When Hills International College decided to overhaul the way it taught literacy in its Junior School, it recruited a very special group of people to help with the rollout.

That group was the College’s Junior School parents.

The teaching staff invited parents in from the very beginning to explain what was changing (a new structured phonics program that would help children ‘crack the code’ of reading) and why (ensuring there was an all-of-school approach in the early years). 

There were on-campus meet-and-greet nights between teachers and parents; then the school ran hands-on mini-lessons for families so they could understand the complexity of teaching children to read. 

Advice on how parents could support their children at home was a central part of the strategy, with free mini white boards and home readers (plus good coffee and cake) added incentives to attend.

Alert to the power of parents 

Head of Primary Matt Noel says harnessing the power of parents in children’s learning – which more than 50 years of academic research proves improves children’s educational and social outcomes – had always been a firm part of the College’s strategy. 

“Parents are such a big and important part of their child’s learning journey and they have so much rich data on their children’s personalities and how they like to learn,’’ Matt says. 

“We’ve always been very lucky in that we have a community of parents at Hills that have always wanted to get involved. But we wanted to take that a step further, so we asked ourselves: ‘how can we get parents engaged?’ 

“We knew that in the past many of our Junior School parents had struggled to know how to help their Prep and Year 1 students with literacy – they were often unsure if they were following the process correctly or in a similar way to that in the classroom.

“So when we were overhauling our approach to literacy we knew bringing parents along on our new journey was an important step.” 

Early signs very encouraging 

The school’s new approach to early years literacy – dubbed “The Hills Approach to Literacy”, which was the result of months of research by Assistant Head of Primary and International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program Coordinator Stuart Ablitt – is now in its first year of implementation.

More parent-friendly initiatives, complementing this approach to literacy, are underway or in the works thanks to Educational Support Coordinator Melinda Bowyer.  

The entire project is being steered by an Independent School’s Queensland 2020/2021 Research in Schools project. The project receives added funding support from the QIS Parents Network. 

While the effectiveness of the curriculum changes and the engagement of parents is still being assessed – the early signs are encouraging. 

Stuart says the comments parents are now posting on their children’s digital learning portfolios have changed from ‘great work’ or ‘I love you’ to ‘Wow by blending sounds you made a huge list of words’ or ‘I thought Freddy the fish was going to be the most popular Prep R name, not third most’. 

“That tells me parents are understanding what is happening at a deeper level and they are much more engaged.’’ 

Enrolments increase 

Enrolments at Hills International College are also up: it has its biggest cohort of Preps in the school’s 30-year history and Primary School enrolments have jumped from 180 at the beginning of 2020 to 271 in mid-2021. 

The formation of a marketing team, consisting of two College parents and the Heads of College played a major role in promoting the educational approaches, as well as the pastoral support provided to families during COVID. 

Matt believes word of mouth about the way the College connected and partnered with families during at-home learning was a major factor in enrolment increases. 

“We know that our kids are extremely happy when their parents are engaged,’’ he says. 

“We’re confident results will also increase.’’ 

Hills International College is a co-educational, Prep to Year 12 Independent International school of approximately 500 students. 

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