School Assembly S2E5: The build

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Hello and thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher, I’m Jo Earp. Welcome to Episode 5 of the School Assembly podcast series. If you haven’t heard this one before, we explore what it takes to build a school from the ground up and in Series 2 we’re following Jo Camozzato and the team at Bemin Secondary College – that’s a dual campus site in Truganina, which is north of Melbourne in Victoria. The focus for this episode is the build itself. Now, the school is due to open first day of term next year, and the build is due for completion on December 20th. So, it’s a good time to catch up with Jo to find out how things are going, but also ask her about how much involvement she has in the build and the design, and everything from sort of landscaping to the internal features, the furniture choices, the colours, all that kind of thing. So, yeah, it’s another interesting episode, I hope you enjoy the chat.

Jo Earp: Jo, welcome to the podcast again. I think it's about 3 weeks since we spoke last, but I'm fitting another one in before the end of the year.

Joanne Camozzato: It does feel a bit hectic Jo, but it's nice to hear your voice again.

JE: So, we're doing this one remotely, and the topic's going to be the actual building itself. But before we get into that then, how are things going with the recruitment?

JC: In terms of teachers, we're probably down to our last 1.5 teaching staff for the moment. Fingers crossed. So, I need 1.5 teachers, which sounds pretty funny, but people would understand that – like a .5 and a full-timer in math/science and a part-timer in PE. And hopefully if everyone turns up to work for the end of January we're done with teaching for a little bit with the staff. But I still need quite a few educational support staff, but that's OK, we'll keep going in that space.

JE: Okay, cool. But that’s good to hear because things were a bit dicey weren’t they, for a while, as it's been for everybody really.

JC: 100%, it has been a very challenging space, but it does feel that we've accomplished quite a lot in that space now.

JE: So, onto the focus of this episode then. As I said, that's all about the physical build. So, at the time of your appointment to Bemin Secondary College Principal, I'm assuming then they've got the site – in your case sites because it's 2, a dual campus – and they've already got the builder locked in, yeah?

JC: That's absolutely correct. In fact, usually – I mean, I was appointed in April – they should have started, and they did start, because obviously schools take a while to build. And so, a lot of the decisions made about the school have already happened when the principal has been appointed.

JE: And then you kind of oversee the build itself then on both sites. So, I was thinking about, you know, if we're building a house, so anybody out there that's gone through building a house you get to choose from maybe existing templates … they say, you know, ‘how many rooms do you want?’ how it's laid out, right. Then you look at the materials you think about the fixtures and fittings you can pick. You know, ‘I want these gold taps for my bathroom because they're a bit more expensive and I want them to last’, or where you want the plugs to go and all the colours and all that, obviously. How much of that happens with a school? Which bits do you have a say in, and which bits do you not have a say in?

JC: Yeah. So, it is actually a little bit different to building a house. Usually, all the sort of input on the layout, the plans, happens a year or 2 years ahead of time. And what happens is a reference group is pulled together. Sometimes that reference group has on it principals like myself, who have established other new schools. So, they're sort of giving their feedback on architectural plans about what worked really well in their new school, what doesn't work so well. There's usually someone from the Department of Education who has been a principal, like a manager, on that reference group as well; primary or secondary principals, that doesn't matter so much. And that's when there's import directly onto the plans. So, I don't get a say into any of that.

We do get shown plans and we do, by then, you know, where the power points are has already been sort of decided if you like; for us it's more about checking common sense, if things work. Like, you know, are things where they roughly should be, so that in a practical sense, when a teacher moves into that space: Can they access power? Is there a place for the screens to go and are they getting glare from the windows, or should they go on a different wall? Again, a lot of that thinking is done for us, we're sort of just checking. And I think it's important people understand that because I know sometimes people go ‘oh, do you get to choose the colours?’ and ‘what about this?’ and ‘what about that?’. Yeah, look, the short answer to that is ‘no’. So, the colour palette is already decided upon, by people who specialise in that area, and as a principal of a new school, I don't worry too much about that. I feel that it's a privilege to work in a new space, to create a new community, so I'm happy to go with it. We do get a bit of say on furniture, and there that can be bit interesting because that's definitely from my lived experience of what works with young people and what does not work with young people.

JE: So that’s interesting. There’s not a lot actually that you get a say on. Are you kind of like the main contact then for the builders at that point?

JC: No, not at all. That's changed as well over the last few years. There's the Victorian School Building Authority. They are the main contact for the builders, and I am given information about what's going on. I can email my key people there, they keep me informed with what's going on, but I don't directly contact the builders for anything. I think it's a little bit different if you're on site at a school and your school’s undergoing a new build on the block and you're refurbishing something – then you're the contact. But in this situation, no, they recognise that I'm supposed to be doing other things like recruiting, like coming up with instructional models, meeting students. And I'm, you know, just part of a chain of people that are in this space.

You know, over the years I suppose here in Melbourne they've streamlined the process, if you like, of building new schools. And so often you'll find that the builders have tended for a bundle of schools. So, there might be 3 or 4 schools that this builder is building, and they might be in partnership with an architectural firm, or not. So, it's done a little bit differently to your own build on your own site. And economically, we can all understand why that's the case, but at the same time it has helped those building companies who take on new schools to get better at what they do. And that's what they tell me on the site visit as well ‘We've understood a lot more what's required, we're realising the timelines are incredibly important in any build, but some things do need to really happen for schools to open’. That's more how it works now with new schools.

JE: So, this one is dual campus then, how far apart of the two sites?

JC: Yeah, they’re only a kilometre and 600 metres. You see, I know exactly because it's been mapped out for me! So, 1.6kms apart, which is great because when eventually we do have our own year 9 students who have to travel to the senior campus it’s not very far. But probably more challenging for us in the first couple of years is that staff are working across campus. And even this morning I was saying ‘I haven't even thought it through. Where will I be on the first day of students? Will I be with the year 7s who are starting high school for the first time and welcoming those families and young people through the gates, so to speak, onto the grounds? Or will I be on the senior campus with year 10s where we have double the number of students and they're equally feeling, I suppose, a bit excited and anxious in the same way because they've left their prep-9 schools for most part and moving on to a different site and in a different sort of parameter with year 10, 11 and 12?’

So, I don't know. I haven't thought about exactly where, I’ve just thought about the fact that I've got to try to work it out. And there are many of us who will be travelling across between the 2 campuses and we're just going to have to see how that really plays out. I would imagine that as we get bigger and more complex that for the teachers, that will become harder, but I always want to provide that opportunity for people to travel, so they're not just teaching in one sub-school, if that's not what they want to be doing, [and] their area of expertise is wider than that.

JE: So, all these things to take into consideration. I bet there’s loads of these things that pop up, and I'd not thought about that either. Do you have lots of similarities between the 2 buildings themselves, or are they completely different designs?

JC: No, no. I think you can see that they are belonging to a family, if that's a better way of saying it. I would say that the junior campus … is slightly smaller than the senior campus. I always see like the senior campus as on some kind of growth hormone. So, the buildings are bigger, it's designed for more students, but they do have similarities, and they're joined in colour. I think that's a kind of good way of putting it too. So, the colours inside the buildings, the carpets, the features, the cabinetry, that's a similar style and colour to what's on the senior campus. But I think it's just less on the junior but not lesser, just less. So, we don't have as many science labs because we're not going to need as many science lab labs were not servicing the same amount of students on the junior campus as we'll be servicing on the senior campus. So therefore, on the senior campus, there's a whole building dedicated to science laboratories, whereas on the junior campus is just the 2 in a building with other spaces that can be used.

JE: Yeah. So, they’re similar but there are those things to take into consideration – the types of subjects you’re teaching, I suppose the numbers of staff you’ve got, the size of staffrooms, the fact that kids are bigger as they grow up, that's what tends to happen.

JC: Yeah, definitely. So, you know, the staffroom, for example, at the senior campus is really huge, but it's also being built for the future. So, at the moment, you know the school might, the Stage 1 build on the senior campus, take up to 800 or 1,000 students. But when Stage 2 happens, it’s expected to be much, much bigger than that, maybe even double the size. So, the staffroom there sort of reflects that at some point there are going to be a lot of staff on the senior campus. Whereas the junior school, the predicted size there is 600 students to maybe 800 and that's probably, you know, where we will be for a little while, and the staffroom reflects that size as well.

JE: And then you've got all the landscaping as well. What's it like in terms of sort of facilities on the sites and land, what you can do with that?

JC: Yeah, look I think the landscaping, I'm kind of a bit excited about that. What I've noticed in terms of features on the junior campus, and sometimes it's a surprise – like you see these things on the plans, but then when you actually go to a site visit and you go ‘ohh, that looks fantastic’. So, what they've done for the year 7, 8, 9s is they've put a lot more sort of age appropriate, I'm going to call it ‘play equipment’ because it's not fitness circuit equipment. It's definitely climbing sort of structures and things where kids can hang out, and I think that's really terrific for the younger students. Often, we think when they leave primary school at year 6 that they don't want to do that anymore. Like, you know, it's too cool for school, and they'll just sit around and talk. But often we find there's quite a large group of students that enjoy that sort of playground equipment as long as it's a bit more sophisticated looking. And it also helps young people who maybe don't have as many social contacts as they’d like, because you can safely go and hang out at a playground and talk to those that are climbing next to you. We will have some green spaces as well and you know sort of outdoor basketball courts and where they play handball too, and four square, so that's really terrific.

On the senior campus there's an oval coming on board – that won't be ‘til the middle of next year, but that's terrific as well because I think having a really large green space that the community and the students can use is important. And we do have more fitness outdoor equipment there, so stuff that can be used for PE circuit, but I also find that students like to hang around on that too. The great thing I saw that was ready last time on the site visit at the senior campus is there are a lot of places to sit and socialise. So, actual picnic-style tables and benches are scattered throughout, which is really great to see because sometimes you know people don't realise students don't always want to sit on a step or on a mound. They actually do enjoy, as they get older, to sit in a more adult type formation, and it does encourage that kind of social contact. So that was terrific.

I was too busy looking at the climbing equipment on the junior campus to really notice what else was going on out there. And the other really exciting thing – and it was exciting because it was a bit of a surprise, it kind of lifted off the page – was on the senior campus was like a quite a large outdoor amphitheatre. That's really terrific, where we can certainly have whole school assemblies or special events. There’s sort of a built stage and it's, you know, panelled with wood. It looks amazing, so I thought ‘wow’. And the 3 flagpoles are behind it, so I thought ‘that's pretty dramatic’ and it was lovely to see it actually, you know, look like something now, it's not just a piece of concrete. Because sometimes when you walk past you don't realise what you're looking at.

JE: Some outdoor theatre there, it’s going to be good.

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JE: So, you mentioned you're not the direct contact for the builder, but how often do you do site visits there? You mentioned there you've been on the site visit recently, so how often are they scheduled in?

JC: Site visits are usually once a month. So, it’s just to keep contact on what's going on. I could probably request one a fortnight now, but I know they're close to finishing close to letting us actually be on site so, for me, that's more important. Like, you know, at the moment the carpets are down, the painting’s being done, they're just doing the final stuff and a lot of landscaping, so it's probably best we keep out of their way. But in saying that, I have a great team at VSBA and with the builders because we're trying to organise a staff visit. I have staff inductions, so hopefully that will go ahead where the staff at least can have a bit of a peek at some of the new buildings that they're going to teach in next year.

JE: The completion date is, am I right thinking that's December 20th? Did you say that?

JC: That's correct, yes.

JE: Okay. And then the staff can go in, then you'll get in with the staff, is that sort of the first priority then?

JC: Yeah. So, this is probably the thing that's a bit complex for the dual campus, to be perfectly honest. Like obviously, the 20th of December, everyone will know it’s the end of school year and so no staff are moving in. Then probably the earliest that there might be staff moving in on site is the middle of January, and that will also be mainly members of the principal team and the educational support staff, like the business manager, some of the administration staff. Because, you know, the rest of the teachers are technically on school holidays, and I can't recall them just because we're moving into 2 new buildings. We're going to sort of let our staff know that by a certain date (maybe 22nd of January) that if they want to come on site to collect their laptop, find out where they're sitting, that will be sort of open for them to do that on certain hours. But I'm always really cautious Jo with the teaching staff or people, because, you know, it's their holidays; and it's going to be a pretty hectic place to work in as we get used to the dual campus and get used to our students and you know, begin planning collaboratively further what we have to do to deliver good teaching and learning.

The dual campus thing – every now and then I do think ‘what have I got myself into?’ because even though I'm aware of many dual campuses out there – and there are schools that have multiple campuses – usually those campuses set up one at a time, or there's some kind of merger. So, it's not usually that you have to staff 2 complete school campuses at the same time in the one go. So that's sort of hitting me in a way. We have to have a really strong administration reception team at both campuses. We have to have two first aid people to deal with our, you know, first aid rooms for the students at both campuses, and they have to be there from day one. On top of that, of course, there's all the teaching staff. Whereas that's not usually how it happens.

JE: Okay, as we said in the last episode, we’re getting to the pointy end aren’t we. And this this is like a mammoth task, starting at school, and you're doing 2.

JC: So, look, there are some new schools, some of the primary schools of my colleagues are opening with a lot more students – and a credit to them. You know, they've had to focus on their different year levels and employing a lot of teachers, but they still only have one reception area and one first aid area, you know. Everything's times by 2 here, and has to be functioning from day one, one campus can’t be lesser than the other, just cause one campus is small and one campus has the younger students. I'm very committed to that. They have to be equally dynamic together.

JE: And yeah, the whole setting up at the start of the year. You know, anybody who's been a teacher will know that thing of setting up for the new year. But yours is kind of, yeah, it's on steroids, isn't it? I can imagine you’ve got all this furniture coming, tons of stuff coming into the schools having to be sorted out ... ‘Where does this go?’ ’Where does this go?’

JC: Well, look, the furniture is arriving now, which is excellent. So that's a little bit different to what I experienced in my first new school. So, the furniture has been put in place. We were shown the list of furniture, and we were able to give input in the furniture. So that was really terrific. I mean, I know that people might go ‘tables and chairs…’ but it is important that the chairs are of good quality because there are going to be different sized students sitting on them. It is important that the teaching staff have, you know, good furniture for them to sit on, that there are standing tables now through the schools, which is great for people's health as well, that we have a variety of furniture that meet sort of the needs of different spaces. And at the same time, there was some things where I went ‘no, no, I've seen those before…I had those last time, they do not work with high school students, get rid of those. I want different soft furnishing…’ Or, like you find that sometimes there's a real trend to sit on those small, upholstered stools. Well, they kind of look nice, but I find that 16-year-olds don't really fit on the small, upholstered stool and they need something a bit more comfortable. So, the furniture should be there. That's not to say that we don't need extra furniture.

So, an example of that is that in these 2 campuses, we have a lot of offices and spaces that we could use as wellbeing spaces or counselling offices, but we don't know which ones we're going to choose for that yet. And then there might be a desk in there and a chair, but that's not very student friendly, so we will have to order some extra furniture to complement the furniture that comes with the build.

JE: Sounds to me like you've got everything under control. So, we can...

JC: I can talk the talk, that's why I'm on this podcast! But it actually has to all come together, yeah.

JE: I've got every faith in you, Jo. Okay then, to finish: 3 questions for reflection that we ask at the end of each episode. So, proudest achievement, biggest hurdle and key learning since the last time we spoke (which has not been that long)?

JC: No, but I will say proudest achievement this time is employing over 50 staff.

JE: Well done.

JC: Yeah, we're not quite there yet. I probably will need, probably open with about 60 staff and I think that's, you know, for a while it was really slow. I was very, very worried. I'm not saying that I'm not, you know, over all of that, but the reality is, I think when you add it all up, we've done an amazing job. And I'd like to thank all my colleagues that have sat on panels with me to continue to go through all these shortlisted applicants. So that's a really big achievement for us, so we're really proud of that in this current workforce climate.

Biggest hurdle, I'm going to say time. Time is running out. I mentioned this last episode. I'm a little bit embarrassed that after being appointed in April, I feel like I'm running out of time. But I suppose what it is, is that things gain pace and, you know, things are really moving at a rapid pace now and it's like, you know…yeah, time’s the biggest hurdle. Do we have enough time before we break up for Christmas? We'll just get what we can done and then we just have to do the rest in January, and there will be more staff to help. So, I just have to accept that. We’ve just got to be ready by the 31st [of January].

JE: Help is on the way! And key learning?

JC: Key learning? Look, I think the key learning for me is more just remembering something that I kind of read or saw online a while ago. It’s that you know, we're opening a school for the community. And the reason I say like that, it's a really big deal, it's very important, but it's not my school, it’s not about that. And the reason I say that is a while ago I was listening to some people talk about another new school that had opened (which I'm not going to name, because it has nothing to do with that school), but they were talking about how the principal was often referring to ‘their school’, like ‘it's my school, my staff’ and these 2 members of the community were saying ‘it's not, it's our school’. And that sort of struck with me, and I always remember that. And that's one of my key learnings, that I remember that that's a really important thing. This is not my school. I'm the appointed principal. I'm a professional and I'm here to get a job done. I love working with young people and teachers and the community, but I'm trying to set something up that becomes the school for the community. The school belongs to the community and the young people it's going to serve, and you have to remind yourself of that. I always try to think ‘what is best for the future of the school and what is best for the community?’. That's just something I remind myself of.

JE: That is a great note to end on. As you say, time’s running out before the opening, but there are a few weeks to go and thank you again for giving your time over to us. It's always lovely to speak to you. I guess we can just say have a great Christmas and New Year, have a good summer break if you can get some downtime and the next time we catch up, I think the school will be open – so that will be fantastic!

JC: Woohoo! Yes, thank you for that, and I will enjoy a little bit of a break before I come back in January. So, thanks for your time as well, Jo.

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