By Jade Glen
Cranbourne West Primary School has risen to the challenge of Cranbourne’s changing demographics with a suite of innovative programs.
With a strong focus on engagement – with students, their families, and the wider community – the school has managed to identify and meet the diverse needs of its students.
One of Cranbourne West’s unique features is parent and community liaison Debbie Dodd. While most schools have a student welfare officer – and Cranbourne West PS has a full-time welfare officer of its own, Colin Wagg – few have anyone focusing solely on parent and community.
Ms Dodd was employed by Cranbourne West’s principal Andrew Bergmeier after he moved to the school from a smaller, more rural school community and wanted to foster the same sense of community involvement.
“It’s unique. We’ve got a full-time welfare officer, and Mr Wagg deals with anything and everything. That’s reactive, dealing with what occurs each day, and we wanted to be pro-active as well,” she said.
“My role is really about getting to know the families, letting them know I’m here, and making sure everyone is feeling safe and happy, because that is when we do our best learning.”
Ms Dodd said Mr Bergmeier was the driving force behind the school’s community culture.
“His unwavering belief in knowing and valuing each student is demonstrated by his open-door policy which is not just for staff, but for parents and students also. To ensure that students feel he is approachable and to encourage the development of literacy, he encourages students to visit him before or after school to tell him a joke. He then invites five students each week to share their joke with the whole school at assembly.
“This gives them the opportunity to practise their public speaking skills. There is always a line of students visiting Mr B each morning and afternoon to tell him their joke.”
Ms Dodd also has an open-door policy, welcoming parents to drop in and see her, or contact her via email, phone, text or Facebook.
“So sometimes its 9, 10 o’clock at night because that’s when the children are in bed and can’t sleep because they are stressing out. And that’s when I say it’s OK, and let them know they can come see me first thing in the morning and we will sort it out – and it just reduces the stress.”
Cranbourne West primary has about 560 students, and over the last few years has seen its students change from predominately Anglo-Saxon to a hugely diverse group of children from a wide range of countries, languages and socio-economic backgrounds.
One thing that unifies all children is their need for a healthy breakfast, and Cranbourne West’s Breakfast and Brunch Club ensures every student is going to class with a full belly.
“Some of our children just don’t have food, or enough food, because their families are struggling financially. Others may have food but it might not be the healthiest food for fuelling their brains,” Debbie said.
“Anyone can come to brekkie or brunch. We do that on purpose, because a lot of kids don’t want to come if it makes them look different.”
Children are offered a mix of cereals, toast, fruit and sometimes smoothies, and for brunch get a range of options from open sandwiches, baked beans and soups.
Sandwiches are also available for students that don’t have any lunch that day.
The food is donated by Secondbite and Foodbank, and some is purchased thanks to funding from Bendigo Bank. It is prepared by a team of volunteers, five days a week.
Cranbourne West Primary School has a strong team of about 50 volunteers that help the school in many different capacities. In addition to the breakfast and brunch program, volunteers are involved in the school’s clubhouse, which runs over recess and lunch.
Both parents and social work students volunteer at clubhouse, acting as mentors available to have a chat or just play cards with students.
“We had a student committee and they came up with clubhouse, made the sign, and painted the rotunda as well. We decided this was a really great space because of the shade tree, and because it is close to my office so I can provide some support as well,” Ms Dodd said.
“Clubhouse is open to absolutely anyone who wants to come and have a chat.”
Clubhouse has proven to be an important space for students who are new to the school or feel anxious interacting with other students.
“We have lots of children with different needs, and again Cranbourne is an area of high transience – there are lots of people moving in to Cranbourne and there are lots of people moving out, for housing reasons, family breakdowns, all sorts of things. It means we have constantly got new children starting, and we’ve also got children that might have social difficulties, who can get really worried at recess and lunchtime,” Ms Dodd said.
The school also has a local couple, Robyn and Bob, who maintain the school’s vegetable garden, involving students in selecting and growing seasonal vegetables.
“We’ve found that a lot of kids just don’t know where food comes from,” Ms Dodd said.
The garden is also used as a positive engagement tool for students that struggle to concentrate in a classroom setting all day.
Near the vegetable garden is a frog pond, developed in partnership with Wolfdene. The pond gives students more opportunities to interact with the environment.
“The children maintain it, along with Fred our maintenance person. We don’t ever see the frogs, but we can hear them. Students use it for science, they can use it for art, and they can use it just for a chill space,” Ms Dodd said.
“We know some of our children don’t get out and about in to the environment – we’ve got children who have never been to the beach.
“So we go on a sailing excursion at the end of each year, so we know that the children have seen the beach at least once.”
The sailing excursion is a partnership with Mornington Yacht Club, who sponsor the trip so that the only expense to students and the school is the cost of the bus to the beach.
“I think community engagement is what sets us apart – the fact that we have so many partnerships with different agencies – and we have volunteer programs. And the parents as well, I’ve never seen anywhere else where the parents feel so welcomed,” Ms Dodd said.
“Even little things like the staff room, if parents are waiting for a meeting or have come early for pick up, they are welcome to come in to the staff room and make a coffee.
“What I love is there are constantly great ideas – we’ve got people coming up with these great ideas, and then I get to help put it in to action.”