Lighting up learning in urban life

The chance to work in a highly urban, largely Māori and Pacific community attracted Barbara Ala’alatoa to Sylvia Park School. That was in 2004.

“The opportunity to buck all the trends too often associated with communities like ours was all too tempting!” she told me: “For the past 17 wonderful, wonderful years I have been lucky enough to have been the Principal at Sylvia Park School. It is the absolute joy of my life!”

Now with the title Barbara Ala’alatoa ONZM, this principal ensures that joy runs deep at this co-ed school for Years 1 to 8. And this joy was particularly evident last term when the school was chosen by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as the launch venue for the new Aotearoa New Zealand History Curriculum. In fact, “It was an all-out party,” says Ala’alatoa.

“It was an absolute honour and privilege to host the Prime Minister for such a momentous policy launch. Our students always love any opportunity to talk about the things they love and have learned about. The bigger the audience the better!

“The opportunity to share what they know about the arrival of Kupe, 500 years of a thriving Māori community and the first encounter between Māori and Pakeha, amongst other things, with the Prime Minister of Aotearoa New Zealand was one they absolutely relished. They shared their stories with pizazz and humour, and in a way that is relevant to them in the here and now.”

Balloons, waiata, banners, flag waving and an enormous cake were part of the celebration event, says Alaalatoa, who is all in favour of marking life’s wins.

“We need to remember how to celebrate in unashamedly, celebratory ways. We have so much to be grateful for right here in Aotearoa New Zealand!”

For over 40 years, Ala’alatoa has worked in education. This has included teaching, lecturing at pre-service teacher education and working at the Ministry of Education. She also had the honour of chairing the inaugural Education Council and is currently the Chair of Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu – the Correspondence School, which she describes as “an amazing school”.

Images: Sylvia Park School

At her Sylvia Park School, there have been many “pretty amazing initiatives” over the past two decades. “I think the thing I am most proud of is our absolute commitment to being research informed and evidenced-based in every aspect of our practice.

“We have never searched for silver bullets in the form of the latest professional development offering, rather we have always leaned into that which we know constitutes excellent teaching and learning practice. The results of this practice have been evident in the rich achievement of our students.

“Most recently, we were one of the schools selected for the PIRLS study. It was deeply satisfying to see our students achieving well in all aspects of the study. The fact that they also exceeded the average on almost all the questions that related to their reading efficacy is an absolute tribute to the collective effort of the teaching and support staff that are committed to quality teaching practice every single day. It doesn’t get much better than that!”

In regards to the new history curriculum launched at her school, Ala’alatoa is impressed: “The Aotearoa New Zealand History Curriculum provides us with a real opportunity to create a sense of our individual and collective belonging right here in our own backyard. 

“The best thing about the Aotearoa New Zealand History curriculum is that it is much more than just learning facts about the past events and actions. It’s also about the big ideas that are meaningful to us all in the here and now.

“Making connections to ideas of fairness, conflict, participation to name but a few will ensure that our students will see the relevance of knowing the stories of our past, warts, and all. The best thing about the new curriculum is that there is a guarantee that all students will get to learn all about the stories that make us, us!”

Topical this term, too, is the announcement of the overhaul of literacy and maths learning in this country: “The time for a literacy and maths strategy is well overdue,” says Ala’alatoa. “The recent report on the demise of literacy outcomes is a wake-up call for us all. The inequitable outcomes for Maori and Pacific students that have persisted are unacceptable. There are no excuses for poor outcomes for our people.”

“We know so much about what constitutes effective teaching and learning practice in maths and literacy practice. We have excellent tools that help us know what we are teaching well and what we need to improve on. We know about professional teacher inquiry and its contribution to improving outcomes for our kids.

“We need to end the search for silver bullets in the form of professional learning and development offerings and instead commit to a commonality of practice that is research led and evidenced based. We need to remember that teaching is powerful and that it can and does make a material difference to our children and whanau – when we get it right.”

Art is a very visible an intrinsic aspect of Sylvia Park School, which sits within a suburb characterised by major highways, retail, and industrial development. The ‘SPS village’ includes tuatara, kiwi, solar systems, dinosaurs, as well as living works of art; hens, cats, dogs, bees and two kunekune pigs.

The school’s colourful exterior reflects the joy that exudes from within: “Our school is literally a work of art with our students’ work evident all through our school. The environment tells stories about our students’ learning, and we think that adds to the reciprocity of love for our school and our community.

“The idea that all schools could provide their communities with a space where whanau can play, picnic and learn is one that we should all aspire to,” Ala’alatoa believes.

This article is in our Term 2 issue, online here:

The challenges faced by the schools all over the motu and the world, at Sylvia Park, appear to have been subjected to a process of educational alchemy, with the principal keen to seize the opportunities of our ‘new normal’ to dream bigger for her school, its students and community.

“We have learned that if you deeply believe in those lofty big strategic goals then they should continue to shape your teaching and learning, whether we are all on-site or online. We kept these front and centre in the online space and ensured that as we pivoted to our online learning platform that these were fundamental to our practice,” says Ala’alatoa.

“We were proud of our ability to be both agile and equitable in the provision of online learning for our whanau. Most of all, over the past two years, I learned that our SPS village will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure every single one of our students gets everything they need to engage fully in their learning. Miharo katoa!”

And she doesn’t intend for the school to sit back and cruise in the years ahead. What Alaalatoa has in mind doesn’t involve playing small. “Bigger, more audacious questions and inquiries for students to undertake and create amazing outcomes are always on the horizon for us and hopefully will always be. We just want to continue to evolve our curriculum and pedagogy to the extent that our kids wake up in the morning and just can’t wait to get to school!

“We need to make sure we provide a space where people can take time to think about all the positive things that happen when kids take charge of their learning.

“And also,” Ala’alatoa adds, “we seriously need to be part of the Auckland Art Trail!”

Heather Barker Vermeer

Heather has worked as a journalist, writer and editor in England and Aotearoa New Zealand for over 20 years. She fell in love with words when she received a 'Speak & Spell' tech toy for Christmas in 1984.
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