Friday, 21 November 2014

A Year of Academic Accolades!

Pinelands North Primary's Prizewinning Mathematicians for 2014
When our school worked on our last strategic plan three years ago, there were several new parents to our school who attended, and felt we shouldn’t focus our attention on special needs in school. After explaining to them what we meant and how we were actually trying to give every child the education they had the right to receive, some were convinced. Others, however, were still concerned that when the general public hears that a school focuses on special needs, it means that teachers would then focus on the lower third of the class and not on everybody.
How wrong they have been! This has been the year that has proved our school’s output is the best in the suburb, circuit and even the district at times! We do draw children who don’t achieve at other schools but then we help them turn that around! We also draw children from around the country because the more we attend conferences focusing on the very bright child, the more psychologists from all over refer families to us! This has meant that we receive at least one call a week from a family who has had their child ‘diagnosed’ as ‘gifted’, and then has been told to contact us as we are the only school they recommend for children with those particular needs. The other spin off has been very high profile winning of awards by individual pupils, and by the whole school too. In March this year, the school was recognised by the Metro  Central District in Mathematics and Language with six awards. 
Horizon Maths Competition Winners
In July, seven of our pupils attended a function at the Baxter Theatre to celebrate the winners of the Horizon Maths Competition. Kangyong Choi, Rana Ebrahim, Lisakhanya Gqirana, Ananya Jain, Matthew Killer and Luke Watermeyer received prizes for being among the top two hundred mathematicians out of nine thousand in the province, and David White received a prize for being in the top twenty, out of nine thousand entrants! 
In August, the Metro Central District Mathematics Competition for all grade four to seven pupils, again recognized our mathematicians. Again seven of our pupils were invited to the second round, and Savar Jain was placed first in the circuit in grade four, Luke Watermeyer was placed third and Matthew Killer first in the circuit in grade six, and Ananya Jain was placed third in the circuit in grade seven. 
Our grade one to seven children took part in Living Maths Competition too, Caleb Carelse, Ella Binos, Hogan Crossley, Munwon Jang, Matthew Killer, Zameer Gamiet and Ananya Jain, were placed in the top three positions in their grades in the country! 
All our grade four to seven pupils also wrote the Amesa Maths Competition, and sixteen were invited to the second round. Eleven children received certificates in this round: seven silvers and four bronze! 

Metro Central Maths Competition Winners
So, when parents of pupils at other schools mention the ‘Pinelands’ adage that the Red School pupils are the ‘all-rounders’, mention to them that indeed we are but we also provide the top academic pupils in the circuit, as evidenced in just the few awards we have won this year. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

Pinelands North Primary: our families are our greatest resource!

Winsheena and I at St Katherine's Dock, London
I am currently visiting a friend in France. On my way here I spent a week in London and, while there, I spent a few days with Winsheena Smith, one of our school ex-teachers. Winsheena taught grade 6 at Pinelands North and she left us to teach in the United States 
and in England. Sadly for us, she has spent almost ten years in Essex, teaching at Warren Primary School in Chafford Hundred. I am not surprised she has stayed at this school - she lives a couple of steps away from her classroom, and the school is very similar to Pinelands North.
Grade 1 parents and teachers captured at their Red-a-Fair stall
Being at a distance from both schools at the moment has made me reflect on the best schooling in the world. The parents of these two schools are rich because they draw amazing parents!
The grade 6 pupils of Warren Primary left for their week on the Isle of Wight on the morning I was there. Every pupil was accompanied to school by at least one parent who stayed until the bus left. When they arrived at the school, the unity amongst the parents and pupils was palpable - I could see that this community worked and played together! I felt so at home - I immediately could see our parents saying goodbye to our grade 7 pupils earlier this year! After they left I wandered around the playground after the rest of the school had started lessons. I felt the same 'busy quietness' that I feel at Pinelands North....teachers starting the day, children unpacking bags quietly, teacher aides helping children organise themselves, the principal wandering around problem solving where needed.
PNPS dads supporting our Day/Night cricket team
Although Warren Primary is a lot younger than Pinelands North - I think they have just celebrated their tenth birthday - the buildings and furniture of both schools show the same care and attention to detail. Children's work adorns the walls, bright painted walls lead to shiny floors and colourful doors, and every small space is utilised for the children's benefit.
Malika Ndlovu and  Lionel Adriaan after adjudicating the Poetry Competition
The biggest difference between a British government school and a South African public school is who funds the school. At Warren Primary the state provides all teachers, more than 2 teacher aides per class, all equipment, books, buildings and resources. At Pinelands North Primary, most of these are funded by parents themselves: more than half of the teachers, all the teacher aides, all stationery and most of the equipment, resources and even all new buildings!
When interviewing new prospective parents I always discuss the importance of the part they need to play in any school they choose for their families, and sadly for South African families, the economic support is essential for the survival of any good school. The regular payment of school fees has to continue for the school to continue providing money for salaries, resources, extramural equipment, outings and learning support.
Thank you Pinelands North families, for diligently paying school fees, even when life becomes difficult, and thank you too, to those friends of the school and parents who choose to support extra children who then have access to schooling they would not otherwise enjoy!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Role of the Principal in leading a school towards Inclusion

Research says that ‘the principal is pivotal in creating and promoting an inclusive culture’. Inclusion is all about including children with ‘exceptionalities’, not disabilities. This does not have a negative impact on other children's academic achievement and in fact, in most circumstances, we all learn better from teaching others. There are huge social benefits for both ‘regular’ and ‘exceptional’ children in an inclusive classroom.
Where do you, as a principal, begin the process?
Firstly, you need to understand inclusive education yourself. You will find that inclusion is a ‘state of mind’, or ‘a heart for human rights’. If you believe in everyone’s right to the very best education, you will never again be able to turn away a child who needs to be taught differently. An educational psychologist, Catherine Normand Michell, who visited our school last week, said after she had been, “Although I know it is not an easy ride for a school, it seems to me to be the only choice if we wish to make an educational difference to children, and align ourselves with the constitution.”
Find good examples of inclusive schools to visit and ensure you take along the staff ‘influencers’ – those strategic staff members who will be able to influence the ‘naysayers’. Spend time learning as much as you can - on school sites, on the web, speaking to all people who might influence the decision of your school – psychologists, paediatricians, parents of children with low, high and moderate needs, teachers who feel successful, and unsuccessful in dealing with children with special needs in their classrooms.Connect effective school teaching practice with good inclusive school practice. Good teaching and creative problem solving techniques is actually all you need to help any child achieve their best!You also don’t need to be a wealthy school – your school can become an inclusive school without adding money to the mix!You do, however, need lots of courage. You will need to be brave to deal with skeptics at every level of education, and to deal with current staff members who will choose to leave because ‘the educational standards will be dropping’.
Focus on change!
We must be the change we want to see,’ said Mahatma Gandhi many years ago. If you understand the change process, then you will know the small ‘steps’ that will need to be taken to get everyone to ‘buy-in’ to the process and the ‘end result’. I use ‘end result’ with a smile on my face as we have found that, after small steps started in 1997, we are still in 2014 not at the end…….in fact we’re beginning to believe that there might not be an ‘end’! When every year, we are challenged with a different ‘difference’ to problem solve, we have begun to think that this process is ‘without end’. We don’t know now what challenges tomorrow will bring!Start by developing a broad plan of action with as many stakeholders as possible. You will find that most adults today will find this process hard.  When we were at school, those children with special needs were either in a special school or a special class – certainly this is true for South Africa. Because of this negative connotation, adults with this experience find it very hard not to think that making the school inclusive will drop the educational standards.Realize that not all your staff will 'love' the idea! The way we have dealt with this is to say, “There is a right place for every person at the right time.” This has allowed staff who cannot change to move on to schools which won’t change. Support all efforts by all role players to change behaviour, thinking and speech. We found that we censored each other’s words: we don’t use ‘naughty’, ‘disobedient’ or ‘disruptive’, ‘difficult’ or ‘bully’ anymore because we now understand that a child only ‘acts up’ when overwhelmed by something in his life. If we find out what it is that is causing stress, we will remove the ‘bad behaviour’!Provide time for teachers to visit schools, provide money for attending courses and celebrate every small step towards your goal! Accept that you will not have all the answers at first, and that the school will always be changing, adapting, and progressing.
Create a safe space in the school for people to 'risk'. This means that when teachers want to try something new, the principal needs to be seen to be supporting the ‘trial’ and if the trial doesn’t work, also needs to be heard being positive. If you create a culture that encourages 'learning by doing', then no one will feel a failure if something tried doesn’t work – it becomes another problem to solve in a different way! Real change takes a long time! After almost 20 years in the making, Pinelands North, our inclusive school, is still ‘on the path of discovery’.
Create your team!
Find people to support you, the teaching staff and the school. Identify ‘champions of inclusion’ from amongst your staff, those staff who understand the concept immediately, and invest in their training and growth. Ensure that your leadership team feels empowered to assist the staff who they lead. Include people from the district offices and education departments as much as possible. We have found that if we keep people informed, they help you in small ways when you need help. We have now received a small amount of money towards our efforts: we have part of a teacher’s aide salary paid, we have received equipment to assist pupils, and have also received professional help when it is needed for a child.Find volunteers to assist your staff. We have found that there are many people out there with spare time that are happy to give to a good cause. We have had counsellors, readers, book-coverers, and even volunteer teacher aides and facilitators throughout the years. Lately we have also worked with an NGO that places special needs adults in a supported working environment. These special needs adults have worked in our library, in our aftercare and school garden, helped coach sport and physical education classes, and have assisted with admin tasks like shredding and filing.Involve parents in their children's learning. The more they understand about the learning process, the more effort they volunteer. Remember though, that parents also need to come to terms with their children not being the ‘perfect’ little specimen they conjured up when they found out they were pregnant! Some parents need a few years of patient discussion, but once they realize that the school is really just trying to help their child best, they change their attitude and start to work with the school, for their child’s benefit.
The path of progress
Progress is slow – in some cases very slow! Solve practical problems, one at a time, with creative ideas. Encourage experimentation amongst teachers and also encourage them to problem solve co-operatively. Celebrate all progress, even the small steps, particularly with staff who aren’t finding the changes easy. Realize too, that your goals will keep changing as your school grows more inclusive. Each time we think we have a particular ‘difference’ pinned down, we find out that the goal posts have shifted much further, and maybe even out of our reach for a while.Keep asking questions and learning from those schools and people who are further down the path towards inclusion.
Share all successes with all stakeholders! Every little step forward should be celebrated publically, and communicated widely. Use your own newsletters and school website, the local press and all school community meetings to tell everybody about the positive spinoff for everybody at the school, of the school’s move towards inclusion. Keep communicating with everybody all the way through the process – mention examples of practices at Governing Body meetings, when attending conferences and at staff meetings.
Trust the children to speed up your progress! They will always challenge you to think about the next step sooner than you thought you would need to! Look at what children can do at school, and do not focus on what they can't!
Replace those teachers who leave because they are struggling with the ‘new rules for behaviour’, with those who believe in inclusion and it’s benefits. Believe me, there are teachers out there who have come to our school because they have felt isolated at their previous schools because others didn’t see things the way they did. They know that being at an inclusive school is hard work, but good teaching is also hard work!
Don't lead the process alone, the more people in the school who take up the challenge the better. Try to get everyone at school knowledgeable. We have found training our ground and cleaning staff has been well worth the hours! They care for our children around the school when we are not there, and they understand which children need special handling!
Don't follow policy to the letter. Each school will change, adapt and develop better policies than those presented! Each school is different as it serves a different community – this means that each school will need to tweak the policies, maybe only just for some children!
Make sure you teach children with exceptionalities yourself to model good practice! Many principals have given up their primary focus when they became principals. For me, my special joy is teaching on Fridays! I teach three combined classes of very bright children between the ages of 7 and 13, and when I return to my office after teaching, I am bursting with enthusiasm to share the little anecdotes about who said what, who surprised me today, who was ‘hanging from the chandeliers’ and who had just produced a fully professional movie on Leonardo da Vinci for their latest project!Because I teach, and because I teach ‘different’ children, I can share my teachers’ frustrations but also share some of my ideas that have worked when dealing with those who are ‘energetic’.
Keep evaluating your school practice. This is very important as some ideas will work and some won’t. Accept that you won't always get everything right and that sometimes children need more help than you can provide. Just about every child with every syndrome is different anyway so saying that your school can deal with children who have Down’s but not with children who have autism, is misleading.Walking along the road to inclusion has been an exceptionally positive move for our school. We have lost some good teachers but have gained others, lost some fabulous children but gained others, deflected some negative publicity but gained other very positive! Your school’s road will be very different from ours but is certainly will be worth every step! Ours has been!

Friday, 28 February 2014

WCED Acknowledgement of Academic Excellence

At the Metro Central District Awards for Language and Maths, on 26 February, Pinelands North received 6 awards, more than any other school in the district! In each of the district’s 6 circuits, the top 3 schools received Excellence Awards, and if the school had improved by 10%+ in either subject since the previous year, schools received Improvement Awards.  In circuit 4, Pinelands North received:
  • Excellence in grade 3 Maths
  • Excellence in grade 3 Language
  • Excellence in grade 6 Maths
  • Excellence in grade 6 Language
  • Improvement in grade 3 Language
  • Improvement in grade 3 Maths
PNPS Representives proudly displaying our certificates.
This is an amazing result for an inclusive Full Service School! Being a Full Service School means that we choose to enroll children who are different! At least 100 out of our 448 pupils are diagnosed with special needs such as specific learning difficulties, ADD or giftedness but we firmly believe that all children have special needs at different times! This makes us really proud too, when you realize that there are 26 schools in our circuit, and 151 schools in this district!

A result like this takes much work over many years! So, although we acknowledge our current teachers in the role they have played in this achievement, many other influences have created it. Our thanks and salute therefore go to those who have supported the pupils, the school and the teaching staff over the years:
  • to our parents and care givers who have ensured that their children have come to school on time every day, ready to engage in all the learning opportunities at PNPS,
  • to all those supporters who ensure homework is done every day,
  • those who have read, and been read to, on a regular basis,
  • those who play Maths and Language games as a family, for fun,
  • Governing Bodies and PTA members who have created resources to support learning,
  • support, admin and aftercare staff who daily create an atmosphere of learning,
  • those community members and NGOs like Help2Read who have supported our school,
  • past pupils who worked hard, mentored younger pupils and demonstrated good work ethics to the rest of the pupils.
These awards made me aware yet again, of the fabulous school I work at and the wonderful learning environment Pinelands North Primary School children are privileged to attend every day.

IP and FP HOD's with 2013 Top Grade 3 and 6 pupils.