Building a new model of schooling

– a journey of commitment and discovery

IE interviews Dom Poppa, the principal of a brand new P to 12 regional college doing things differently. Poppa has been a primary school principal for many years and outlines the key philosophy underpinning the new school and why he took up the leadership role.

St Anne’s College is a Catholic Prep to Year 12 school opened this year to serve the community of Kialla, a rural area of the City of Greater Shepparton, Victoria. What are the specific needs of that community and why was a P to 12 college established there?

Kialla is an outer suburb of Shepparton and is in a growth belt. Shepparton is a vibrant city with much to offer and under two hours away from Melbourne. As the city grows there has been a need for additional educational options for our Catholic families. With the existing Catholic secondary college to capacity and with no room to grow, and the three primary schools full, families are looking for a choice. St Anne’s is meeting the needs of the community with the bonus of being a ‘one stop shop’ with an early childhood centre planned along with allied and maternal health services being explored. St Anne’s is a viable option for families.

How is the overall development of the school into a full P to 12 college being planned and rolled out?

Opening in January 2019, with Foundation and Year 7, St Anne’s will add two year levels each year until it offers P to 12. This will allow for sustained growth along with a consistent building plan that enables construction to occur before the capacity is reached. Fully operational St Anne’s will have a student population of 1200. As the population grows, so too will the facilities.

Your background is in primary education and you have been a successful and committed primary school principal for many years. What do you think was the catalyst and motivation for the Canonical Board in appointing an experienced primary education leader to principalship of a P to 12 college?

Good question! I am passionate. I have a pedagogical understanding that is not stuck in the ‘industrial’ mode of education and I am committed to meeting the need of the learner not the system. I am willing to learn, explore the possibilities and give it my best. I still wonder.

Why did you personally and professionally want to take up this new opportunity?

It is a new challenge and an opportunity to start something that will meet the needs of the learner. We are not out to produce doctors, plumbers or financial advisors. This is an opportunity to create a learning community that will give the learner skills, capabilities and attitudes to fulfil their personal needs and the capacity to make a real difference in this global community. It’s exciting and nerve wracking at the same time.

What are some of the great benefits in building a school from scratch? What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest benefit is being able to work with a team of like-minded people that want to create a learning place that is not a reproduction of what is already in place. Don’t get me wrong we are not radical or knocking what we already have in place. We are asking the question ‘What is a school?’ and more importantly ‘Are we listening to our learners and meeting their needs?’ From building design, staff selection and inquiry pedagogy, we can make a difference. This is also the biggest challenge. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked ‘Where’s the woodwork room?’ I do have to bite my tongue – show me in the Vic Curriculum where woodwork is. ‘My child wants to be a builder.’ Yes, and what would they like to build? Computer hardware, aeroplanes, ships, bridges, roads, skyscrapers, houses, apps, cars, or….

What are some of the greatest needs/challenges for your particular students and parents, and generally how does the college endeavour to meet these needs?

They are no different for any other student in any other school. What are they looking for? Parents want happy children. Students want to be listened to and valued. We want learners that will respect everyone and everything, do their best and help others succeed. Our biggest request is to know the learner, develop learning plans that will meet their needs and reduce the pressures of having to be tested to the hilt without any dedication to real life, point of need learning. We must ask ourselves "what does the learner know and how do we build capacity?"

Can you explain to our readers the ‘philosophy for learning’ which underpins St Anne's teaching, learning and curriculum development, and how does this result in the college adopting particular approaches which may differ from the more mainstream provision of education?

Our underlying philosophy is that of the pedagogy of inquiry. This underpins all we do. Play is a valid and authentic learning stance – for young and old. How do we explore the world about us? Can we answer our wonderings? Why do we all have to read the same text at the same time? We are not freelance or do as you please. We are structured. Direct and explicit learning is planned and delivered. Our aim is to deliver it to the point of need of the learner. Isn’t this what all schools are about?

Effective education leadership – what do you think are the essential ingredients?

Being authentic to what you believe. Being willing for trial and error. Own your mistakes and learn from them. Listen with an open heart, act with a just manner and be your best. And never forget I am a learner and a teacher.

What are you looking forward to over the next couple of years?

Seeing the growth of the students and staff as we create a culture of learning, enriched by the Catholic faith and the willingness to be open to the many possibilities that may come our way. Getting the facilities to enhance the learning and seeing the community and college come together as a dynamic and inclusive place to gather. To be happy and enjoy the ride – and may I say it has been one big rollercoaster.

Dom Poppa is a member of IEU Victoria Tasmania.