2 September 2017:

Stefanie Balogh, The Australian

It’s undoubtedly a long way from Perth’s suburban outskirts to the lecture halls of one of the world’s centres of learning excellence, Harvard.

As many do, Rockingham Beach Primary School principal Jacqui O’Donnell had dreamed of one day setting foot on the Ivy League university’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In July, reality surpassed her daydreams when O’Donnell attended an intensive professional education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that was tailor-made for school principals — Leadership: An Evolving Vision.

O’Donnell, principal at Rockingham Beach for the past four years, admits her arm initially had to be twisted to go down the leadership path, first as a deputy.

“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in administration because I love teaching, and I love working with kids, the instant feedback, and that buzz you get when they learn something,” she says.

“I thought being in administration I would lose that, but I haven’t as I make time to get into classes when I can.”

O’Donnell found she could have greater impact as a leader and shape the educational journey of more children, compared to just those in her classroom.

“From there I guess I’ve never looked back,” she says.

As part of her commitment to her learning path, O’Donnell applied for the Harvard Club of Australia Education Scholarships, sponsored by the Public Education Foundation, Teachers Mutual Bank, and the Harvard Club of Australia. The scholarships are worth about $14,000.

Public Education Foundation executive director David Hetherington says the scholarship is “a way of rewarding school principals who have a commitment to public education and have exhibited a strong capacity for leadership into the future”.

Since 2013, three principals nationwide have received a scholarship to undertake the program, along with other Australians who this year joined about 150 leaders from around the world.

The intensive program ran for seven days from about 8.30am until 6pm, including an outdoor adventure court to encourage team building.

“It exceeded my expectations,” O’Donnell says. “It was balance of lectures, workshops and discussion groups where you met with the same 10 people and pursued ideas from the lectures in greater detail.”

The opportunity also provided her with the chance to connect with principals from across the world and gain a global perspective on leadership.

“The richness in the experience was listening and connecting to other participants who had a lot of diverse experience at the schools they led but also the challenges they faced,” she says.

The course examines how to lead a school in challenging and evolving times, make the greatest impact on student learning, connect with school communities, build positive school cultures, and engage families in the education of their children.

Back home at Rockingham Beach Primary School there are now 505 children from kindergarten to Year Six. Since O’Donnell joined as principal, students have been challenged to realise their potential. The bar has been raised and obstacles lowered.

The improvement is borne out in National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy results.

“We’re closing the gap,” O’Donnell says. “For the first time last year our Year Three and Year Five data showed us that we were meeting like schools’ achievement, and making greater than expected progress.”

The goal is to reach the Australian mean.

One of the first initiatives from the Harvard course that O’Donnell has imported to Rockingham Beach is encouraging her teacher leaders and deputies to compile professional journals.

“I know it sounds really simple but it’s about encouraging them to be more self-reflective,” she says.

“I’ve given them just a blank visual diary and I’ve said: ‘Look, there are no rules about what you write in there. But it’s about what you’re thinking about, what you’re reflecting on … then we’ll meet at least twice a term and you just share the bits you want to share around how you are learning.’ ”

The school is also looking at authentic family engagement — a genuine partnership with parents — that goes beyond having parents come in to help in classrooms or attend Father’s Day or Mother’s Day events.

O’Donnell points to the work of Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which in one project involved parents in the US attending a workshop that showed them how teachers taught reading, and showed them how the assessment process worked.

“Parents have no understanding of what assessment looks like in reading, for example. What does it measure? What does that really tell them about how well their child can read and understand what they’ve read?

“By sharing how it all works with parents, it was one of those aha moments where you say: ‘Well, that makes perfect sense and we don’t do it.’ ”

From next year, thanks to the long journey to Harvard, Rockingham Beach will be headed down this path.

Read full article here.