Education case study - Dandenong High School

September 04, 2017

There are so many people working hard to progress the Shepparton Education Plan - from educators, to students and parents, to community members and industry experts - and it was so good to get the "What We Heard" report on Friday from the first round of consultations with the community.

One of the really encouraging things about the community feedback was that it aligned so well with the work that the the local Strategic Advisory Committee had also been undertaking.  

We wanted to get a clear picture of what educational success for our region would look like and the overwhelming message was that all children and young people should have a positive future and our families, schools and community will help them get there through learning and caring.

In my last blog I talked about our visits to Bendigo Senior Secondary College and to Templestowe College and the different educational models adopted in each of the schools.

We have also visited Dandenong High School - and that's the focus of today's blog entry.

Dandenong High School is located in a low socio-economic area on the eastern fringe of Melbourne and has a significant multicultural population with quite a transitory population.  A quarter of the children are from refugee backgrounds and a number of them are unaccompanied minors. They often only remain at the school for a short period of time before moving to Melbourne’s growth corridors to live and work.

In 2009, the school initiated a regeneration project and came together with Doveton Secondary College and Cleveland Secondary College.  These three schools had significantly different cultures and had not been invested in for years and, as a consequence, the student and teachers did not feel valued.

As the schools joined together, they enlisted critical friends and advisers – some of whom travelled overseas to look at potential models – and received funding for a new school on the site of the old Dandenong High School.

In August, a delegation from Shepparton met with associate principal Katie Watmough, who enthusiastically told us how the school’s fortunes were turned around.

The model that was chosen is called Schools Within Schools (SWIS). This means that with a student population of approximately 2000 children, the school is divided into seven houses of about 300 students each, with approximately 50 students in each year level. 

Each house has its own principal, student coordinator, house administration officer and a range of other supports. There are 25 teachers per house and most learning is undertaken in open-plan settings with three teachers to each group in Years 7 to 9. As the students move into more selective subject areas this teaching configuration changes, but their house structure is the pivotal point in their day, week, and year and indeed their school life.

Building on this model, Katie told us the school is intent on operating on the notions of tradition and innovation. It has one of the most expansive VCE curriculums in Victoria and has a strong and integrated VCAL program, as well as a VET program with a trade centre called The Dream Centre.

What is important to highlight is that the transformation of this school was not just about new buildings but about extraordinary teacher support and development, an entirely new vision for education within the school and a focus on positive education where students have strong relationships with their teachers.

There is a commitment to consistency across the school and there are critical curriculum leaders who play an important role.

I was particularly interested to understand how the school dealt with gifted children and those with needs requiring more intensive support. There is a SEAL program for accelerated learning for children within that category.

In addition to the main school site, Dandenong High School also has three alternative settings.

Myuna Farm offers a 12-week program aimed at improving students’ emotional intelligence and is designed to support children who are not achieving success at school and are displaying behaviours that are symptomatic of poor relationship skills, low self-esteem, lack of responsibility or poor anger management.

The second setting is called Operation New Start and is for much more disengaged students. Operation New Start offers an innovative outdoors/adventure-based intervention program for students deemed to be at significant educational risk.  

The Trade Centre is the third alternative setting, where a learning support team with 13 teaching aids is available to help students experience a taste of vocational trades, from hairdressing and beauty therapy to engineering and manufacturing.

I was accompanied on many of these visits by our four secondary school principals as well as other staff and Strategic Advisory Committee members and I have found these trips very informative and useful.

In addition to these visits, we also have highly experienced educators and experts engaging in work on the plan who have both local and international expertise.

Now that the first round of community consultation has been completed, a number of options will soon be put to the community in a further round of consultations shortly.

Check out my Facebook Page or sign up here for updates on how you can continue to have your say, and keep an eye out for my next blog which will look at technical college models.


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