Discussions about school reform are back on the table, and understandably so. Here’s how things are likely to go; the government will invite groups of so-called experts to join focus groups to discuss ways of raising the achievements levels of disengaged and disenfranchised learners. There will be meeting after meeting, report after report, speech after speech, and many debates will follow. Eventually some form of needs analysis will be conducted, and potential solutions to address these needs will be outlined.

In summary the results of these findings I predict, will go something like this: In order to raise the standards of achievement in our schools, we need to close the gap between those students in lower socio-economic areas and those in more affluent ones. With this in mind, our focus and funding will be on Maori and Pasifka communities in particular.

One approach, the final report will say, is to involve family, schools and communities in a more proactive and productive way; communities as a whole working together to focus on the general wellness of every student (Hauora). Interestingly, Dr. Peter Ramsay a lecturer of mine at Waikato University, as far back as 1984 published a book titled Family, School and Community, bestowing the virtues of this approach.

It seems to me, the pendulum keeps swinging in education, but the mechanism driving it stays the same. Different government, slightly different focus, millions of dollars spent, very little change.

If we want to close the learning gap and raise learning levels of all students, why can’t we learn from those who are already on to a winning formula? It would save this country millions of dollars and could be implemented almost immediately. Wouldn’t that be great if such programmes existed? Well as it turns out they do and outlined below is an example of one. It is an incredible story of an educator with a dream and an Orange Frog!

Introducing Orange Frog

Recently I had the fortunate pleasure of interviewing Joel Pedersen, a person recognized as one of the top educators in the United States. Joel is an inspirational leader, and as School Superintendent for the Cardinal Community School District he has managed to achieve extraordinary things.

In 2010, when Joel accepted the job as Superintendent, Cardinal, (which is located in the poorest of the ninety-nine counties in Iowa) was rated in the in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the United States. The school was considered a ‘failure factory’, and Joel’s family and friends advised him not to accept the position. It seemed that many had tried before him, leaving behind a sense of failure and disillusionment.

Joel wanted the challenge, but he needed to find ways of turning the culture of the school around. He quickly realized that he had to surround himself with positive influencers within the community; teachers for example who were positively engaged and still believed in the importance of education. With a posse of positive people around him, he set out to change the hearts and minds of the entire community.

Joel explained to me that on the first things he did was to stop seeing himself, his deputy principals and teachers as the only ones who held power and influence within the school community; instead he included all student-facing staff such as the librarians, cafeteria staff, cleaners, crossing guards school bus drivers, maintenance workers and school receptionists. They all received leadership training, as Joel soon realized that great leadership is about empowering others to lead. He said to all members of the school community, that no matter what your job function or pay grade that they all could make a huge difference not only on the school’s culture but on the very future of the students.

Along Came Orange Frog

Joel needed a platform to launch his philosophy of wanting to create a ripple of positivity throughout the school district, one that would give all people that touched students lives the sense that they were leaders in the community, and that each and every one of them possessed the power to help the struggling students reach their fullest potential. So, Joel adopted a programme called Orange Frog into the school. Orange Frog is a parable based on the bestselling book the Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor, a world leading expert on happiness, success, and potential. His TED talk on the subject is one of the most popular of all time.

Once the Orange Frog programme was implemented, incredible things began to happen; kids started their own random acts of kindness clubs, teachers and students began writing gratitude letters to each other, students began propping each other up, instead of knocking each other down and bus drivers even started to write personal notes of encouragement to individual students!

Now all of this wasn’t just a feel-good exercise for Joel, he had data to highlight the success of the Orange Frog programme; they could actually quantify the impact. Since 2012, average ACT scores at cardinal High School increased from 17 to 21 in just a five-year period. And in 2016 Cardinal boasted a 92% graduation rate, which of course is an impressive achievement at any school, let alone one that was considered a failure factory only six years earlier.

Due to the changes Joel has implemented, enrolment is on the increase for the first time in years and parents who typically opted to send their kids to the more affluent districts are now picking the school in the poorest county, because they believe it would give them a better education. The successes from Cardinal have been replicated at schools across Iowa and many other states. The progress has been truly inspirational.

There is no reason what-so-ever that programmes like Orange Frog cannot work across any school in New Zealand. Sure, the USA isn’t New Zealand, but this has proven to be successful in other countries as well. It seems to me that educational reform must come by tapping into every student’s potential, by raising their happiness and engagement levels, and by creating a sense of community around students. We can do this by creating a sense of leadership and purpose for all those who touch the lives of these kids. The facts speak for themselves……. engaged and happy people feel more connected to their environment and in turn are more motivated to learn. This is how we raise learning standards in this country, and more importantly this is how we educate people to live to their potential and live happy and fulfilled lives.

Steve Morris is Director of Morris Consulting Group (www.mcgnz.com) and Cross Cultural TransitioNZ (www.cctnz.co.nz) and is an expert in the field of human potential. He believes that the key to human performance is creating positive environments where people are engaged and motivated. Steve spent over 20 years in the education field as a principal and consultant.


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