Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards
Malak Primary School (NT)
By refusing to compromise on academic standards and renewing connections to its community, Principal Lorraine Evans has turned around the fortunes of an under-performing Darwin primary school.
She works with feeder day care centres and the local high school to create a “golden thread” of connected education, ensuring that students at Malak Primary School – half of whom are Indigenous – can meet expected standards when they transition to the next tier of schooling.
Students are rewarded for being able to articulate their own learning goals, and achievements are heading upwards: years 3 to 5 are exceeding national numeracy gains standards and the number of students assessed as educationally vulnerable is falling. Parents and teachers are warmly supportive.
Lorraine stays motivated by the conviction that, “Every child can learn – maybe not at the same pace or in the same way – but everyone can learn.”
In the decade to 2016, the average tenure of a Principal at Malak Primary School was a year and a half. Leadership styles came and went through the revolving door, while student performance steadily declined.
Enter Lorraine Evans. She had already led five NT primary and middle schools, and she defined her first priority as principal at Malak, in Darwin’s northern suburbs: to reconnect the 200 student school to its community – families, the feeder day care centre, the high school and local organisations – offering commitment and stability to set in train a “golden thread” of educational improvement spanning the earliest years right through to Year 12.
“Our early childhood students were not even at the starting gate,” Mrs Evans said. The Malak Preschool fell below national quality standards, and an assessors’ report called frankly for change. Low standards and low expectations followed children into primary, with a high but necessary rate of speech referrals and a staggering 60 per cent deemed vulnerable in at least one physical, emotional, social or cognitive domain.
Despite these results, Mrs Evans sensed “complacency” around the school, where more than half of students are Indigenous and which has the highest level of social disadvantage in its area. To counter that, she set a “big hairy audacious goal” that all students would progress at least one PAT Reading band by their next assessment.
Then she set about supporting teachers to deliver on the challenge. She networked the preschool with a University of Melbourne pilot to enhance maths learning through games. She engaged an ESL teacher to address concerns about spoken language, fixed up the physical environment and threw out old resources.
She coached primary teachers in areas such as data analysis, and implemented support programs including the Gateways to Literacy Project and Communication Friendly Classrooms. She brought in the Smith Family to provide Learning for Life scholarships, and even the author Johanna Bell to work with Year 5 and 6 students to create a picture book.
Mrs Evans wanted the children to take pride in their learning too. Individual reading goals were charted on wall displays, and students who could describe their strategy for getting there received a coveted “Gotcha” token.
The results are rolling in. By the school’s assessment, 86% of students have improved in reading. Among a small group mentored by specially trained middle school students, six are reading a year or more above their actual age. Years 3 to 5 are exceeding Australian numeracy standards, and fewer children are being assessed as vulnerable.
Mrs Evans’ confidence in her staff and students is reflected back at her. 100 per cent of parents said through a survey that they now have confidence to discuss their child’s learning. Staff endorsement of Malak Primary has almost doubled to 86 per cent.
Despite the “gut wrenching lows and ecstatic highs,” of being a leader in education, Mrs Evans stays motivated by a conviction: that “every child can learn – maybe not at the same pace or in the same way – but everyone can learn.”