PRINCIPAL SPEAKS: Blue Mountains principal awarded Harvard scholarship

Blue Mountains Public School Principal, who changed the school’s reputation locally, has been awarded the prestigious Harvard Principal’s Scholarship. 

Katoomba High Principal Jennifer Boyall is one of the three Australian public-school principals to receive the scholarship. 

Read the full story in our latest issue, here. 

The grant, valued at US$16,000, provides principals worldwide to undertake a short teaching course at Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Under the program, Ms Boyall, with other awardees from all over the world, will undergo professional training designed to reinforce the skills of these selected educational experts. 

Principal Jennifer Boyall with her school leaders

Ms Boyall, who feels “very humbled” and “extremely excited” to have received the award, spoke to School News about her leadership style and the school’s journey. 

“It is a wonderful recognition for the journey of the school,” she said. 

“Although I am the one receiving the award, I believe it is recognition of the great work the school community has achieved together.” 

It is a story of the amazing work that can occur when there is a genuine partnership between a school and its community. With a shared vision, great things can be accomplished.

Since joining as the principal at Katoomba High in 2013, Ms Boyall has worked towards changing the community’s perception of the school. 

The public high school’s enrolment has increased by about 90 percent, with 970 students enrolled in 2021 compared to 520 in 2013. 

The modest principal contributes this achievement to all her staff and teachers. She says the school has a non-hierarchical leadership style which makes the school “achieve great things”. 

“At Katoomba High, everyone is important, and everyone is heard. We focus on staff and students alike,” she said. 

Leadership Style at Katoomba High 

The distributive leadership style at Katoomba High allows the teachers, including the principal, to be accountable to the students, parents, and the community. 

“Our school has a beautiful story. You hear of examples of distributive leadership, and this is an example that shows that when it is enacted, amazing things can happen,” Ms Boyall said.

Katoomba High senior executive team

Ms Boyall says she remains very visible in the school and stresses that her door is always open for students and staff. 

 “I have a strong open-door policy. The community is always welcome to come in and raise issues or concerns. It is important to me that students and parents feel heard and valued,” Ms Boyall said. 

“Students can make an appointment with me  or just knock on my door during their lunch break to come and see me and talk about anything that’s bothering them.” 

“I do my bit, so the students know they have a voice, and there is a strong focus in this school for each student to have a voice.”

Ms Boyall ensures she is very accessible as a principal, a teacher, and a listener. 

At the beginning of each year, the school commences with a smoking ceremony as students walk through th gates, to honour the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land upon which the school is built.

She says everyone has a perspective about “the good and the bad” of the school. 

“Anyone can come and talk honestly to me about how they think the school is going.  I then take the time to celebrate and acknowledge the school’s strengths, as well as seeking creative solutions to any problems,” Ms Boyall said.

“I welcome constructive criticism and try not to be defensive.

“I think it is imperative to genuinely hear and validate people’s opinions and explore the creative ways in which we can move forward.” 

Ms Boyall has a mantra that she tells her teachers- “if the students don’t know that you care, they are not gonna be interested in what you are teaching.” 

Katoomba High, under Principal Boyall’s leadership, focuses on student well-being and respect for each student. 

However, she adds that the school does have some bad days where everyone collectively comes together to keep the school standing. 

“There are over 900 students; there are bound to be bad days where the situation is not ideal. But we are never afraid or shy away from the physical conversation on difficult topics.” 

As a registered psychologist and a teacher herself, Ms Boyall gives special attention to understanding people and forming a connection with her staff, students, and community. 

She believes her accessibility also works because of the location of her office. Sitting close to the entrance, she can meet the parents and other guests as they come in. 

“The idea is to make the school visible to the community, and that happens when the principal interacts with the people,” Ms Boyall said. 

“My office is right next to the gate from where people come in. I make sure to greet them and talk to them when they do.” 

But her most significant strength is listening.

“I listen, and I listen in a way that it can all be converted to a greater good.  My strength is to help people, regardless of who they are, to the school, and let them know that they matter. This has been very significant in changing the image of the school.” 

Journey of the School 

The stark increase in the school’s enrolment and now a Harvard Scholarship begs the question, how did this happen? 

The proud principal said the journey of the school and its story is beautiful. Beaming with pride, she said the school had achieved so many things in the past few years because of the abled teachers that the school has and the community’s support. 

“When I joined the school about 70 students were enrolling into Year 7. This year we have over 200 Year 7 students,” she said.

“There is no new housing development in my area. The increase in enrolments has come from the change in community perception of the school. Katoomba High is now the school of choice for 90 percent of the students in the local area.”

“It is the journey of the school, and that is why this scholarship is really a wonderful acknowledgement of the dedication of all the staff and the wider school community. 

Ms Boyall said the school wasn’t popular initially: “I wanted to build greater trust between the school and the community.

“For whatever reason, people appeared to be concerned that their children wouldn’t be looked after. That is why student wellbeing became an important focus of the school.”

When she joined the school, she employed people who aligned with her vision for the school. Her vision is to build trust in the community and value the students’ well-being in the school. 

“I wanted the vision of the school to be shared and that’s why distributing leadership across the school is central to its culture.

“I promote that well-being and learning are connected and go together.”

Apart from the staff, she contributes the school’s success to her area’s public education system and the local school. 

“The local public schools, we all decided we will work together. We honoured the boundaries, and this was a change,” Ms Boyall said. 

“There was one school that had very high numbers as they were taking a lot of students from out of area.”

“This led to other principals in neighbouring public schools, encouraging new parents to come and meet with me if their child resided in my area.”

“This was a fantastic support, as it allowed me to share the new vision of the school.”

She said she is grateful for the support of her colleagues and for sending people her way.  

Ms Boyall also bestows the changing perception of the school to the community itself. She never advertised the school and relied solely on ‘word of mouth’.

“Ours is a very vocal community and I have seen a ripple effect in the community.” she said. “Once they met me, I was able to share the new vision of the school, and that appears to have changed the conversation in the community.”  

“The school gained back its reputation in the community by people just sharing their positive experiences of the school.”

She believes each child has different capabilities, and she aims to value every child. 

In recognition of her efforts, leadership style and passion for the school, Ms Boyall is one of the three people receiving the prestigious scholarship.

Once the COVID restrictions ease, she will travel to the United States with her fellow awardees. 

She says she is “thrilled” to contribute to what she believes would be a conference. 

“I think we will travel sometime in July or August next year,” she said. 

“I’m still unsure of all the details but I think it will be a conference.” 

She told us that she wants to share the beautiful story of her school at the conference and talk about the role of the community in the school’s journey. 

“I am not sure if I will get a chance to contribute but I also want to renew the vision of the educators around the world and tell them about my learning,” she said. 

“I want to share the message about authentic leadership and genuine partnership with the community.” 

“I am very excited about collegiality and learning and sharing ideas with such experienced educators from around the world.” 

Ms Boyall received the honour with Damien Keel from Yarrawonga College in Victoria and Catherine O’Dea from Christies Beach Primary School in South Australia. 

Sheetal Singh

Sheetal is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Read more of her terrific work in School News magazine.

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