Farewell to designing and establishing a ‘new normal’.

I go back to March 2016 when a member of my online network connected me to an advertisement for a principal in a new Catholic school in Sydney’s West. There was a fair bit of hype around this new ‘super school’ as to what it was known by some at the time. Part of the excitement and anticipation was driven by Executive Director of Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta (CEDP), Mr Greg Whitby, who challenged the paradigm of what principalship may look like. Greg’s thinking at the time was, “the principal of its newest school would not necessarily be a career teacher, but rather someone who was a ‘bit of an entrepreneur’ who will make connections and manage relationships”. He went on to say, “We are not talking about someone like the CFO of BHP, but it could be someone from the tertiary sector, private education providers, the coaching industry.” 

As a ‘career teacher’ I thought my chances of appointment were limited; however, I felt my personal vision for education strongly aligned with CEDP’s vision for St Luke’s to design and establish a ‘new normal’ for preschool to post school education. This was to be no ordinary school, but more so a learning community, one which combined the 5 services of pre-school, primary school, secondary school, out of hours school care and a High Needs Studio for students with special gifts. After a video application, a presentation to 60 people made up of clergy, teachers, parents and students from various CEDP settings, and then a final interview, I was offered and accepted the privileged role of principal at St Luke’s.

On February 3, 2017 the College opened with 14 staff entrusted by true believing parents to serve the needs of 86 students, and there has been much achieved since! Since Day One, and as part of the commitment to designing and establishing a new normal for preschool to post school learning, the staff of St Luke’s adopted a curious approach by questioning everything about ‘the what’, ‘the how’ and most importantly, ‘the why’ of education. In our early days this saw St Luke’s:

  • Adhere to the deep belief in the power of intrinsic motivation by only offering stickers, stamps, rewards or awards to students who, on very few occasions, go above and beyond school expectations. 
  • Maintain a minimum indicative hours approach to face to face learning.
  • Stage based (not year based) learning with 2 teachers for each class of 60 students.
  • Maximise the power of Social Media through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram to actively share the learning narrative of St Luke’s in real time.
  • Provide learning schedules without bells. Six years later there are no bells with 1440 students on site.
  • Sport uniform all day every day for Kindergarten to Year 4 students. 
  • A cashless college since Day One.

This has all been supported through CEDP’s generous provision of expansive and purposeful learning spaces that are comfortable, modern, contemporary, flexible and agile.

Staff in our early days quickly learnt that when you question everything as part of a commitment to designing and establishing a ‘new normal’, before Covid owned that terminology, a school starts to develop emergent mainstream practices which reflect a change from the old grammar of schooling. However, in doing that we met with opposition. Early on, this was from some parents who signed up to something new but still yearned for the past – thankfully, they were very few and far between. Occasionally, St Luke’s met with the ire of so-called and often self anointed educational authorities, most of whom had never worked in a classroom nor held an education qualification. Even after an invitation to view our work, most never set foot on site. However, St Luke’s has always welcomed feedback from wide and far including the 800 educational leaders and additional community visitors who have engaged in our professional learning tours and parent learning walks. In the context that all feedback needs to be considered, I found that whilst the messages of detractors need to be considered, their observations and feedback need to be constructive; if not, they are ultimately best forgotten.

For some aspects of the work at St Luke’s there has been an approach to ‘Do then Think’, also known as ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’. Sometimes this has been seen as cavalier; however, it has complemented the ‘question everything’ stance adopted since Day One. Since we opened in 2017, St Luke’s has adopted ‘best practice’ in a number of areas. These include:

  • The explicit and rigorous teaching of the foundations of literacy and numeracy for 160 minutes each and every day for Kindergarten to Year 6 students. Extensive and numerous professional learning opportunities have ensured our teachers are continually updated on the learning strategies which enable learning growth for students in these key foundational areas.
  • Teachers work in pairs and teams to plan, prepare, deliver and evaluate learning together. As part of the evaluation, teachers review data, determine the ‘next steps’ for each child and adapt their programs, sometimes on a daily basis.
  • Fidelity towards ‘surface, deep and transfer learning’ using a rigorous inquiry framework adapted for local context. This translates into a pursuit of play and inquiry learning with a balance of direct teacher instruction, self directed learning, learning workshops, teams of students collaboratively working together to drive the inquiry with the teacher closely and regularly monitoring the progress of individuals and teams.
  • Play based learning in our CELC and Kindergarten which assists students to explore, discover and learn about their immediate world.
  • A coaching approach to building teacher capacity to impact student learning where our school leaders work with teachers to co-plan, co-teach and co-evaluate aspects of their teaching so there is constant reflection about how we teach. After all, teachers are learners too!
  • Encouraging students to exercise choice and voice through inquiry learning, because we know through research that the more students can combine curriculum requirements with their interests, the more engaged and empowered they become as learners.
  • When needed and necessary, there has been the explicit teaching of social skills and the publication of stage appropriate student independence progressions which have assisted many students to become more confident and resilient.

Complementing our ‘best practice’, St Luke’s has pushed the boundaries with ‘next practice’. This includes:

  • Partnering with Become.Me with a research based approach to careers education for Stage 3 students (Years 5 & 6) which aligns with the curriculum and engages students in the possibilities of ‘what might be’ for post school life. Why Stage 3? Because the research says that 83% of 10 year olds think about their future once a week yet only 10% of them actually get to speak with an adult about those aspirations.
  • Using ‘Scribo’ in 2019 & 2020 to assist leaders and teachers in Stage 3 and 4 to far more quickly provide students with feedback to improve their writing. 
  • A strong priority for each student to develop the capabilities required for a changing world as expressed through our 6 Pillars of Learning. Our 2022 student dashboard and student-led conferences since 2017  reflect our commitment to this priority.
  • As part of our Life Design course for Year 7-10 we partner with life coaches from Innerzone to ensure students can more accurately learn about their Strengths, Interests and Motivations – SIM, so that they can more deeply understand who they are, what they can do and what problems they want to solve.
  • Teachers who provide engaging and purposeful masterclass learning activities as part of an extended school day to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
  • Partnerships with Universities including:
    • University of Sydney (2019) for an integrated approach to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) in Stage 2. This program utilises the expertise of university based research to benefit our teachers and students.
    • A three way partnership between Stage 4 Maths teachers, CEDP Mathematics experts and Emeritus Professor, Peter Sullivan from the University of Melbourne (2020). This action research team investigated how artificial intelligence through ‘Maths Pathways’ can support self paced learning for Stage 4 Mathematics.
    • University of Technology, Sydney (2020) to reimagine preferable futures post COVID-19. 
    • University of Wollongong (2021) Oracy Project for Kindergarten students.
    • University of Western Sydney (2021) to action research our coaching approach to teacher development.
    • University of Melbourne New Metrics for Success Project (2021-2023) to assess capabilities and complex competencies for a changing world.
    • School-led action research projects for:
      • Play in the Infants’ Years;
      • Coaching to support teacher learning; and,
      • Next Practice Wellbeing in the secondary years.
    • Formal learning concludes each Friday at midday for Kindergarten to Year 6 students with teachers receiving increased release from face to face teaching to now self direct their learning by engaging in professional learning offered by College leaders.
    • A learning cycle which encapsulates hybrid learning and sees Year 9-12 students start formal learning at 10:00am (instead of 8:30am) three days a week. This accommodates teenage brain science requirements for more sleep, provides more choice for senior learners and improves well being.

The above by no means covers all that is done at St Luke’s. Students in all years follow the mandated curriculum set by the NSW Education Authority (NESA) adhering to mandated requirements for all Key Learning Areas (KLAs). All outcomes are addressed to a deep level through students reflecting on their learning and applying their knowledge rather than just rote learning. St Luke’s is committed to addressing all aspects of the core curriculum, but offers students choice and flexibility in achieving the required learning outcomes.

In a place where “Learning = Infinite Possibilities”, we now know Best Practice + Next Practice = the ‘New Normal’. This ‘new normal’ at St Luke’s combines the five educational services of Early Learning, Primary, Secondary, Out of School Hours Care and High Needs School into the one Catholic Learning Community which nurtures faith filled curious children to become creative contributors and innovative problem solvers for a changing world.

Having commenced in 2017 with 86 students in 2017, St Luke’s at Marsden Park is a next generation learning community within the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta (CEDP). As a ‘next generation Catholic Learning Community’ we continue to design and establish a ‘new normal’ for preschool to post school learning in an environment characterised by a flexible, stage based curriculum which nurtures and grows faith-filled, curious children to become creative contributors and innovative problem solvers for a changing world. In 2023, the College will enrol over 1600 students from Kindergarten to Year 10 in addition to the 77 place long day centre and 60 students in a high needs special school. The work will evolve and continue to be complex; it will continue to be exhausting yet satisfying work for those who continue to heed the call to design and establish a new normal.

What a privilege it has been to be the Foundation Principal of St Luke’s! I have appreciated playing a small part in a big team. I will be forever thankful for the staff who trusted me and I leave being in awe of their work.

May St Luke’s continue its trail blazing work, work which positively contributes to the greater good of designing and establishing a new normal for preschool to post school learning.

Farewell St Luke’s.