The pandemic brought significant difficulties for Kamo High School, but it also provided an opportunity to gain a better understanding and build connections with the community, says principal Natasha Hemara.
Dealing with complexity is how principal of Kamo High School, Natasha Hemara describes her experience as a leader throughout the pandemic.
Changing schools in the middle of navigating lockdowns and implementing rules and regulations, provided Natasha with the challenge of not only developing a relationship with new students and staff, but also having to gain an understanding of a community that was disconnected with the school.
At the time Natasha took over the leadership, the school was not operating a Board and was receiving external support. “It was difficult as you didn’t get feedback from the community that would be filtered through the Board,” says Natasha, “You heavily rely on the kōrero that happen in the carparks and on the side of the fields, and without this you would have to guess what the community wants.”
Natasha set out to re-establish a connection with the community. She initially approached the problem by learning from the experiences of what worked and what didn’t work in the past, from the previous acting principal. Structures were set up to gather useful feedback from students and their families. This included surveying who had internet access, is there a device available for the student, and how many people are sharing that device?
Out of the school roll of approximately 850 students, there were 150 who had no internet access and therefore were having to learn from paper-based resources, which were delivered to home by school personnel. The school learnt quickly that they couldn’t rely on external spaces to provide for the needs of their community. “We had to go out and seek, source and develop ourselves.”
As the pandemic circumstances changed, Natasha says they learnt to ask better questions to gather more informed data. It highlighted the importance of maintaining accurate contact details for whānau as well as information regarding living arrangements. When students were required to remain at home due to sickness or being a close contact, it was useful for the school to ask, ‘are you isolating at your own address or at a different one?’.
Unfortunately, with an already transient community, the pandemic has exacerbated attendance difficulties with a large number of students enrolling late and/or not returning to school. Natasha laments the reality for many of her students is having not returned to school yet, and “there are many whānau who have simply disappeared”. For students that have returned to school, there is a noticeable decrease in the level of engagement in activities including a decrease in participation in sports.
Natasha is very grateful for the Ka Ora Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches Programme. “It’s great having kai for students, and everyone has access.” By adjusting daily break times and having the food earlier in the day followed by activities, there has been a noticeable improvement in student behaviour and their ability to focus, she says.
The most significant and positive effect on the school as a result from having to deal with the pandemic, has been due to the restructuring of the learning timetable.
Students shared how difficult they found transitioning back to school after times of learning from home. Natasha says, “They returned unwell, with many students stressed or tired, and were overwhelmed.”
In response to this feedback, a transitional timetable was trialled that had 3x 90min blocks rather than 5x 60min periods per day. “This gave students a longer period of time to catch up with their work with their teacher, to get a sense of progress and understanding.” A number of whānau slots were also built into the timetable that allowed opportunity for wellbeing activities and enhancement learning time.
Feedback was positive from the majority of students and staff, and with some modifications, the new timetable was introduced at the beginning of 2022.
Natasha is very pleased with the impact the new timetable has had on the school culture. “The difference it has made in our school has been significant,” she says. Student engagement with their learning has increased, their behaviour is more settled, and teachers are flourishing within the new structure.
The pandemic brought significant difficulties for Kamo High School, but it also provided an opportunity to gain a better understanding and build connections with the community.
Not afraid of hard work and a challenge, Natasha has put the needs of her students and community first, and at the same time furthered school progress.
About the school
Kamo High School
Co-educational State Secondary School Y9-13