Since commencing at Charlestown South Public School 10 years ago, Principal Colin Johnson and his team of educators have transformed the school into the highest performing primary school in the Hunter Region.
The reputation took years to forge, and Johnson said appealing to local families when he commenced his tenure was key to establishing a strong school community.
“When I got here, we had 72 per cent of out-of-zone students, so all our in-zone kids were going somewhere else – I wanted to turn that around quickly,” Johnson said.
“We wanted to make our school attractive so local people wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
“Every two years, I letter-box dropped every house in the zone with postcards to encourage local families back to the school … I knocked on some doors, talked to parents in their front yards and talked about our local school and what would attract their kids.”
Johnson’s method worked; currently, in-zone students account for 85 per cent of Charlestown South Public School’s population.
“We had 137 students, and we now have 260… we used to have six classes, but we now have 11, so we’re well over our cap,” Johnson said.
Johnson said in 2014, the school’s focus shifted to how they approached teaching strategies and methods.
“We did our research, and while we found we were teaching well, the skills and education wasn’t being transferred from the kids’ short-term memory into their long-term memory,” he said.
“We’d teach kids about changing fractions, and they’d be brilliant at it … however, six months later, they’d ask if they had learned any of it.”
Johnson said the school researched proven learning strategies and discovered the Explicit Instruction Pedagogy by John Fleming.
Explicit instruction operates by an ‘I do, we do, you do’ model, where a template guides teachers to impart key skills to students in a way that stresses involvement in their education.
This is so they understand how they are being taught and can reflect on their learning.
“We found the highest performing school in the nation used it and had outperformed others in NAPLAN by far,” Johnson said.
“I realised that it was my philosophy on how to teach and how to learn.
“I put all my staff on an aeroplane, and we flew to Haileybury College in Melbourne and spent three days there to watch it in action.”
The staff watched a swath of literacy, maths and writing warmups and the implementation of the explicit instruction lesson format.
“Once we saw all that, we were so excited,” Johnson said.
“We came back and put it into practice to see what difference it made to our kids.
“We haven’t looked back since.”
Proof in the pudding
Using the explicit instruction method, every class at Charlestown South starts the morning with a 15-minute literacy warmup and a math warmup for another 15 minutes after lunch.
Students also partake in a writing warmup that covers four days, which implements a gradual release of information and how to write quality.
Johnson said the proof was in the pudding.
“Our guinea pigs were the ones who started Kindergarten in 2015,” he said.
“So when they arrived in Year 3 for NAPLAN, it was our test to determine if what we were doing was working.
“Suddenly, our results went through the roof – we thought they’d made a mistake on the MySchools website.”
Johnson said that the state average was around 40 per cent of kids in the top two bands in many subjects.
At Charlestown South, 80 to 90 per cent of students reached the top two bands.
“A few years ago, 100 per cent of our Year 3 kids were in the top two bands for reading … we’ve had no child in the bottom two bands for three or four years,” Johnson said.
“We’re proving explicit instruction works.”
A proven model of success
In 2021, the Department of Education developed the School Success Model, which sought 10 high performing schools across NSW to function as Ambassador Schools.
Charlestown South Public School was among them.
Johnson and the other principals form part of an advisory board and recently met with NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, and Minister for Education, Sarah Mitchell, to discuss how to lift student outcomes statewide.
“I was incredibly impressed by Minister Mitchell – she wanted to get ideas and feedback and discuss current barriers that get in the way of schools becoming successful,” Johnson said.
“The Premier was really engaged and interested, especially when discussing staffing and the wellbeing situation.”
Johnson said the wellbeing of staff and staff shortages were among the issues raised during the meeting.
“It’s an issue we spoke at length to them about,” Johnson said.
“Teachers have been asked to do a lot and be incredibly flexible during pandemic times, and in some places, it has taken its toll.
“How do we attract really quality people to education and make them want to teach?”
More to education than academia
Johnson said education was not purely about academics and knowledge but a holistic approach.
“One of our strengths is our collaboration and the sense of team,” Johnson said.
“Even casual teachers comment on how unique our school is and how engaged our students are; it’s our high academic expectations.
“We have high expectations of uniform students wear, how they behave, how they interrelate… we’re trying to create those quality citizens.”
Johnson added that Charlestown South Public School offered many opportunities for the students to be generous with their time and help others.
“Our community love being involved and trusts us implicitly,” he said.
“I often say we’re not the experts… we just strive to keep growing.”