The birth of a new school

Overseeing the opening of a new school presents many challenges, but also many opportunities.

January 2017 saw four brand new Queensland schools welcome their first students, each emerging with its own unique culture, character and place within its local community. But these distinct identities do not occur randomly; they are carefully crafted during an intense two-term gestation period.

Michael West, foundation principal of one of the four new schools, Bellbird Park State Secondary College near Ipswich, took up his role at the beginning of term three, 2016. As principal of a school which was little more than a blank space on a map, Michael faced a daunting task, but also one he relished.

“It’s a big task, because you start with nothing, you don’t even own a stapler. But it’s also an honour and a privilege. As many of my principal colleagues have said to me, you get to go down in history as one of the few people to have built a school from the very start. That’s why I jumped at it, it’s a really exciting opportunity.”

But where do you start? In Michael’s case, he immediately began cementing the as-yet nameless school’s place within the local community.

“Community consultation is key, so I very much hit the ground running with that, inviting parents to be part of the decision making. I wanted them to be really invested in the whole thing.

“I held a community information evening in week two of term three. We had about 350 people, a really good turnout. I spoke about the vision for the school, but perhaps more importantly, I asked prospective parents to sign up to be part of a community consultation group.

“That group of about 30 parents was almost like my interim P&C, helping me come up with the school name, the school colours, the logo, the motto, and the vision, all of it. We got together every Tuesday night for an hour or so and bounced ideas off each other. Then I would collate the ideas from the group and seek community feedback via a Survey Monkey vote. This assisted the group on what people were thinking.”

While all that was happening, Michael (pictured above, during construction) also had to start building the teaching staff. First he selected his leadership team.

“I’ve got a fantastic leadership team with a balance of experience, energy and enthusiasm. They all commenced with me on day one of term four, so we were then able to start building the curriculum and determining what our whole school priorities were going to be.

“The leadership team has also been appointing the foundation teachers, who have to be special people too. They need to be flexible and resilient, because they are coming in to a brand new school, an environment where things might change as we develop.

“We’re opening with just year seven and growing by one year level every year, so I’m only starting with 16 teachers. But in six years’ time, when the school is 7 to 12 with a predicted enrolment of anywhere between 1,800 and 2,200, I’m going to have 150, so the foundation teachers also need to be able to bring the new staff on board. They have to be leaders too.”

The foundation staff got together for the first time at a three-day retreat at the end of last term, giving Michael the opportunity to bring them up to speed on what had been happening, unpack some of the whole school priorities, and work on some curriculum and unit planning and writing. Four student free days in January saw them concentrating on operational issues, taking their first look around the new 30 acre site and begin setting up their classrooms.

Michael said: “I can’t wait, I just want to get the year started. Obviously there’s some apprehension and a bit of nerves, but I think we’ve already laid a really good foundation here.”

Bellbird Park State Secondary College welcomed its first student cohort on 23 January.

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 1, 10 February 2017, p8