Project-based curriculum offered at middle school

charter school south auckland middle school N2South Auckland Middle School, one of New Zealand’s first Partnership Schools, opened its doors in Term One of 2014 at 198 Mahia Rd, Manurewa.

The school was set up by the Villa Education Trust (VET), and is based on the first school established by the trust – Mt Hobson Middle School, which opened in 2003. South Auckland Middle School has a maximum roll of 120 students across years 7 to 10.
The trust’s founder and academic director, Alwyn Poole, who developed the schools’ integrated, project-based curriculum, guided South Auckland Middle School through the set-up process which began in September 2013. Mr Poole, who has a Masters in Education, has been involved in teaching and education since he completed his first degree. In the wake of the success of Mt Hobson Middle School, he says he was prompted to establish South Auckland Middle School because he believed that “too many issues that negate children’s learning are swept under the carpet as being too hard to change”.

“I have worked in state and private schools for in excess of 21 years. Being involved in the design and set-up of a partnership school is an opportunity to improve the outcomes for a number of children – and model something different for those interested.”

Mr Poole says he loves working with young people and seeing them succeed, especially when they and their families (and previous schools) think they can’t.

“That’s the first thing I enjoy about my role. Secondly, for me the design and implementation of a model is both enjoyable and a challenge.”

There are a number of key features that characterise VET schools. These are an in-class student:teacher ratio of no more than 15:1; individualised education for each student; a modified day structure to allow learning outside the classroom and the use of community resources. It also allows for students to develop skills through independent learning; excellent learning resources including up-to-date and thoughtfully used ICT; a Christian philosophy and values base to the curriculum and school.

Mr Poole and the staff at South Auckland Middle School recognise that the middle years of a young person’s life – ages 10-15, are a crucial developmental period. Therefore, the school provides a supportive environment where the students’ personal, emotional, academic, physical, social and spiritual needs are met.

Attending a middle school also gives the students an opportunity to be children for a bit longer, Mr Poole says.

“It gives them more time to explore their own interests and dreams without the pressure for precocious social development that can occur at intermediates and large secondary schools at the junior level.

“However, a large amount of energy and commitment is required from each student and they will develop personally as well as academically. They will improve their co-operative learning skills and will love learning at South Auckland Middle School and beyond.”

SND05-wk4--Profile-Sth Akld Middle School   300x225The curriculum at South Auckland Middle School is based on the eight essential learning areas (ELAs) identified in the New Zealand curriculum, which also specifies five groupings of key competencies – thinking, using language, symbols and texts, managing self, relating to others, and participating and contributing. The teachers at South Auckland Middle School help students to develop the specific skills that make up these groupings, as well as other areas, Mr Poole says.

The school’s curriculum is both integrated and project based. An integrated curriculum is seen as a means of breaking down the artificial barriers between subjects as they have been traditionally taught, treating knowledge as being seamless and inter-related. Within the school’s written curriculum, the staff ensures all areas of the ELAs are covered at the appropriate levels.

A project-based curriculum treats the investigation of a topic as the basis for learning. The students complete eight projects each year, with the topics encompassing the full ELA requirements for that level.

“The projects give the students the opportunity to direct their own learning and work to a depth and breadth that can be difficult to achieve within a traditional structure. Working on the projects enhances their learning and thinking skills as well as their basic academic skills of reading, writing and mathematics,” Mr Poole says.

Music and art are also be incorporated into the students’ project-based learning. As well, one afternoon a week is set aside for music study and another for art.

South Auckland Middle School students also have their own I.B.P. or Individual Base Plan. This identifies their interests, strengths, areas that need development, goals and progress measurements. Each child’s plan is developed in a negotiated process between them, their parents and school staff.

“Effectively, what will be achieved are the structures for the best kind of education that are offered to gifted and talented children in some schools, but at our school, it will be for each student,” Mr Poole says.

“Their range of abilities will be recognised and developed using the best learning theory and applications available, with the knowledge that intelligence is not a fixed entity, but able to be developed in each child.”

Sport is another key area of the school’s curriculum, with the students participating in sporting activities two afternoons a week.

The main form of assessment for students’ work is their eight completed projects each year. At the end of each term, they are also tested on the traditional subjects.

“This is to allow them and their parents to be sure they are being advantaged by the mode of learning we are using and to give them a comparison against normal New Zealand school criteria,” Mr Poole says.

“Where we see them as relevant and worth the experience, we will participate in the Australian mathematics, science and English competitions.”

Students and their parents are able to see what progress is being made and where improvements are needed with the comprehensive formal report that is issued at the end of term two and term four. Ongoing verbal and written feedback areprovided during the course of the year, and parents are welcome to take part in the school’s programme at any time.

With regards to National Standards reporting, Mr Poole and his staff see a number of disadvantages in National Standards reporting being included with the South Auckland Middle School reports.

“For this reason, we will include National Standards reporting for years 7 and 8 with the I.B.P. base document, which is issued at the end of term one and term three,” Mr Poole says.

South Auckland Middle School provides a range of teaching spaces, including art/technology rooms and science rooms, as well as areas for individual and small-group learning. The school is fully equipped with ICT facilities – desktops, laptops, data projectors, printers and cameras.

In the afternoons, the local parks, sports facilities, businesses, libraries, museums and art galleries become the learning environment.

“With everything we offer, we believe that students leaving South Auckland Middle School will have developed outstanding learning and thinking skills to take into their final years of secondary school,” Mr Poole says.

“They will be exceptionally prepared to excel at NCEA qualifications or other examination systems, while also having a love of learning and will hold values that will make them useful in their generation.”

At present, South Auckland Middle School has a roll of 114 students, with the current maximum designated roll being 120.

We plan to apply to grow that number, and we are also interested in applying for further Partnership Schools,” Mr Poole says.

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