Phillip Island village School, Phillip Island, Victoria

With great inspiration and unable to find a school that matched her vision, Fiona Mckenzie was motivated to start her own school. The Phillip Island Village School (PIVS) opened its doors earlier this year (2016) as a sister school to Koonwarra Village School, which Fiona established back in 2012.

IMG_9367We had been told about Fiona during our time at the Fitzroy Community School and our eagerness for an insight into current experiences of setting up schools meant we jiggled our plans and payed her a visit on the beautiful Phillip Island.

PIVS is situated on a rural block half way down the Berry Beach Road that meets spectacular views of the Island’s rugged south west coast. In a former life, the school building housed a restaurant but seemed very comfortable in its new venture in education. Being only a few months into its life, the place felt vibrant and content with the students eagerly making it their own.

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Fiona was extremely generous with her time and as we chatted I became very fond of this driven visionary and her creation. I loved her down to earth, matter of fact nature. She trained as a teacher earlier in life and after spending some time in Western Australia, returned to South Gippsland where she perceived it was all ‘happening’ in regardsUnable to find what she was looking for, Fiona detoured a little into an organic food business before coming back to her inspiration, and setting up Koonwarra Village School.

“At KVS we believe that self-actualisation is best achieved through freedom. Internal freedom in thought and expression, within an environment that is free from overbearing authority, externally imposed rules and unnecessarily prescriptive courses of study. Such freedoms are provided within the context of a healthy and functional school community as well as positive engagement with society at large. This requires balance between effective self-management and responsibility”. Koonwarra Village School, School Philosophy

The approach of Fiona’s Village School program is an amalgamation of different philosophies, ideas and thought, with an overarching moto and spirit of ‘Continually Evolving’, as depicted in the school’s spiral logos. The school nurtures the individual and the skills of responsibility and independence.

“We have a rule here that no one is allowed to boss anyone around.” Fiona

This has been a common desire amongst many of the educators that we have engaged with during this time however, Fiona has taken a radically different approach to achieving this. Each child at the school has a learning contract which is written specifically for them. The contract includes a timetable of classes that the student is required to attend and then a series of tasks that need to be completed in free time which is accounted for in the timetable. Students progress through different levels of contract, starting at an introductory or supported level, which includes plenty of teacher support when needed, to a more advanced contract where independent learning and time management is expected. The contract tasks and activities follow on from the learning that has been presented in lesson time and often act as an opportunity for the students to independently practise a skill. The lessons are presented to children at the same level rather than in the same grade, removing any unnecessary competition. Contracts are handed in weekly and receive comments rather than grades from the teacher. Students have a mentor available to discuss how they are feeling and managing their workload.

“For all Contracts there is an expectation that the work is completed. At the end of the week there is a meeting between the Mentor and student to discuss their work. If the work is not completed, an email is sent home and the work is to be completed at home. This may occur at other times in the week for the Guided Contractors at the Mentor’s discretion. If a Contractor does not complete their contract three weeks in a row there will be a meeting between the Contractor, their family and their Mentor to decide the next step in their learning.” Koonwarra Village School Website

A creative studio space is always set up and available for the children to use during their free time. With the responsibility of time management in the children’s hands, some children choose to complete their work at school, during the breaks or all at home. Fiona spoke about how if a student completes all their work by Thursday they are welcome to negotiate the Friday off or enjoy a ‘free’ day at school.

Teachers present possible elective ideas to the students and if there is enough interest the class runs, participation is voluntary. Fiona is keen to make sure that there is no parental pressure on the children to take up electives that they don’t want to do, as each elective takes an hour away from the students contract time which they may need to be able to manage.

Food is supplied by the school and prepared by a parent or team of parents. Students have the responsibility of serving themselves their food and they all eat together. Fiona commented that this has been a real point of growth for many children who have not had the opportunity to choose what they eat, nor learn through the process of gauging serving sizes and sampling different foods. Fiona also talked about the importance of balance as the children can get very ‘big’ or confident in the school environment, yet they still need to be able to operate within a family unit.

Conflict resolution and general issues are brought up in a fortnightly ‘parliament’ which will eventually be run by the students as is done at the Koonwarra campus. Non-Violent Communication is also used to a certain degree by bringing students attention to the language of needs and therefore the needs of themselves and others.

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Prep and grade 1 students are separated from the rest of the school and stay together until the student feels ready to progress. Contracts begin in prep and grade 1 however take a very different form in these early years. Students may only have 4 tasks to complete which are communicated by symbols, as most children at this stage are still unable to read. This could be a maths task from the Montessori maths program the the school uses.

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The Village Schools operate on a slightly different schedule to other schools with 8 ‘cycles’ per year rather than 4 terms. A weeks break after every 6 weeks has proven successful in keeping both staff and students energised. Fiona has also introduced a ‘soft start’ to the school day from 8:30-9:30am, removing the negative energy around being ‘late’.

We discussed the importance of having the right teachers and how hard they are to find. It would seem that despite many teachers having the desire for alternative teaching opportunities, not all are cut out for the reality of this.

I was very curious to see a school so young in its life however, after 4 years at the Koonwarra campus, The Phillip Island Village School had begun with a very solid resource to draw from and therefore maybe not an accurate depiction of a brand new school. That said, Fiona chuckled with her forecast that the first year would be both ‘messy and hard’, as the school finds its groove.

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I loved this school, I loved what it stood for and enabled. I asked Fiona if she had experienced many children that couldn’t work within the schools framework and she had at Koonwarra. The freedom means that to push against something here the kids have to push hard and far. Also for the more anxious child the school can be overwhelming. For those who thrive however, Fiona and her team are busy nurturing the vision of a high school that will serve both schools.

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The Village School was a standout amongst the schools that we’ve visited so far. It felt innovative, current and confident. Fiona expressed her belief that there’d never been a better time to start a school. As with the 1960s and 70s we’re entering another new paradigm and our children need schools that embrace it.

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