inquiry model, and implementing an effective teacher inquiry matrix.

Developing capability and capacity across the school

Responsibility for teaching practice (curriculum and pedagogy) is delegated to a deputy principal, who often co-teaches as a means of supporting improvement. Teachers who are unsure how to develop a skill or target a learning need can ask the deputy principal to work with them to build their confidence. The deputy principal supports them by modelling and coaching.

School leaders also support staff development by mentoring those who are new to or aspire to leadership roles. Mentoring focuses particularly on how to have difficult conversations without damaging relationships. 

The board makes provision for specialist teachers to act as coaches and mentors. A specialist e‑learning teacher is released part time to support the system and teachers’ use of information technology. A specialist teacher of te reo Māori is released part time to build the knowledge and capabilities of colleagues. Parents value that teachers are increasingly able to respond to Māori students in culturally appropriate ways and to make classrooms more bicultural.

Student outcomes

Improving achievement in mathematics

A strong focus on mathematics has improved teacher practice and student achievement. Teachers’ goals and inquiries align with this focus, and the school has developed a matrix setting out what effective mathematics teaching looks like.

The school has specific targets for improvement in mathematics. These build on the previous year, when teachers designed a rich-task curriculum for mathematics. Board resourcing and the use of an external provider support the achievement of the targets. The provider models expert teaching; teachers then reflect on the provider’s practice using the same effective teaching matrix they use to critique their own practice.

Students have a rubric to help them evaluate progress on their rich mathematics tasks. Their timetable book, modelling book and PROUD notebook are other tools that support them to manage their learning and to identify when they need assistance. Teachers actively teach various groups and carefully monitor the notebooks, responding appropriately to requests and identified needs. Observations and feedback from their colleagues help hone the effectiveness of teaching practice.

These systems develop teacher capability to support students’ learning and their growth as independent learners.

Ongoing evaluation and improvement

School leaders evaluate the impact of initiatives, such as improving achievement in mathematics. Given the success of the mathematics initiative they are now extending a similar approach to other curriculum areas.

Students are accustomed to using rubrics in all their learning. They break down rich tasks, evaluate their progress and determine next steps. The principal notes that students have become increasingly able to articulate what they are learning and identify what helps them to learn. Consequently, student voice is an important source of information used in evaluating the impact of teaching practice.

Comments from parents

My daughter loves the range of teachers, gets bored with one teacher all the time, she’s more excited, more interested.

[They] don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – my child is introverted and they keep a close eye on her as she struggles with the distractions – she needs the break out and quiet work spaces.