In a Q&A series with people involved in the Ourschool program, Caroline Milburn, Ourschool’s CEO and co-founder, talks to:

Western Heights College principal Fiona Taylor

Fiona Taylor, principal of Western Heights College in Geelong

The alumni program at Western Heights College started in 2020. The school is a merger of three former schools – Bell Park High School, Bell Park Secondary College and Geelong West Technical School.

Fiona, what’s the most enjoyable thing about being a school principal? It combines everything that I love – working in a team and working with young people across a range of communities. It’s a privilege to support young people to follow their dreams and encourage them to be optimistic about what their future pathway could be, no matter what their background is. The opportunity to find a way forward for young people is something that I love doing.

What’s the most difficult aspect of your job? Finding the time to have a healthy work/life balance can be hard to do. The technical things about managing budgets and buildings and facilities – the things you never learn about when you’re a teacher – are a challenge. But I like challenges.

Last year was a rocky time to start an alumni program; most of the school year was spent in remote learning and lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Did you have initial concerns about starting an alumni program, even before the pandemic arrived? I was a bit worried about whether we would find graduates who would want to come back and that it might take a long time.

So why did you take the chance to join the Ourschool program? I wanted the graduates from our three founding schools as well as Western Heights College to have the opportunity to connect with our school and support us as we evolve as a school and grow our school’s identity.

Four years ago, when I arrived at the school, something that really bothered me was that I didn’t get a strong sense of our students and our parents being able to proudly say they were members of our school community.

I knew that we have wonderful graduates from Western Heights College and our three foundation schools. I wanted to grow that feeling of being proud to belong to the Western Heights College community.

Your alumni program had only just started when the first COVID lockdown hit. Did that derail the program? In a strange way it was perfect timing for the program because we rolled it out online and the conversations with alumni moved into family homes.

What we saw was that the program wasn’t just about providing engagement and connections with our students. It also provided connections to whoever was in the family home. It started conversations around pathways and careers and aspirations for kids and parents. That was something that I could never have predicted.

Parents were listening, the sessions extended beyond our students. The first session we had was with Peter Mellas, a lawyer. He’s a graduate from Bell Park High School. We thought we might have had 30 kids tune in.

But we had 300 people logging on to listen to him, more than half the school tuned in. There were younger siblings, mums and dads, hearing his story.

The ability to connect with our alumni living overseas is amazing too. We had kids sitting at school listening to a scientist in Vanuatu who is head of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, an organisation similar to the United Nations for countries located in the Pacific Ocean.

For our community that was incredible.

What has surprised you about the alumni program? The extent of its reach surprised me and the connection with our families were the things I’d underestimated.

Being able to get alumni to come back for Year 12 graduations, awards nights and classes. Parents are really happy with that and the kids are really enjoying the variety of alumni.

“Who would have known that this person went to this school?”  There have been a lot of conversations like that.

Lockdown or no lockdown, we’re discussing ways to run opportunities for parents to be involved as well. Parents and carers want to be part of those opportunity and pathways conversations with their kids. The alumni program has really stimulated some of those conversations.

How have teachers responded to the program? It’s created opportunities across the whole school, not just in our senior classes. We had an architect work with a Year 9 wood technology class when the kids were making mini house models.

The teachers are really embracing the opportunities and skills that our alumni can offer to the curriculum in classrooms.

What about the students – what’s been the impact on them? One of the things I’ve noticed about the alumni is that they all love to come back and talk glowingly about their time at the college.

They may not have had the smoothest pathway whilst they were students at school. But they often reflect on key things or key times in their learning that our kids have really connected with, like raising aspirations. That’s a big thing for us, saying that you can, you can achieve this.

I’ve noticed that the kids really listen to the alumni. We had a young filmmaker come in and talk to our Year 9s, including some of our more challenging students.

You could have heard a pin drop. Some of the questions that David received were from kids I wouldn’t have expected to ask questions. Hearing from recent graduates is very engaging, especially for middle years kids.

What are the barriers to schools joining a program like this? Perhaps a lack of understanding from some schools that may associate the word alumni with the sense that it’s only about financial giving.

But I think barriers can be overcome if you’re really clear about why you want to start the program in your school, what outcomes you want to achieve and stay true to those reasons why. The successes of the program far outweigh any challenges. To have someone work in your school to connect you with the alumni community – why wouldn’t every secondary school want to have that?

We’re now thinking about how we can extend it into our feeder primary schools. When an alum comes back, we could find out which primary school they went to, write a little story about where the alum is now and send it to the local primary school to put into their newsletters as well. Primary schools love hearing about their graduates too.