Every Minute at School Counts

Cassie is a Cohort 2017 Teach To Lead Fellow currently working at Cobram Primary School. She has spent the past thirteen years working in the education system and has taught almost every primary year level. Aside from chasing after her two young sons, Cassie keeps busy wearing multiple hats at work by operating as the school-wide Physical Education Coordinator and the Attendance Officer at her school. In 2016, Cassie received an email from her Principal about the Teach To Lead program and thought it was a perfect opportunity to further develop her leadership skills.

A focus on attendance at school

In 2016, Cobram saw lower than expected NAPLAN results, and disappointing responses in their “Attitudes to School” survey from students.

Cassie subsequently met with her Principal and the Wellbeing Officer and they collectively recognised that student absence was a key contributor to the survey results.In one year, the school experienced over 3,000 student absences, most of which were unexplained: many parents did not provide an explanation if their child could not attend school, and teachers did not have capacity to follow up with every unexplained absence. Yet, Cassie knew, if students failed to attend school on a regular basis, their engagement in the community and ability for continued learning would be impossible.

An ambitious project

A key aspect of the Teach To Lead program is the Impact Initiative: each Fellow designs and implements a project with the aim of raising student achievement, increasing teaching capacity, or improving student wellbeing and engagement. Cassie’s Impact Initiative was a project called “Every Minute Matters at Cobram” (EMMAC), which aimed to improve student attendance at schoolAfter a brainstorming session with her school Principal and Wellbeing Officer, Cassie designed a competition known as the EMMAC Competition that encourages each class to compete against others for the lowest number of student absences. Each class is allocated points depending on the number of absences they have and the results are announced at assembly on a weekly basis. The points accumulate over the course of a year, and the class with the highest points at the end of the year are rewarded with an excursion to the cinema – a real treat as the cinema is a 45-minute drive from Cobram.

School-wide change

The whole school embraced the competition and the students, parents and teachers were all invested in the outcome. Since implementing the EMMAC Competition, Cobram Primary School has seen a huge reduction in student absence from over 3,000 to a mere 900 absences as of June this year. “Chronic absence” (describing a student who has been absent for 30 days or more in an academic year) has dropped from 15% to 10%.

The importance of positive discourse

Cassie believes that one of the key components to the success of her initiative is the positive discourse underpinning the project. The emphasis was on bringing the school together as a community, and rewarding positive behavior was essential.Implementing EMMAC at the school was not always smooth, and students were not the only ones who were part of a shifting school culture. Part of the project involved switching from using a paper-based roll call system to a digital program to track attendance, and technical complications were common. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that significant change only comes about when your staff are invested in the culture shift,” Cassie says. “The only way to influence this is through using evidence-based data.” During her time undertaking the Teach To Lead program, Cassie built on her leadership skills that helped enact EMMAC. “I have been given the tools to manage and communicate with staff in a more productive and efficient way,” she says. “I have become more self aware and appreciate the importance of building relationships based on trust to be able to maximise team performance.”To enact whole-school change, staff at Cobram Primary had to see, through raw student outcome data, that accountability for student attendance does not just lie with the Welfare Officer or the Administration staff. Improving student attendance is always a school-wide project, and EMMAC turned a problem into an inspirational success through friendly competition.

Teach To Lead applications are now open! A highly competitive program, vacancies for their 2019 cohort are limited. If you know a high potential leader who has the ambition and skills to make a difference, encourage them to apply today. Visit the Teach To Lead website for more information. Applications close 2 December, 2018.

This story was originally published in Stories From Our Community (Winter 2018)View the entire magazine online here.

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