Following principal Lyn Cooper’s axeing last week Celia Williams looks back at her controversial stint in the hot seat
When Lyn Cooper started as Wakatipu High’s new principal in 2008, she had two clear goals in mind.
“I think the first thing I’ll have to do is build a relationship with the staff, students and wider community so that there’s a trust there,” she told Mountain Scene back then.
“There’s also a brand new national curriculum document coming in that I’ll have to work towards implementing with the school … I just need to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the changes and that we implement them in a way everyone can cope with so that students get the best from it.”
Now, almost four years later, Cooper has been abruptly axed after questions over the school’s leadership.
Cooper, regarded as a “very fine person” and a quality educationalist by Ministry of Education-appointed limited statutory manager Peter MacDonald, was asked to leave last Wednesday by MacDonald – after she refused to accept his exit strategy as part of the school’s management overhaul.
Problems at Wakatipu High under the keen sportswoman’s reign first emerged publicly early in 2010, when the school suddenly – and controversially – introduced a major curriculum reconfiguration that saw students placed in classes according to ability rather than age.
Orchestrated by senior management team member Eleanor Quaid, the move caused a backlash amongst staff who felt it wasn’t driven properly from the top.
“It’s been apparent for some time that there were real questions about Lyn’s ability to be able to lead the school through the changes that were happening,” board of trustees member Greg Turner explains.
Cooper, who moved to Queenstown after working as deputy principal at Invercargill’s Verdon College, conceded to Mountain Scene in March – after the school’s damning Education Review Office report was released – that she could do better.
“I didn’t manage change well, I would say that,” she said then, accepting that ERO’s comments reflected badly on her.
“But change is difficult, and it was huge change.”
Ironically, in the same week she was given her marching orders, teachers and parents of gifted kids praised the success of the class reconfiguration in a Mountain Scene ClassMate story.
Her departure has still sent the school into a state of shock.
“I think everyone has known the situation for some time, and that there would be changes made, but I don’t think anyone was expecting it to happen so abruptly in the way that it did,” Turner says.
“There’s genuine sympathy for that situation. I don’t think anybody wanted to see things end in that manner.”
MacDonald says Cooper didn’t receive a golden handshake, getting only paid notice.
Now MacDonald is moving to address the remaining issues within the school – reorganising the existing senior management staff structure, which also contributed to the breakdown in trust and communication at the school.
MacDonald plans to slim down Wakatipu High’s traditional structure of a principal, deputy and two assistant principals to one principal and two deputies.
Additionally, MacDonald’s vision is for two “strategic committees” focusing on curriculum and student welfare.
More staff would be involved in these committees, hopefully leading to a more united team.
Given the dramatic events of the past week, MacDonald is allowing an extension to his proposal – likely till term one next year – to allow for feedback.
“I think with a little bit of time, things will settle down. We need to put the resources in place to assist with that.”