School Improvement Episode 47: Karonga School’s immersive classroom

This podcast from Teacher is supported by MacKillop Seasons, whose Seasons for Life project supports schools with loss and grief following a suicide and other loss event.

Hello and thanks for listening to this School Improvement podcast episode from Teacher magazine. I’m Rebecca Vukovic.

My guest today is Ruth Rogers, Principal of Karonga School in Epping, New South Wales. Ruth joins me today to talk about her school’s immersive classroom, a unique educational space that gives students an engaging and expansive learning experience. All of the students at Karonga have an intellectual disability, with many having additional disabilities and health care needs. The immersive classroom allows them to access a world beyond the school gates, and practice skills that they can take with them when they are out in the community. In today’s episode, Ruth shares how the immersive classroom and the resources that come built into it are helping to enrich students’ learning and their independence. She also shares some of the other initiatives she hopes to get off the ground at school, like a mini supermarket on campus and their very own traffic light system to help students learn how to cross the road safely. To begin, here’s Ruth telling us a bit about the history of Karonga School and its context.

Ruth Rogers: So, in Australia, provision for children with an intellectual disability only came about in the 70s, because prior to that there weren’t specific special schools available, and parents had nowhere to send their children. However, in our case, a group of parents got together in 1964 and approached – Hornsby Council because that was … we're now Parramatta but it was Hornsby then – and they said, ‘it's not right, we don't have a school’, and so the Council gave the parents a house to use as a base for a school that was going to be demolished in the near future and they said ‘you can use this house for as long as you need to prior to us repurposing the land’. And that house had a nameplate next to the front door. It was a Federation house and we have a photograph of it and it was called Karonga. And so in the 70s, when there was legislation to say that special schools must be provided and all children should equitably receive education, the local education office then said to the parents ‘OK, so now we've got a school and as a nod to all your hard work, we’ll call it Karonga’.

So that’s as much as we know about the name and about the early provision, and in fact we celebrate on September 14th every year, Founders Day – because those parents really drove, you know, a change in provision really, on a on a big level in Canberra. So, we were mentioned … we’ve got the Hansard publication that says that Karonga were named as you know leaders in a lot of this.

So, we were given 9 acres, so we've got very generous provisions here. We have 12 classes of students with a severe or moderate intellectual disability. We are a day school, so we go from 9-3 roughly and our students are brought in – nobody walks to school. but children are brought in by assisted school travel the majority, and some parents, particularly the younger children, their parents choose to still bring them to and from school. And we go from preschool age, so I think 3 years 10 months is our earliest provision because it’s seen as an early intervention, but we go roughly from K-12, so up to 18 years of age and we support families in the wider context about their young person. But our students are grouped into cohorts, classes of about 6-7 students. We take into account their age and their needs, and we have 12 classes with obviously experienced special educators who offer the students a range of provisions.

But a huge focus for our curriculum is around independence and life skills, so even our little ones – even though in mainstream the parents might be carrying the 5-year-old’s bag on their arm to get them to the school gates, we're starting even at a very young age for the children to be accountable and responsible for themselves, for their belongings, and their learning, you know, even from the time they arrive at school.

So, we set up a lot of provisions to teach our students. So, we have a library here but it's not just about books, it is around managing yourself in a library setting. It’s around sitting, looking at a book, the conventions of holding and turning pages, being quiet in the library – so that our children can practice the skills for when they leave school, or when they access a library of a weekend.

We also have a gymnasium and that isn't just about being fit and about … it is about teaching them how to use basic equipment. So, we have treadmills that we generally use for walking, and we have rowing machines and such, but it is around when they leave school, you know, the ability to join a gym is something we need to prepare our students for because that’s real inclusion in the community. So, we are looking at all times to replicate what other young people and young adults would be accessing so that so that we can prepare them for that.

So currently we’re working (and the Epping Club have contributed towards us) working with Transport for NSW, about putting a crossing within our school boundary. So, we’re not aware of any other school and we've jumped through a lot of hoops, and it’s being fitted in the next school holidays. So, we're having traffic lights installed which have, you know that look just like they do in the community. And of course, it's not about stopping the local traffic, because it comes very slowly on school territory, but it must look like it is in the community otherwise our students are very confused and they haven’t learned the skills to stand, to wait, to press a button, to get the auditory clue to cross the road. And so, we're just really mindful at all times of setting our students up for success and about thinking what the long-term goal is for when they leave our school.

Rebecca Vukovic: It sounds like such a beautiful school community you have there, Ruth. And of course, we're here today to talk about the immersive classroom. Why did you decide to install the immersive classroom in the first place?

RR: Well, the technology and the basis for a lot of this has come internationally from Europe and we knew of a school, George Bass School, who had had one installed. And so, after school I went, I have the school therapy dog, a Labrador from Guide Dogs Australia as the therapy dog at our school. And because it was after school, I took her with me, and we went over to George Bass School to a bit of an open session where we could see this thing called an ‘immersive classroom’.

So, the name of it is a sort of international use and I believe that George Bass was the third school had had one installed in the country. So I went along to this space, which is smaller than the one we’ve had installed in fairness, and I went in, and so I was trying to understand what it would look like and what benefit our students would get. So, George Bass is another special school, and I went in, and they turned the lights off and they set the projectors which project on a 360-degree basis, as well as onto the floor, an experience.

And whilst I was there and they there was a teacher telling us (because where no children present) and the teacher was telling us, ‘Look, I'm going to show you this now and I'm going to show you that’. And one of the experiences was about the Serengeti – and we also have that now on our system – and she said ‘I'm going to pull this up’ because it’s already loaded with a lot of experiences, about 300 experiences for the youngsters. And so, she set it up. And so, on the left and the right, and in front and on the ground there was this savannah from Africa, South Africa, and there was a herd of elephants who turned towards whoever was taking the footage. So, you've got this full experience and exposure of video footage, and these elephants started walking towards us. And what caught my attention was that Tess, who’s a bright, energetic and intelligent dog from Guide Dogs Australia, she stood up and all her hairs on the back of her neck and she leaned forward like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ And then she sniffed and she could like ‘oh, it's just walls, it’s like a TV’ and she’s like, ‘oh’, and I guess that I was like, ‘you’ve got my attention now, because if she can believe that this is real … if she can think those elephants are walking towards us and the sound effects are authentic, then our kids are going to get hooked by this’.

So that set in place an idea of like, ‘Huh, so if we did that, where would it go? How would the students access it?’ So, I came back, and it was probably another year before we seriously, or I seriously, put together a plan for the funding for it – because it is, you know, a huge amount of money. And I had to think about where we were going to use and needed great accessibility so that all students, whether you’re in a wheelchair, you’ve got mobility issues or whatever could access it. It's about what we need to clean the space up. So, I invited the company into advise and I showed them a room that we had.

So, the part of the school where it’s been installed is a newer build. It's actually now 10 years old – 2012 we had it built before I came to the school – and it was originally built as like a resource room. So, when I went in there, I used my keys and I went in and I showed it to a delegate from the organisation we went through and I said, ‘what do you think about this space?’ And he’s going ‘perfect’. All we've kept in there were a lot of, like, puzzles, dressing up clothes, Connect 4 and games … there were very few windows, just some very small ones at the top there. And it had electricity, and it had air conditioning, so it wasn’t as simple as, like, move all the resources, because I certainly have to find another space for them. It was around ‘ok, what do we need to make happen?’ So we worked with them and we had to gut the room and we had to even have the lining of the room taken out, because it was in a sort of soundproof fabric; and we had to have the floor pulled up because you need great acoustics and great visibility for all the projectors. And so, we set about preparing it and it was The Epping Club that I approached around the significant cost of actually putting all the technology in there.

So we ensured that the room was completely gutted. New flooring, new lino was put in. The walls were Gyprocked and painted in a specific colour that would best enhance the projections. We had to put in all the electricity cabling for the additional projectors that needed to go in there and as well as the ceiling one to go straight down to the floor. We had to make sure there was a phone in there, so that if there’s an emergency or child has a seizure, that we can get help. And so, we started chipping away at all those jobs, which required quite a lot of services to come in, and we took advice from the people who we did eventually go through. And we looked at then funding the actual immersive classroom technology.

RV: Wow, so clearly there is so much thought that went into it. So, Ruth, could you tell me a bit about the immersive classroom you have at your school? So, what it is exactly and how does it work?

RR: So, it already comes loaded with a lot of great resources, many of which are educational, and so it’s a multi-point of touch. So, every wall and the floor is set with projections which are teaching opportunities. But multiple points can be touched. So, like if you're working on an iPad and your thumb happens to touch the screen of the iPad and then you try pressing something, it won’t allow you to access the functionality of the iPad because your thumb has made the first contact and therefore it thinks your thumb is requesting something of the of the software. But if we say, have a numeracy activity going in there, there’s one that's loading which has got balloons with numbers on it or balloons with colours on it. So, you can say to a class – and we've got 6 students in there with 2 staff and we'd say ‘who can find number 6? Where’s number 6?’ And the children can jump up and touch it. They can touch it down below, they can touch it on that wall on the floor. So, lots of children can access because it it’s not like, ‘oh wait because that child’s pressing it’ or ‘wait now everybody else because it’s that child’s turn’. You get lots of opportunities to touch.

So besides some very typical educational opportunities, there are lots of scenarios which are either animated or videos which are also loaded onto it. So, some of them might be … there’s some great ones that are seasonal experiences; and for our children at Karonga to get them to the snow would be, I wouldn't say impossible, but it would be huge because of students who have intellectual disability and autism who would struggle to go on long distances, who would struggle with mobility to even access snow, for instance. But you can go into the immersive classroom and we turn the air conditioning down to the lowest setting, so 16. So, you've got a freezing cold room, you’ve got snow and it’s footage – so it is as if it is snowing. And the snow is falling. And the children can go along to the wall and they can put their arm against the wall, just like you could in real life and the snow gathers on your arm because your arm is against the wall. And then immediately you move your arm, the snow falls. So, there’s real context and cause and effect for our students to learn that that’s the nature of snow. It doesn’t just go through your arm, it actually can gather and form clumps.

Now additionally to that, we’ve got some polystyrene balls that we can use as snowballs. We’ve also made some using wool and, you know, a bit like the pompom on a beanie and you can make soft woollen balls and you can throw them in there as if you’re having a snowball fight. And so, we've got trays of resources that the staff can choose to take into the room, which have, like, beanies. So, a set of beanies you can pull on your head. You can wear gloves because it’s cold and this is what snowy looks like and you can throw snowballs and enhance that whole experience – because, without it to look at an image of a snow scene or to look at a video on an interactive whiteboard doesn’t give you that full exposure.

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RV: Ruth, I also understand that the immersive classroom has helped students to learn more about the community in which they live. Could you tell me a bit about that?

RR: So, it gives them an opportunity which is devoid of other distractions. So, if you’re doing about seasons and weathers and we have to wear warmer clothes on cold days and we’re going to go in there and experience real cold because in some places in the world, it snows and you’re giving them these opportunities. So, it gives them opportunities to experience things they wouldn’t normally without the distractions of the whole classroom, or other children doing different activities on different smart boards, or different iPads, or different technology, or different books. Because when you go in there, the whole room is dedicated to a theme, so whether it’s an interactive scene – so some of the software that’s loaded is with animation; so you can go in there and have the story of the Three Little Pigs, or you can have the story of some Disney experiences to reinforce, you know, particular enjoyments for the children. And it means that you can really focus the students’ attention.

In addition to all this, the software that comes loaded, you can add to it. And so, as part and parcel of the whole provision, you're given a special camera. So that camera, which looks a little, I guess like a traditional digital camera, but it has a 360-degree scope attached to it – as you take it to our local shopping centre, if you were to walk through that shopping centre, it’s just taking images in a wraparound effect, it is capturing that image which you then bring back to school. And so, we have a dedicated small room set with 4 screens – 3 left, right and front and one that’s in front of the keyboard – which is the floor of the immersive classroom, where you can then take the camera and upload the video footage you’ve just taken at the shopping centre. And even though you’re going shopping once a week, you can actually practice on other days and go into the immersive classroom, go to the little computer and say ‘I want that footage of our local shopping centre’. And it brings it up and you can put the children in the position of saying you’ve just, you know, maybe exited the car park and you say, ‘where do we go for Woolworths?’ ‘Which way is Coles?’ and you get the children to point and to touch and to learn direction, to practice those skills, rather than only practice it once a week in the real place.

And on a side note, but it is related to this, I’ve been working with Woolworths to install a mini Woolies here at school. So in the next holidays, besides the crossing, we’re having a mini Woolies installed at our school and Woolworths are working with us to put the racking in, to put a scanner and to put [an actual terminal] to practice scanning of items so that you can purchase your materials that you want for your cooking program. And so, when I was talking to them about how we can use a mini Woolies and practice, I told them about the immersive classroom and because these are people from head office and they’re coming out, I think 7 September to do some final work, she said, ‘Well, I could actually arrange for your school to gain access to Woolworths before it opens to the public, so 6am, if you can have one of your teachers…’ and our deputy as agreed to do this because he lives locally and he can go up to Woolies at our local Woolies at Carlingford Court can take the 3D camera and use the camera and walk through our local Woolworths with their permissions and actually take the footage of the layout of the very shop that they will go into. And so, they can come back here, we can install that footage and they can practice going into Woolworths and they can orientate to ‘where is the milk?’ And they can go as if they’re going up the aisles. So, this is added another dimension of like, that's great. And so they work with us to get those permissions and really add to what we’re currently doing.

RV: It’s so wonderful to hear that companies like Woolworths are partnering with you to bring this initiative to life and I guess too, making a genuine difference to the lives of students. We’ve spoken a bit about how much the students have gotten out of it, but I was wondering what has the feedback been like from families. What do they think of the immersive classroom?

RR: Well, they’ve been blown away. It’s somewhere that’s hard to describe, so every time we have Education Week, when we have our open day and when Founders Day is on, it’s available in there with staff around. I mean, if you went in there first thing in the morning, you go in, you’d need to put the light on because it’s really blacked out in there. There’s only very small windows because don’t forget it was built as a resource room. And so you go in that there’s a cabinet about the size of the fridge and that is the ‘brains’ of it … it is server for the room. So it’s a blackened fridge which you have to have the key to get into, but all the walls are just plain, they look a bit off-white because it was the exact colour that we needed, there’s nothing else that’s in there. There’s a little panel on the wall, there’s one for a light switch, there’s the phone, and there’s a little panel in the corner for the air conditioning so you can make it compliant with whatever you’re teaching or anything.

And so, you go in there and then you've got to calibrate it in the morning. So, we have somebody whose job it is in the morning (amongst some other features around the school) to go in there and you have to turn it all on and calibrate all the terminals that shine all the images down. So, he gets it set up with an activity and he can set it up with anything just so it’s ready. And then teachers can go in and do their own thing, but it’s ready for use. So that if you see one of our members of staff whose job it is to set it up, you could even say to him, look, ‘we go in there on a Tuesday morning, can you make sure it’s set up with the balloons that pop when you press the numbers’ or ‘The 3 Pigs’ or something, and he will get it ready so that you can just go in and start using it straight away because a lot of our children aren’t good at waiting.

So it’s the same with you know, our parents are very confused, so I've tried to write an a synopsis of what the immersive classroom is in the newsletter and to the P&C when I was telling them that this is an initiative we were doing. And it’s really hard thing to describe because it’s new technology and I’m only aware … when we had it installed, I thought we were the fourth in the state and I'm not sure what the numbers are now but you’re still looking at very small numbers. So, the parents are just very inquisitive and they’ll see it on their child’s timetable or if the children are verbal, they say to them ‘I did this’, ‘I did that’. And some of the children have got little names for it, so we’ve got some children call it ‘the bee room’ and I’m going ‘the bee room?’ (because we just called it the immersive classroom because that's what internationally it’s known as). But, apparently, we’ve got one of the activities you can go in there is it's got bees in it and they go buzzing around and you have to capture them. … and I guess that that’s what motivates that child, or they found that an easy word to say, so we sort of go with it. But the parents have just really enjoyed seeing the range of experiences.

What I would also say is that when we were looking to install it and I was explaining to the P&C how important a room this was going to represent, I said ‘for many of our students, taking them into the real world is really hard. It’s hard because maybe they've got mobility issues, maybe they’ve got behavioural challenges, or they have inappropriate behaviours. And so just being able to take children to the local Woolies or being able to take them to the train station, which is a scary place with all the sounds and smells and everything, that it’s brought the world to the children’.

And so, it felt like a neat way of explaining that, for some of our students who are not yet able to go into the community – and the parents themselves are saying I can’t take them to the local shopping centre, it just freaks them out, it just really distresses them – we can bring the shopping centre to them. And so we can take video footage, we can provide the ambient environment as if they are there, leading up … you know we never say ‘never’, we're not saying that they will never go into the community, but we are saying they’re not yet ready. And so the immersive classroom can give them that exposure and that experience with a future that maybe one day they can, they can cope.

RV: So you’ve mentioned The Epping Club a few times now, and I know they contributed financially to the immersive classroom project through their ClubGrants Program. Could you tell me a bit more about your partnership with The Epping Club and the funding that helped to make the immersive classroom possible?

RR: Yes, The Epping Club … our school is based in Epping, so our address says Epping; and the Epping Club, which serves the local community, didn’t know we existed. I think that they’d been generous sponsors of a few different organisations, and continue to, and they had reason, one of their members had reason to visit our school. And he said ‘I had no idea you were here and I’m on the panel of The Epping Club’. So, I showed them around and explained the nature of our students. Our students come from about up to about a 20-kilometre radius and they all have an intellectual disability that come here. And in addition, they may well have autism, vision impairment or be blind, hearing impairment or be deaf, mobility issues, about a quarter of the school use wheelchairs full time. And so they were blown away with the outreach our school has and how we are based in their same locality.

And so, they said, ‘can we help you in anyway?’ And we said, ‘well, what you give us the opportunity to do is make a significant investment in a significant item’ because the money that we get from the department – and we are very well funded, but we have about 40 staff here and, you know, 72 children, and so we’re very staff heavy and grounds heavy. And that money, the majority of our money, is spent on staffing. And so, when we look at what money we have to enrich the children’s environment, you know that’s really, we’re trying to provide so many opportunities for our children, replicate the community, but it just makes it super expensive to try and provide everything.

And so, you know, I do as a principal rent out various places around our school and generate our own income. And that’s great, because I rent out the swimming pool, for instance, every school holidays and after school – mainstream children can come here and use our swimming pool and we get paid rent, as it were, by local organisations. And so, we’re constantly trying to revamp and review our provisions. But our kids are heavy on stuff. And so even the pool money, my first priority is to make sure that the pool is great and that we meet current standards and that we’ve got money put aside for a very expensive commodity. But then I've also been trying to like revamp our playgrounds. Because our children are really heavy on stuff, and they pick at things and they can destroy things, but only because they’re curious.

So, so much of the funding goes back to just revising what we have. But when you look at something like ‘let’s bring in some new technology and let’s really invest in this cutting edge’ (which, in this case is called the immersive classroom), it needed such a lot of investment all in one go. Because we could chip away at putting all the power points in, ripping out the walls and putting new Gyprock and finishing it in the right colours, ripping up the floor and redoing that. But then you need a significant amount of money, you can’t do the technology in bits and bobs. And so, we approached The Epping Club to say ‘is this something you could work with us on? That by doing so, you brought the outside world to our children that they really struggle to access’.

And so, they've just been really interested in what we’re doing. They're really curious about ‘wow, we’ve not heard of that’. And so, they come out to our school. We always do an opening where we can formally thank them. And they put on a morning tea and we invite parents – anyone is welcome to come in and see what we’re working in partnership with the community. And now they’ve just been working with us on a broader range of initiatives. And they’d ask that, you know, ‘is there a current 2023 project that they could help us with?’ And I'm going, ‘I’d love it, because we want to put in this road crossing. We want to provide an authentic road crossing here.’ Transport for NSW can’t put it in because it’s on our private ground, it’s on school grounds. And, you know, you're talking 6-figure sum … you've even got to have the access so that a wheelchair can go down off the pavement onto the road. We need the electricity to so that the students can press the button and listen for the cue, as well as wait for the green man to tell them it’s time to cross … as well as putting the traffic lights in and making it as if it’s in the community.

Because even when I had the Transport for NSW come out to quote me for how much this was going to cost (because I didn’t how much it's going to cost, I’ve never known of another school to put one in so I couldn’t say ‘how much did it cost you 2 years ago?’), and they were saying ‘it's about 6-figure sum’. They were saying ‘you don’t really need the traffic lights, do you? Because the children aren’t looking at the traffic lights’, and I said ‘you're right, but if it doesn't look real, the children are not really responding in the normal way, and they have to believe that this is just the same traffic system as in Parramatta or as in Epping. So, we still, we want the traffic lights.’ And that’s what they’re installing. And that's what I impressed upon the person from Transport for NSW.

And so, when The Epping Club had said, ‘do you have any current projects?’ and ‘what were you thinking?’ and ‘what would that look like?’ and, you know, ‘how would it benefit the students?’ and how, you know, ‘how would it impact student learning?’ I did a sort of application that showed that this would really fit neatly into providing those life skills for our students.

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As a school leader, how do you work to build meaningful partnerships with your local community? In what ways do these partnerships meet student needs, and improve their learning and connections to the community in which they live? How could you approach more organisations or groups in your community and encourage them to contribute to the work you’re doing at school?