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Why the Algebra Club is the most popular activity at Fairvale High School

Principal Kathleen Seto chats to HSC students at Fairvale High, one of NSW’s new ambassador schools.

Why the Algebra Club is the most popular activity at Fairvale High School

By Jordan Baker

May 15, 2021

At Fairvale High School, the most popular after-school activity for year 10 students is the Algebra Club.

It is entirely voluntary and involves an age group that can be difficult to get out of bed, let alone to an extra maths class. Yet around 50 students attend each session, thanks to a school-wide culture of constantly striving for improvement.

“The word we use is relentless,” said head maths teacher Steve Barbuto.

“It never stops. Day in, day out, we’re writing something for someone, fixing something up here, fixing something up there. We’ve been doing this for 10 years now, it’s become cultural.”

Fairvale High leads the state in improving its students’ literacy, numeracy and attendance, so has been named one of the public system’s first ambassador schools, alongside Auburn North Public and Millthorpe Public.

“[They are] statistical outliers, who had performed really well compared with similar schools, that’s what made them stand out,” said NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell. “These schools have the X factor. It’s about capturing what it is that makes those schools so successful, then trying to scale that across the system.”

The NSW Department of Education will commission university researchers to identify the secrets behind the schools’ success. “Is it collaborative practice [between staff]?” said Ms Mitchell. “Is it the leadership? Is it the strong connection to the community?”

Fairvale’s principal Dr Kathleen Seto is not sure of the answer. But long before the NSW Education Department began promoting the keys to school success- quality teaching, high expectations, ensuring students feel safe and valued - Fairvale had been living them.

It is a complex school. More than 90 per cent of students are from a language background other than English, and almost 20 per cent are refugees. There are nine special education classes for autism, intellectual disability, behaviour disorder and emotional disturbance.

Many parents are single, unemployed and did not have much of an education themselves. But they are enthusiastic about their children’s schooling and are supportive of the teachers.

The school runs a breakfast club and after-school tutoring and helps parents buy uniforms and pay fees. “We do a lot of things that are really supporting a student because they might not have a study desk at home, or a computer or printer,” says Dr Seto.

Dr Seto also provides literacy classes to ensure the students have the communication and reading skills to succeed in their classwork and exams. Many have had interrupted schooling, or come from a refugee or non-English-speaking background, so their parents do not have the skills to support their literacy at home.

“We’ve given two periods a week to years 7, 8 and 9 for explicit teaching of literacy,” she said.

The students know exactly what is expected of them. Their school diary outlines how they should dress and behave; “all the things that an employer would expect of you,” said Dr Seto. Their parents must sign off on their homework each week.

A few years ago the school appointed high expectations co-ordinators, who encourage students to write down their goals, and the steps they would take to achieve them.

In all classes, particularly years 11 and 12, students are given constant feedback on how to improve. The Herald sat in on an HSC English as a Language or Dialect (EALD) class, in which the teachers talked students through how examiners would differentiate a three-mark answer from a one or two mark version, and showed them what a top-scoring answer would look like.

Mr Barbuto said teachers also celebrated improvement rather than achievement. “If we have a student working at about 40 per cent, and at the end of the year we can get that student up to 50 per cent, that’s a 25 per cent improvement, we celebrate that,” he said.

“So next year, we say we want you to improve by 25 per cent. That’s the value add we talk about. We often talk about getting every kid in the school to get one more question right. That’s what we work very hard at doing, and it seems to be working for us.”


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