The Long Term View

By Barbara Hopcraft, Parent, Past-President of School Council, Teacher’s Aide and Front Office Admin

I love the fact that educational innovation happens in Dandenong, the area in which I live. This changes from seeing everything once painted a horrible pale green to knowing we were going implement something extraordinary here was exciting. We were going to implement an educational approach that wasn’t implemented in the most richest school. The fact that my father taught at a private boys’ school, I believe, has allowed me to see what parents think that money buys them for the education of their child: I mean, I understand their expectations for success.  Whereas our parents, you know, pay minimal fees, but we have the same high expectation which you might find at a private school because of the dedication and vision Ray and Esme [Capp] put in place twenty two years ago when they changed the look and practice of the school.

They didn’t let the prejudice about the school’s location stop them from changing it. They were changing Wooranna Park to give the children every opportunity to succeed. And that’s what I always admired about what they were doing because it was, as a parent, they refused to place limitation on what that meant. For instance, I’ve noticed how many schools in an low socio-economic area put the emphasis solely on playing sports. The attitude ignore parents like me who love the arts and actually don’t like competitive sport.  I know that’s just a personal thing but I wanted a school which encouraged my children to look at everything. As I believed in taking my children out of school to attend an art exhibition, I wanted a school that would do the same for them. I like the fact that we slowly moved the school into that way of thinking as well.

I just like the fact that an area deemed to be a bad area has achieved so much for children. Yes, there is a drug problem in the suburbs, so long as you remember how the people from the leafy suburbs come here to buy the drugs. Social problems don’t seem to me to have boundaries. I grew up in the very multicultural area of Springvale. I grew up in a family who were badly affected by the Great Depression. I didn’t have a lot of money growing up but we had lots of talk and debate and lots of interest in different things. My parents would take me to see the Royal Shakespeare Company. They would take me to do lots of activities. Life in so-called low socio-economic area aren’t  just this one dimensional thing, you know.

Calling Dandenong home

What I see in Dandenong is that there may not much money we are culturally rich. It’s gone from being a town where the farmers came to sell their animals and produce, to this incredible place with all its beautiful shops, restaurants and theatre. Yes, there’s a downside sometimes when people who come here are displaced and don’t know how to fit in, but there’s also this wonderful thing that the children at school bring with their diverse cultural background. I went to a meal recently at the home of one of our Afghan families. The way that I was made to feel so special, even as I communicated our lovely student, a daughter of the house, “Tell your parents that I’ll need to move in permanently because I can’t get back up again from sitting on the floor”.  But how could I be anything but grateful for their hospitality, sitting in a beautiful room preserved for special guests.

I love that the school’s location is so interesting. Some of my friends have the view that everything should be about Aussie, Aussie Aussie, nothing else. Whereas there are others, like me, who love the richness that diverse cultures bring to Australia. I remember the first Greek girl who came to my primary school.  We’d never seen a Greek person before and here was this poor girl feeling odd because everyone was staring at her. I contrast that to my life today as I see beautiful faces of children from all over the world, appearing at my office window. And I just love it. I think it’s wonderful. Their parent have given up so much to bring their children to the other side of the world for a better life. They’ve gone through so much to do it. We’ve got detractors, people like Pauline Hanson and their ignorances but, I just love it. I think it’s amazing.

Culturally, we are made very rich through our children at Wooranna Park: they share their dancing, they speak sometimes three languages. We have six years old who speak English and Dari and Arabic. And I think, “My god, I’m struggling to speak English!” So I love that the school’s decision to begin the journey  twenty-two years ago was motivated by focusing on our children. Before that time, for a lot of them, there was this whole about thing going on for young people in our area that life began and ended at Dandenong Plaza. Now, we are showing them the world, showing them what’s available and not putting limits on what they can do.

We don’t say to them they will change the world automatically but we tell them there’s an opportunity that they could if they embrace all the opportunities that are presented to them and not limit them. We show them that schools should never be like a sausage factory, pushing out identical products. I know my son Ash would have perhaps gone a different path if what he valued as a child had been respected by his teachers.  The children here experience such respect everyday as they live the reality that what they value is also valued by their teachers. I saw the difference such respect made on my other children: James had more of it, than Jess but Ash and Tim didn’t have any of it.

In 1985, it was chair bags and tubs. See your seat, that’s where you’re sitting all year. We had four classrooms in which learning about the letter A happened in the same way as every other school in Victoria. That’s how it was for the older two. Then things started to change when Jess was in grade six. She got a little bit of a taste of the Wooranna approach.  James was here when the whole system came into being. I’d say the difference it made for him was that it made him more of an independent learner. I reckon it gave him an edge. 

Perhaps we don’t communicate the difference we make to children’s lives loudly enough. I was talking to a former student, a boy who now attends  Glen Waverley Secondary College. I noticed how clearly he could see himself as a learner, and consequently tell me what he could see wasn’t working for him at his high school. I listen how he planned to modify how he reacted to things he could see were not working in the system. I was heartened by want he was doing because most of the time you don’t get perfect systems or teachers. I remember how often my father would comment, “My god, there’s a lot of educated idiots around here.” It’s not a qualification that’s printed on paper that necessarily conveys if you are good teacher, it’s the character and commitment of a person that makes a good teacher. 

We have made extraordinary changes here. I loved observing the opportunity which presented itself when Mary Featherstone worked here, with the children, and re-designed the actual environment. I think that it would have been really interesting for her too, because she’s from the leafy suburbs and she had work with such limited budget here at Wooranna Park. I mean, Ray, has built all of the extras here with his own hands. He built the Dragonboat and the Spaceship which he wanted to be like the deck of the USS Enterprise. He built the bus in the Prep area. Kids have been playing on that structure for years.  I think about all of that dedication which can literally see being realised through Ray, with my husband as is willing assistant.

I remember how Mary Featherstone arrived at her design. She was a delightful lady who sat and talked the children about what they wanted in their environment. Some things worked, some things didn’t. It’s been modified over the years but it’s the overall movement of the school evolving and changing inside which remains so evident for all to see.  Today, we have the beautiful garden work and additions at the front. Before, you’d drive past this school and think, “Well, there is 1971 for you, nothing’s changed.” Nothing showed what was going on inside. I’d say the same thing about the changes to the school uniform. Today, it’s a more modern looking uniform, not the one that I helped introduce in 1991. 

I love seeing how it has all evolved on a shoestring budget. It made me quite upset then when a Government Minister, not the present one, who came through as if he was asleep. The ‘care factor’ was a great big zero and I wanted to say to him, look at what’s happening!!!. It has always annoyed me that we get people from all over the world coming to visit this school, yet until Gabrielle Williams took a keen interest in the school, the people of our state weren’t aware of what we did. We had people from Adelaide and it was interesting and the Catholic schools of New South Wales. People came from New Zealand and, on one remarkable day,  I had to go and say to Ray some I never thought I’d say, “The Spanish nuns you met in Milan are here to see you!” Yes, a group of Spanish nuns came and visited us. They’re respected as great innovators in education in Spain. 

So, I’ve always wondered why the people in charge of education in this area aren’t aware of how good this school is at its work. I think, in part, it’s because Ray is very humble and he doesn’t take praise well: he doesn’t expect it and doesn’t want it.  As School Council President, I got to meet many principals in many different schools. I have met principals that are like used car salesmen. They are very different from the principals who frame everything they do for the children. Ray is one of those selfless ones. He doesn’t big note himself, he doesn’t want it all to be about him and his achievements. He wants the work to represent everything. He could have come here in 1987 and just bided at his time to retirement and dusted off lesson plans and left everything is it was. No one would have got upset. No one would have been sad. It would have gone on as it has for every other school in the area. But I’ve always believed that he became excited inspired by education again and he worked really hard with his assistant principals and staff over twenty two years to bring about change.

Now, the school keeps growing its worldwide reputation, with the George Lucas Foundation coming to see our school, our little school in a low socio-economic area. I mean, there should be more schools like ours offering autonomous learning to children. Because if a child’s from a family that doesn’t speak English, or because of the political situation they come from a country whose parents have had their education disrupted, face limited opportunities. But if they can come to a school that believe in them, and their parents can be helped at the same time, it’s all to the good. It’s not unknown here for our teachers giving English classes for some of their mums. 

I recognise how much families at our school want good things for their children, like mine wanted for me. Both my parents only went to year eight because that’s all that was on offer. Through his own efforts, my dad became a woodwork teacher by going to night school for two years and my mother also did her HSC when I was studying for mine. And when I didn’t do well in my HSC my father just looked at me and reminded, “You’re more intelligent than your brother,” who had he just finished his university degree. And so then when I did eventually get to university in the year after he died, and I’m standing outside getting all these lovely marks, I’m crying because my dad wasn’t there to see it. But the encouragement was there for me, as I gave my own children. That’s the ethos of this school, wanting children to have access to opportunity. It just gives them so much scope and it doesn’t give them a false impression of themselves. It just shows them what’s available.

The staff here are so dedicated, most of the time to their own detriment because they get very tired and very worn out through doing so much. They want so much for the children to have every advantage. It was wonderful to work as a teacher’s aide and help children reach their potential as well, it was just a joy. But working in an innovative school environment is hard work and it’s very hard work for the teachers. That’s what it has taken, when I think over the last 33 years that I’ve been involved with this school and marvel how it has evolve from a basic, ordinary, boring, little suburban school into something that’s quite magical and quite extraordinary. 

School Council President

My reason for going on school council was a selfish one. I was of the opinion that if parents support teachers get what they need to teach well, my children benefit. If the teachers are supported, my children benefit. However, I’ve seen a lot of people go on to a school council with the view that somewhere in their past they were wronged by a teacher and this is their chance to get back at what went wrong. And I have never ever thought that. I had brilliant teachers and the ones who weren’t so brilliant, well, that was their problem but I always felt that if  you can help someone get the right tools to do the job, it benefits everyone. And that was my idea behind all the fundraising I did, the extra work I carried out.

My children knew that come November, when I would go and do the cooking on the camp with the kids, followed by the school graduation event, they didn’t see much of me. One of the gibes I got from them when I looked like I was getting stressed was, “Oh, pretend it’s for the school, Mum, and everything will be fine.” 

I did give a lot of time to the school.  I was also working part-time when I was President. I was a little disappointed to be criticised by another woman one day when she said that I hadn’t been at school much. Did she make the same criticism of male presidents before me? Of course, positions of leadership open you up to scrutiny. You are part of the minority of two or three of us who do a lot. Then there are others,  I called them ‘the-why-don’t-you-brigade’. Regardless of what was done they would respond with why didn’t you do what they thought your should do? Not that they actually did anything to help but they would exercise their right to criticize. It was interesting when we became self-governing school and Ray and I would go around to different schools to try and to get them on board with the idea. 

The idea of self-governing schools was based on a New Zealand model. The model worked on schools being given the money from the government and then having to work within that budget. It didn’t take off because because there was a change of government from Liberal to Labor and Labor and its Union philosophy didn’t like model because basically it gave schools the power to differentiate the salary of its teachers based on their performance. After this experiment, we became a specialist school for the gifted and talented, It was at this point that Ray had what seemed to be an epiphany and stood up to  change the school on the belief that every child is gifted. However, the Department can intervene to ensure that issues around merit and equity have been met. You can’t advertise a job and automatically fill it by placing someone in the school in the position. Jobs have to go to the best-qualified person and that may not be the person who is in-house at the time. 

Nonetheless, I think, one year contract demotivate young teachers starting out. You can see that relief on their face when they’re given permanency. “Oh, I can buy a house now because I’ve got, I’m going to have an income.”  All that uncertainty around the tenuousness of the job when there’s only a one year contract I feel is really hard on the profession. But I think that that is all changing again. I’m bring up the point because it’s connected to another strong belief of mine, which is that teachers are still not paid nearly enough. If you look at what they do and what they achieve, anyone involved with working with children seems to be paid a pittance, say, compared to the financial sector. Look at the rate of pay for integration aides.  It’s a ridiculously small amount of money that they are paid for what they do: many believe, for instance that aides rescue the children. They And sadly, it’s gone from being a job where the children might have a physical or intellectual blocker of learning to now an emotional and mental health issue. I found that change very draining and it was one of the reasons I moved from being an aide to working in the school office. I could switch off at the end of the day, so I would take take their problems home with me.

My years on the council have given me a further appreciation of Ray as principal. He would always come to school council with his list, which was never unreasonable. I didn’t rubber stamp it,  but I did back him up all the way. I think that there’s a difference between between being blindly obedient and rationally question things. I found out in time from in-services given to school council presidents this was not the case in other schools. One president told how they would put a roll duct tape on the table if the principal went too far. I remember joking with about the size of his principal’s report by making it physically smaller. I thought the suggestion hilarious anyway.  

But seriously, Ray never came from the point of view of making himself look fantastic. That’s never, ever been his reason for doing anything. His reason for doing everything is for the benefit the school. That’s what I’ve always admired about him. I used to say to him, working for him is what I have always imagined it would have been like working for my father, the educator. He smiles and replies, “I know how much you loved your father. So, I take that as a compliment.” We have a good relationship. I respect him and I think he respects me. The thing is, I like him as a person.