Kimberley schools: a search for success
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The purpose of this study was to identify the ways government schools in the Kimberley Education District of Western Australia attempted to engender success for their students. Schools in these communities are considered to be in poverty, they are largely populated by indigenous Australians, and situated in geographically isolated locations. It was important to establish the levels of student academic achievement and identify best school and classroom practices that centred on developing students' progress and achievement at school. The study was guided by the general research question: What are the effective ways school communities in the Kimberley work to improve student outcomes? Generating descriptions of best practices that make a geographical isolated school successful for students marginalised in the schooling process, and upon what criteria the success should be measured, were central to this research endeavour. It was critical to distinguish those dimensions of schooling in isolated areas that were malleable in improving the life chances of students. The study relied on an interpretive research methodology using both qualitative data and quantitative approaches to data collection, such as inquiry through conversations, informal and structured interviews, participant and non-participant observations, and the examination of material such as documents and students' work samples, complemented by a confirmatory survey and case studies. Participants in the study included school administration teams, teachers, students and their parents. The study was iterative and followed three distinct phases of development. In the first phase a general picture was gained about the ways in which schools in the Kimberley worked by observing four schools.The second phase involved developing and administering a study-specific questionnaire to personnel in 14 different schools in the District. This part of the study sought to confirm the interpretive aspects of phase one. In the third phase of the study, a more detailed picture of schools was drawn through a case study approach in five selected schools. Of particular importance in the case study schools was the tracking of a purposive sample of 150 students to assess their reading and writing (including spelling) progress. The results of the student assessments were analysed in terms of the progress students made and interpreted according to the amount of time students attended school. Making judgments about the success of Kimberley schools was an evaluation process in terms of how students performed. The students' performance was linked to the best practices in schools and classrooms that best supported students' learning to ascertain areas where schools could improve their operations. The study has identified challenges associated with school-home relationships, the ways schools and classrooms operate, the ways school plan and implement curriculum, how teachers develop their pedagogies, and the ways students are assessed. In response to teachers who do not fully understand these challenges, many Aboriginal children will choose to continue avoiding school or actively resist engaging in the learning process.Importantly, at the school level it was found that teachers were best supported in their work when school leaders worked to make everyone's day-to-day classroom work easier, engendered a congenial workplace environment which alleviated some of the personal stresses teachers experienced, ensured school plans went into operation in all classrooms across the school, and created a close link between the school, parents, and the community. At the classroom level in the Kimberley context, calm, stable, and orderly classroom environments are essential to establish. Consistent pedagogy is required across all classrooms within a school but a variety of activities within classrooms is important to accommodate Aboriginal styles of learning. Monitoring the continuity in students' progress as they moved from one year level to the next is imperative. The study showed that there are ways that schools can work for the betterment of students' progress at school but these ways are not universally adopted or implemented. Teachers in the Kimberley schools can learn to understand how to create a good school, how schools can be described as effective and improving, and how they can be termed schools that meet equality and quality ideals. The recommendations made from the study are intended to enable administration teams, teachers, and policy decision makers to make more informed decisions about schooling for geographically isolated students in government schools in the Kimberley region.
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