An “island of calm” is how Westfield Park Primary principal Steve Soames describes the school he has led for eight years.
It is the same primary school that a decade ago was reported to have some of the most vulnerable Year 1 students in the nation.
Most of them were not meeting key developmental benchmarks, including physical health and wellbeing, social competence and emotional maturity before entering school.
During Mr Soames’s first year at the school there were two meth lab explosions, one murder and a shooting in the catchment area.
Nestled in Armadale, one of Perth’s lower-socioeconomic outer suburbs, Westfield Park Primary was once a very different place to what it is today.
“It wasn’t a pretty picture … and there was a fairly fractured relationship with the community,” Mr Soames said.
“In my first two years there was probably one break-in every term and a couple of significant vandalism or graffiti incidents.”
One of the school’s main buildings was burnt to the ground right before the new principal arrived.
But Mr Soames said out of the ashes, rises the phoenix.
“We haven’t had any of that for over four years now,” he said.
‘This is what we expect of you’
When Mr Soames arrived he began transforming the school, starting with the aesthetic.
Classrooms were spruced up, repainted and renovated. Plastic was replaced by raw, natural materials to help stimulate play and imagination, and the plain brick exterior was covered by community artwork.
“My belief is that if you create an aesthetically pleasing environment, it’s a very powerful message both to our community and to my staff,” Mr Soames said.
“We’re saying to them ‘this is what we think of you, this is what we expect of you’.”
But they were just changes to the outside. The 50-year-old public school received its independent school status in 2015, giving it more flexibility to change its curriculum.
“We wanted to ensure the curriculum was as engaging as possible [by] using play-based learning in early childhood and inquiry-based learning for the older students,” Mr Soames said
The changes included the introduction of the Nurture Group for years 1 and 2 — something the school believes is the only one of its kind in the state.
“We might take children who have just not been engaged in their learning or just not engaged at school, not wanting to come to school,” Nurture Group teacher Caitlyn Fairhead explained.
“We’re giving them those opportunities to play more, to talk more, to choose more so they get options.”
And the results are impressive.
“We’re just seeing a huge increase in their engagement and just their attendance,” Ms Fairhead said.
“Everything tends to improve because they want to come to school.”
School community grapples with homelessness and violence
About 40 per cent of the school’s 310 children are culturally and linguistically diverse, with about 11 per cent Indigenous students.
Mr Soames said up to 8 per cent of the cohort’s families had been involved with the Department of Communities, or child protection authorities.
“Unfortunately, family and domestic violence is a significant factor in this community,” she said.
“Alcohol and substance dependency would be another one [along with] homelessness.
“Every year we maybe have four or five families who end up becoming homeless.
“Many children within our school community for all sorts of reasons will have a lived experience of trauma.”
Mr Soames said he wanted to transform the school into a community hub, where parents could also be empowered and educated.
“Poverty comes with all sorts of symptoms and we try not to kind of have a blame approach,” he explained.
“We are working in a community that doesn’t have access to the same types of resources that most other communities, or middle-class communities, would.”
Teachers visit kids at home even before they start
In recent years, the school extended its before and after-school care, and introduced a free breakfast club to ensure every child was fed before learning.
The school social worker extended her sessions to include parents and family members.
A child and parent centre has been set up offering access to childcare, speech and language and occupational therapy services and parent support programs.
Before kindergarten children even begin their schooling, teachers visit the families to help prepare the student for school.
Kindergarten teacher Erin Cardy said the key was building strong, engaged relationships.
“We are really fostering that home to school relationship,” she said.
“With the kindy home visits we are able to get screenings done, get referrals in place and this is happening months before it usually would.
“We have lots of things to make sure children are not falling through the gaps.”
Students now meeting developmental benchmarks
All four of Shaylee Marshall’s children have attended the school, including the two who are still there.
She said she had witnessed the school’s transformation and her children had reaped the benefits.
“The school is welcoming, warm, pretty much calm,” she said. “A calm and relaxed environment.
“It’s almost become a community of its own.”
Walking around the school grounds of Westfield Park, there is a sense of calm. The children appear happy.
“It’s [because] it’s always changing, it’s creative, it’s fun,” boasts 10-year-old student Mason Smylie.
Social worker Maryteresa Higgins said community development had been key.
“There’s definitely higher levels of engagement, really strong relationships and trust in the school,” she said.
The results of the transformation speak for themselves, with most of the children now meeting those crucial developmental benchmarks in Year 1.
“We’ve seen a sustained drop in our AECD [Australian Early Development Census] results, we have higher levels of attendance, we have much, much lower levels of suspension,” Mr Soames said.
“It is obtainable in any low socio-economic school and it starts with engaging the community.”
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