In late September, Auburn’s College of Education welcomed Jennifer Parke, a school principal from Newcastle, Australia, who was here as part of the LEAP Program. LEAP is an international leadership program that connects school leaders from around the world in a collaborative peer shadowing and shared action-research experience. The innovative, popular, and very effective program allows school leaders around the planet to share and learn from each other in a way never before possible.
Parke was hosted in Auburn by Lisa Kensler, an Associate Professor in the College’s Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology. She spent time in Auburn and Opelika City Schools both with principals and in the central office, and was also able to visit the Ron Clark Academy. Ron Clark, of course, had visited the College just 12 months earlier in a riveting presentation about the importance of passionate, inspired teachers for our nation’s children.
Parke’s New South Wales (NSW) school has much in common with the schools she visited here in East Alabama.
“Ours is a large, complex primary school of 630 students from pre-school to Yr6,” she said. “We are in an area about two hours north of Sydney on the east coast of NSW, centered around Lake Macquarie. The beach culture is strong there, with people living around the lake in urban sprawl. Much as you have here, we have students who come from diverse backgrounds, including a high percentage of Aboriginal and additional dialect students. They encounter many of the same challenges faced here by Hispanic and Korean children in your school systems. And like you, we engage in differentiation of learning to accommodate that. So that was a great treat to see the many ways your system deals with that challenge and opportunity.”
Parke has previously been a LEAP Fellow in Ontario, but very much wanted to build a relationship with educators from Alabama. She knew about Auburn because LEAP founders had a relationship with former Dean Fran Kochan of the College of Education.
“Just as I expected, I found this experience to be quite powerful,” Parke said. “I conduct action research on 21st century learning for leaders, and to be embedded into different school systems is very enlightening. I also came here to promote a program in 2016 for educators to come to New South Wales to shadow our principals and school system officials.”
Parke mentioned her interest in the strong community-university partnership.
“That is yet another thing I love about being here,” she said. “I saw the strong connections here and how the university and local systems are so good for each other, especially in the area of understanding 21st century knowledge to see how we test students, collaborate, and develop thinking skills and practices that are not teacher directed. We are also both focused on things like use of technologies and ways to engage students in learning. If the students are not engaged, they are not going to work. So I saw much here that was very beneficial and that will be helpful in New South Wales.”
She also noted the way Auburn University encouraged leaders of Auburn City Schools to look at professional opportunities that can support 21st learning and thinking – much in the same way the Ron Clark Academy is looking beyond traditional ‘drill and grill’ teaching methods to improve student outcomes.
“In addition to being a kind of ambassador for the LEAP Program, and trying to connect principals from different parts of the globe in collaboration, I also very much enjoyed my time with Sandy Armstrong and EARIC, and the way she so successfully brings together teachers and leaders in all 15 districts. She is doing on a local scale what LEAP is trying to do on an international scale, and doing it very well.”
Parke pointed out that there is also value in the very notion of cultural exchange.
“It is important to have people from different parts of the world engaging one another,” she said. “I have never been to this part of the country before, so to be able to do things like the King Memorial and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute puts cultures into perspective. Unless you’re there it’s hard to grasp that point of view. In this program you are able to see it as an educator and as a person – Alabama and Australia. My husband and daughter came with me and we lived with Lisa (Kensler) in her home, so we never felt like tourists. It has been a truly amazing experience.”
Enjoys the connection between ‘town and gown’
Parke said she and her family fell in love with our community.
“After our week with Lisa my daughter said that Auburn was like one big family. We have never felt so welcomed as we felt being here. What I loved about Auburn was the people. The strong connection with town and gown, the beauty of area, and the safe, comfortable, relaxed feeling of walking through streets, to the people in the schools — that is something I will always hold dear. One thing I take home with me is the value that is placed on education and the importance of this for the children and their future. We saw beautiful facilities and well-resourced schools. You are very lucky here.”
But Parke also saw something she felt needed changing.
“One thing that surprised me was the early hour at which children were required to be at school,” she said. “I believe that is too early for a long day with strong learning time and little free time. In New South Wales we get there at 8:30 and start our lessons at 9:00. We let out by 3 in the afternoon and have time for play. But we do have shorter summer breaks than you do. My professional impression is that children regress if they are out of school for so long.”
To learn about LEAP and Auburn’s association with Australia and opportunities for travel, contact Lisa Kensler in the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology and visit the website http://www.aleap4principals.com.au