School Assembly Episode 10: Student enrolments

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp. School Assembly is the podcast that explores what it takes to build a new school from the ground up. In Series 1 we’re following Principal Dr Ray Boyd and Associate Principal Rachael Lehr as they navigate the exciting and challenging journey. Each month, we touch base for updates and reflections on their progress in the newly developing suburb of Dayton, located in the eastern metropolitan city of Swan in Perth, Western Australia.

Building a great school and an expert team of leaders, teachers and support staff means nothing, of course, without the students. So, how do you start from scratch when it comes to getting new students? In this episode we’re discussing enrolments. Let’s get started.

JE: So, here we are – Episode 10. Ray, I saw your LinkedIn post this week on firepit reflections and you were thinking about your vision for Dayton and how realistic that is in terms of what you want the school to become within the community?

Ray Boyd: Yeah, the 2 times that I tend to do a great deal of thinking tend to be at my firepit and when I run, and the latter essentially being every day. But I think my reflection was, at the time more about considering what I used to be as what I want us to be as an educational organisation and where we currently are. I know I articulated that a little differently on LinkedIn, but this was the thought process that got me to the point where I was looking for papers that came out of a conversation I had many years ago with [Dr Darwin Spiller], while looking for schools that were undertaking improvement journey similar to the one that I was doing, or going through at the time.
Ultimately, my issue is that it took me 16 years to achieve what our team did at my former school. When I started to think about the work that needed to be done and whether I was capable of steering the ship down a similar river with a new crew (who in many respects are very green). That said, the primary difference is that every single one of them's bursting at the seams to make the ship great.

JE: So it's, it's …Yeah, I mean, it's interesting that you’re having these thoughts about, you know, ‘is it possible’, ‘is it going to take as long?’ I mean, I suppose the other point is – we mentioned this last time, sometimes you have to do de-implementation whereas you’re kind of setting off on the right course to start with; so surely that's going to make it quicker, right?

RB: Yeah, well, that's … I mean, I keep coming back to that too. That's the easy bit.

We're not actually undoing anything, but that probably bothers me a little bit because it means I've, we've got to be really careful that what we put in is right in the first place, because it's harder to undo something than it is to get something right, if that makes sense.

Rachael Lehr: I think another thing though, in line with that, that will actually help us on that journey potentially to make it a little quicker is that our team that we've got on board has come on board knowing what things are going to look like at Dayton, knowing what our goals are around – you know what we want the school to look like and our vision. So, I think that, you know, you're not trying to get people on board like you are in an existing school. So, I think that may help, but I guess time will tell – to use Ray’s words that he tells us all the time. So…

JE: Well, you’ve certainly got off to a good start. I saw, Rachael, I just wanted to read something from one of your posts too. You said: ‘It's been fabulous to watch our families getting into the habit of arriving to school early as their kids are so keen to get to class to start their day of learning. Our vision is to create a sense of belonging that promotes success, engagement and wellbeing for all, and it's evident that even a seemingly small thing, such as having clear, consistent processes for starting the day, is working to achieve all three of those for our students.’ And you were saying in that post that it's running like a well-oiled machine at the moment!

RL: It is, it really is. And so that was something that we clearly articulated at the start of the year when we met with our team. You know, that we wanted some really clear structures around how the day will look. So that would mean we open the classroom 15 minutes before the day starts formally. So, the siren sounds at 8:45, the class is open at 8:30. So we've asked the teachers that there'd be very clear structures; so, what will the students do once they get to the door? You know, how will they unpack their equipment? And then what will they do once they come in? So, the teachers are there, they're ready, the doors are open, and they're welcoming the students.

But even before that, we open the gates every day at 8:15, Ray and I go out and we supervise. And they’re at the gate, ready to come in and they just mill around for 15 minutes. So it's created a nice sense of community. The parents, the grandparents are there with their kids waiting to get into the classes at 8:30. And I think in that post I was showing some pictures of what the students were doing. So they're not just playing, they've got quite structured activities that are actually enhancing their learning. So they're working on their spelling words, they're printing their sounds, their fine motor skills, or even our seniors are going across and reading with the juniors. So it's only 15 minutes of the day, but it's an important start to what the rest of the day looks like in that sense. So, I'm actually feeling really proud of the way that, the team has come together on that and they're all really doing great job.

JE: I'll put the links into your various social so people can have a look at that. On to … I wanted to pick your brains about student enrolments today then. So at Dayton Primary, when you were appointed as the Principal, Ray, was there a target that's already in place for student numbers? So you know, does the, presumably it’s the education department and planners that do those numbers; so do they say, like, ‘it will cater for X number of students … blah blah blah?’

RB: Yeah, I mean the school's actually built for a capacity of 540 kids in permanent classrooms and there's space, should we need it, for an additional 12 transportables. But the Asset Planning Directorate within the department projected our enrolments for this year as being 166 – that was at our initial planning meeting. In 2024, they were looking, they're suggesting 198 and then 2025 they're projecting 227. Well, in April last year (if you've seen our socials) Rachael and I did a letter drop, we walked around our entire suburb to all the homes in the intake area. And we thought these figures were potentially a little soft given the conversations we were having and the family groups we were observing as we moved around the community. We opened with 199 kids this year, and we're presently sitting at 214. So, as such, we're almost at the 2025 projected figures. Our biggest concern though for the start of this year was the building delays and whether we would actually have enough rooms for the kids that were enrolled. And as it turned out, it worked out really well.

JE: So that’s, your well ahead of the schedule (if there is a schedule), but you're like 2 years ahead, well done!

RB: Yeah, it's ahead of the projected figures, but again, they're just projected figures. They give us a rough idea, or they're supposed to give principals a rough idea of who they’re catering for in terms of staffing and those sorts of things. But at the end of the day, if the person is in our intake area, they walk into the school, that's it. End of story.

RL: Yeah, and there's a lot of growth in this area, so, lots of new homes being built. So, I think we'll see quite a jump in those numbers over the next year. You can just see there’s … there was a delay last year with a lot of the housing and the building of even our school, obviously, with our issues with not being able to have the whole school at the start of the year. But I think some of that now has started going ahead.

So, the buildings that have been sitting there and sort of not finished for a long time. So, I think we'll start to see a lot more kids coming in across all year groups.

JE: So, you've got those targets then, or you get appointed Principal, Ray, you're starting from zero, let's go back to when it was zero. When can you start taking those first enrolments? Does that start as soon as you are appointed, or even before that? How does it work?

RB: Well, it depends on the structures that you've got in place at the time.

For the Dayton community I started the call for families who were interested in enrolling to submit an application for enrolment in the middle of Term 2. So, they apply to enrol first, and our first application for enrolment was actually received on the 19th of May. We receive an application, we check the family actually resides in our intake area and then we provide them with the student enrolment package. The Kindy students are a little different because it's not compulsory, but we certainly encourage Kindy to attend for various reasons; however, that another process that sits around those enrolments altogether.

JE: Okay. You've mentioned something there that I wanted to just go back to – enrolment package. Is that a standard thing? Or again, that's something for your school? What does it include?

RL: Yeah, we've actually got to a couple of stages in that. So, the first package that they get are just the typical forms and then once we accept them…so we've actually been doing enrolment interviews and then they get a package that's all about Dayton. So, it goes through: here's a map of the school, these are our structures around potentially behaviour, these are our factions, these are, you know, so this is where you get your uniform… So that's the third stage. So the first is they apply to enrol, the second is we give them the forms and get all the information we need, and then the third is we meet with them and go through what it looks like to be a student at Dayton.

RB: We don't actually have any specific target Jo. As a local intake school, if a family resides … in Western Australia if a family resides in your intake area and the child's eligible, then the kid’s actually eligible to enrol from pre-primary right the way through to year 6, and they can assume (and rightly so) that there's actually a place in the school for them. But what I actually want to achieve is that all families in our intake area choose to attend us, rather than enrolling in an independent school or a Catholic school. I know this won't be the case because of family values and beliefs, but what I actually want is that the only reason a family doesn't enrol is because of those beliefs, rather than because they don't think we run a quality program.

JE: You’re listening to Episode 10 of the School Assembly podcast from Teacher magazine. We’ll be back after this quick message from our sponsor.

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JE: We've talked about this quite a bit on previous episodes and you mentioned it there – you started off by actually printing out the flyers (I love this sort of image) delivering them yourself on foot to the local community, and you had the communication cafes as well to let parents know about the new school. So, we're well into the first year, but presumably then you're still looking for enrolments. Have those techniques that you use, have their changed over time?

RB: Well, with the exception of kindies, families can apply at any time. That said, we actually don't advertise for enrolments outside of making families aware of submitting an application for kindergarten … Rachael's actually very active in that space at the moment. And as you’ve probably seen, we simply promote what we do in the school via our Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. We know our families are more likely to see information via Facebook, however, we're also aware that the Indian community, which is extremely prominent in Dayton, talk about what we're doing. So, we carry out, as Rachel said, a lot of family interviews and tours, just so they can get to see the school.

RL: And it's been interesting, we've just slowly had some students that had chosen to stay in their previous school (so they were in our area), but it's more just been word of mouth that they have now chosen to come to Dayton. So they may have, they've got a friend that moved here and they've been talking about how great it is. So, we've just had a slow trickle of students that have finally decided it's time to come to Dayton because that's their local school. So that's really, other than those new homes that are being built in the area, it’s just the students that chose not to move to the new school that we’ll get coming in. So, we're not actually actively out there saying ‘come to Dayton this is the school to be’ because we only take the students that live in our area.

JE: So word of mouth, like you say, does have an impact, but certainly like you say…you're looking at an intake area, so that's slightly different then, isn't it? So that means, actually, that you’ve not got a waiting list as such.

RL: No, we don't. You're either … well, for kindy we're taking applications at the moment, so they are all having to wait until the end of July to find out whether they're accepted for next year. But for pre-primary to year 6, you come to the school, we check if you're in our area, you just get accepted into the school. So there's no ‘we don't have space for you’ we just make space. That's why we did a bit of a restructure at the end of term 1; we added an additional pre-primary class because we were just really full, and just to be able to accommodate enrolments in any year level, we just needed to restructure the whole Junior School. So that left a little bit of space in each class.

RB: So, at the present time I've got a blanket rule about not accepting students from outside of our local intake area. That helps my colleagues in surrounding schools, in terms of they know my stance and I know theirs and we avoid that shifting population that may get upset with me and go back to their other school, and vice-versa. Obviously, families can appeal that, and some do, but this is up to the Regional Office personnel to make that decision whether I accept the families. And we have families who are literally one house away from our intake area, but the line in the sand is ‘you're out of bounds’ because it creates precedence for me. We've got families also that are 3 streets away, and we've got families that have applied that are several schools away.

So…if I accept someone from across boundaries, I actually create a precedence and the scenario could become (and this has happened, actually) where a family says ‘but you took my neighbour and my son lives next door’. As it turned out, we didn't take their neighbour, but that's how it works. So, each person uses the fact that their neighbour was permitted to enrol as an argument for enrolment, and then that family I spoke about that was 3 streets away, now based on the fact that I took the last, is saying ‘well, you took my neighbour and their next door and they're in the same street as me.’

So, if you're out of our enrolment area, I'm supposed to consider also the fact that if I take an out of bounds student or a student who's out of the intake area, what I'm supposed to be able to do is guarantee that I've got space within the school, not just for my local intakes, but to see that child the whole way through from their pre-journey right through to their year 6 journey. And it's hard enough for me and Rachael, or Rachel and I, rather, to predict our numbers for next year, let alone predict what our numbers will be 5 years down the track or 6 years down the track.

JE: You mentioned there about school leaders working together. Is that kind of like an unwritten agreement then, like a kind of, ‘Okay, this is what we're all going to do’. Does that happen often then?

RB: Yeah, look it does … In Western Australia for public schools, you're either a local intake or you're not (quite obviously not). What that means – the schools still have rough boundaries, but they can take they can accept [enrolments]. Because we're local intake, I still have the capacity to do so. The principals tend to sit down and have a conversation and say ‘look, if you take our kids…’ and what we end up [with] is, we’ve got kids all over the shop; it's really hard to predict our numbers. And the other issue with that too is the Department of Education, the personnel in there will only provide additional buildings for students who are in your area. So, if we take a lot of children who are out of area and then we grow, their argument (and rightly so) is ‘well, you've taken more kids than the school’s actually built for’. And you heard me earlier on, Jo, say we've got a capacity for 540 kids and…potentially we could add another 12 demountables. But those demountables, if I ask for them, really should be for allowing for growth within our intake area.

So, principals, generally, work very close and have a conversation. There's times where we might jump on the phone though and say ‘look, I've got such and such a family, the child's really struggling, there's a few issues here. I'm happy to support them in coming to you, but obviously that's your call’, and we work that way. But the short answer to your question is yes, they do.

JE: I was going to ask how far ahead parents can put the children down, but it's not really that kind of waiting list scenario, so maybe the better question is going to be, how far in advance would you hope that parents contact you to say, ‘hey’, you know, ‘we're going to enrol for next year’?

RL: Well…for the kindy enrolments we've been advertising for them in term 2. So, started at the last probably week of term 1, and so we're accepting those for all of this term until the second week of term 3. And so, at that point, they will close off. I mean, obviously people can still apply if we have space, but so we'll close them at the end of July – so that's sort of 6 months. So, we'll know by July what our numbers are looking like for kindy. Like we said about the other year levels, they just show up and say, ‘can we start tomorrow?’ or ‘can we start on Monday?’ And we try to encourage them to, you know, keep their kid home for a couple of days so we can get ready. You want the kids to come in and have a desk and books with their names on and all those kinds of things, so they feel welcome and not just sort of thrown in at…you know, the teacher’s not expecting them. So, we like to give the teacher a couple of days to get ready for them to come into their class.

RB: Just for your listeners’ context too, Jo, in Western Australia school principals in primary schools, we have to offer a space for every kid who's in our area from pre-primary to year 6. And then what's supposed to happen after that is you decide how much space you’ve got left, and that's how many kindergarten kids you can accommodate. As a general rule for us at the moment, we've sort of capped that at around 40, if we get to that figure. So, if a parent then comes in midway through the year and says ‘I wanna go to kindy’ – because it's non-compulsory if I don't have space I just say no, unfortunately, you can’t, as much as we want…we prefer to have the family in the school because we can do that background work. Whereas in pre-primary to year 6, as Rachel said, a family can come in and anytime. So it's only really kindergarten, the kindy, the 4-year-olds, that causes the problems for families if they're not enroled in a school.

RL: So yeah, Jo, we have 42 kindies. We took one extra in each group; the teacher was willing for that. So that was so that we could take all the in-area kindergarten students because we knew that they would then be coming to us for pre-primary. We wanted them to get that foundation in how things look at Dayton in terms of teaching and learning and our structures. So, as much as possible, we'd like to accommodate all the kids that will eventually be with us for pre-primary. We've got about 30, I believe, already enrolled for kindy for next year (or applications for enrolment in) so we're not sure of our numbers yet, but probably similar for next year.

RB: For school principals and school leadership teams, enrolments, staffing and capacity to accommodate all your enrolments is a bit like a game of Tetris every year.

JE: Ray, that's a great analogy. It is far more complex than I imagined actually, so thank you for going through that, that's been fascinating. Before we go for this episode though, as usual, proudest achievement, biggest hurdle, key learning since the last episode.

RB: Yep. My proudest achievement was actually managing the school without Rachel for a week and a bit while we had staff dropping like flies at the same time. A fair bit of influenza and some COVID ripping through again. Biggest hurdle continues to be our furniture, for me. And my key learning is that school improvement is not a finite game, it's actually an infinite one.

RL: There you go. Well, my proudest achievement. I think every time I talk about our staff, so I'm talking about our staff again. But I've just been working through our instructional coaching process over the last few weeks and have been meeting with our teachers around setting up for their first coaching session. I've just been so impressed with how open they are to coaching and to letting us into their class and video the lesson and to talk about their teaching. So, I feel that we set up some really good structures around how teaching and learning will look and so the teachers are just being so open to that process.

The biggest hurdle lately has been sickness. It feels a little bit like COVID with teachers off all the time and so trying to get relief staff, and then relief staff are sick – I'm sure a lot of people can empathise with that. And my key learning has been that it's okay to take leave. I always find it really hard to take time away from the school. So, I had my long service leave and the world didn't, you know, sort of implode without me. So, I learned that, you know, people get along fine without me there.

JE: That's a great learning, isn't it? I think we're all a bit like that. But that's great then. Okay, so it's time to start another school day for you 2. And we're going to talk again next month, and I can't believe it – that is going to be the final episode of the series and I'm feeling a bit conflicted about. It's like I can't wait, but at the same time I just don't want it to end.

RL: Thanks for that Jo, we'll talk next time.

JE: Okay, you have a great day. See you.

RB: Okay, bye.

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