School leadership: Improving student access to books

Encouraging students to develop a love of reading has been a key aim of Christies Beach Primary School’s improvement plan for the last three years. In 2021, the focus for the South Australian school is reading comprehension.

While students’ reading was improving, they weren’t able to articulate how they understood what it was they were reading. Staff also identified an issue with students who were reluctant to try reading books that were unfamiliar to them, instead often choosing books in a series that they’d become accustomed to.

Principal Catherine O’Dea says this means students were unlikely to extend themselves or take any risks when choosing a new book. ‘We’ve tried to overcome this through lots of different ways,’ she tells Teacher.

‘For example, we’ve made sure that every class has a class library containing at least 100 books – because even if they can’t borrow from the library because they may have lost their books at home, they can still access books on that shelf every day.

‘The other thing that I’m doing is ensuring that we have our library categorised like book stores do, so that instead of it being categorised according to the Dewey system in numbers and the author, they’re actually put into areas of interest. The kids came up with these themselves a couple of years ago – one is humour, one is graphic novels, one comedy, another one is fantasy – so we just found by doing that, it showed our kids what was in the library a lot more and they were able to locate books, and from there they could safely take some more risks.’

O’Dea has been Principal of Christies Beach since 2018. The school has 270 students from rich and diverse backgrounds, with nearly a quarter of students identifying as Indigenous. At the same time, the school faces complex challenges – 75 per cent of kids live below the poverty line, 24 per cent receive funding for a disability and 5 per cent of students are in care under the Guardianship of a Minister.

Given this, O’Dea says her staff work together with the help of local support services and allied health professionals to support students and minimise any barriers they face to their learning. This includes a breakfast and reading club each morning, yoga and dance programs two mornings a week, and beach walks to make links to sustainability practices and stay connected to the land. ‘We can see the beach down the street, so we use that as a classroom as well,’ she says.

‘Often I think the challenge with something like reading for a community such as Christies Beach is actually allowing and enabling kids to have access to good books, because often our kids come to school not seeing themselves as readers because they don’t see that happening at home,’ she adds.

Modelling reading across the school

O’Dea is passionate about modelling reading across the school and showing students the enjoyment they can find in books. ‘Every assembly I read a book to the whole school and I expect all of our teachers to be reading aloud to our kids every day,’ she says.

‘We have got partnerships in the community with organisations like United Way – which is the foundation started by Dolly Parton back in the United States of America whereby 25 of our preschoolers are currently receiving a book pack once a month to their home address.

‘We’re hoping by the time these children come to school next year, they would have been exposed to some really rich literature and the adults in their lives will be reading to them because the kids will be so excited when they receive these book packs. The feedback already is positive, so that’s really exciting.’

Boat library book donations

The local Men’s Shed is also on board the school’s reading journey, and built a book boathouse on the front steps of the school. It’s a book library that people can add to or take away for free.

‘The student leaders helped design that with retired people from the Men’s Shed, so that’s a really visual representation of what our school is aiming for,’ O’Dea adds.

A focus on school leadership

O’Dea’s work in her school community was recently recognised when she was named a recipient of the 2021 Principals Scholarships to attend a leadership course at Harvard University. She is one of three outstanding principals who will undertake a professional education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that is specifically designed to strengthen the skills of educational leaders.

She says she’s looking forward to taking part in the experience and working with other educators from across the world to learn new things and gain some new perspectives.

‘My particular interest is the accessibility to books and reading material, and we’re competing not only with the fact that our kids’ families don’t have books in their homes but now we’re competing with all of the instant gratification and the fact that kids find lots of their time taken up at home in front of a screen,’ she says.

‘I think for me to get some ideas into how to continually engage community would be really helpful and I think the exciting thing is it’s with educators from around the world so it’s not just learning from the lecturers, it’s learning from the other principals and that’s what excites me.’

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that 2021 recipients of the scholarship will be waiting until July 2022 to take part in the course in Boston, but O’Dea says she thinks it will be worth the wait. ‘I think it’s about having the opportunity to examine leadership from a different perspective and just to take some time out to gain some of that objectivity that I think you lose from being immersed in your school community.

‘So for me, that’s what I’m looking forward to, to actually take some time out from the busy schedule that I have as a principal here and also to be able to reflect on how far we’ve come as a school and then where to next.’

This year’s Principals Scholars are: Damien Keel from Yarrawonga College P-12 in Victoria (Teachers Mutual Bank Principals Scholarship); Jenny Boyall from Katoomba High School in New South Wales (Harvard Club of Australia Principals Scholarship) and Catherine O’Dea from Christies Beach Primary School in South Australia (Public Education Foundation Principal Scholarship). Each Principal’s Scholarship includes program tuition for one of two Harvard Graduate School of Education programs: Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership or Leadership: An Evolving Vision.

Think about the priorities outlined in your school’s improvement plan. How are you working together with staff and the wider community to achieve these goals? How are you measuring the success of the programs you’ve implemented?

As a teacher, how do you work to instil a love of reading in the students you teach? In what ways do you promote reading for enjoyment?