Helping all ethnicities feel at home

16:00, Jan 21 2014
Deidre Alderson
DIVERSITY: Principal Deidre Alderson is working hard to ensure all families at the ethnically diverse school are engaged in the Willowbank community.

There are students from 37 different ethnicities under principal Deidre Alderson's watchful eye at Willowbank School.

One of Mrs Alderson's many tasks is to make sure that every student and their family is engaged with the school. That's why she decided to take an overseas sabbatical looking at the school's engagement with the Asian community.

"One of the things we have struggled with is the whole aspect of community engagement around other ethnicities," she says.

Activities like gala days and PTA meetings are familiar to people born in New Zealand but can be a difficult concept for those from overseas, she says.

Mrs Alderson ventured to Singapore with 10 other principals from around New Zealand and then on to Taiwan by herself as part of the sabbatical.

"I went into schools and looked at their system of engagement with their communities and I also learnt a lot about their system of teaching mother tongue."


She says in Singapore children are taught in English which means there is a risk of students losing their cultural identity.

"We know language is vital to keeping a culture or ethnicity alive," she says.

"So they teach mother tongue. The children must learn the language of their paternal parent."

She says the retention of children's mother tongue needs to be carefully monitored here in New Zealand, especially in newly developing areas like Flat Bush.

On her return to Willowbank Mrs Alderson started putting her new perspective into practice by reaching out through a series of meetings.

"This time we were saying, ‘actually we want to know more about you, how can we better engage with you?'

"It was not just us saying, ‘well this is how we do assessments'. It is about two-way communication so ‘tell us what you need from the school'."

She says they are already seeing the flow-on effect.

"Now we have a meeting for Chinese families that have children with disabilities. Sometimes they can feel very isolated and this bridges that gap."

"These parents have said we want it in this environment because we feel safe and secure so that is what we are doing."

Another important step is creating a supportive parent network for new immigrants.

"We want to pair them up with a family who will make contact with them and make sure they are part of a group or take them shopping, or answer any questions."

Little things like that can make a big difference to someone who has just left their home country, Mrs Alderson says.

Eastern Courier