Charter Schools continue to occupy considerable airtime in New Zealand, and the recent passing of the legislation that allows ‘partnership schools’ (as they are called in New Zealand) to be established has reinvigorated the noise.

From my perspective, most of it seems to be political noise depending at which end of the spectrum you sit. If you’re at the ‘Right’ of the political spectrum, charter schools are a way to free education from the shackles of current state education models. They will allow private enterprise the opportunity to improve educational choice and outcomes for today’s parents and students who may be dissatisfied with the current schooling system.

If you’re firmly ‘Left’ of the spectrum, charter schools are a dangerous tool of the Right, serving to undermine state education and the values it stands for. These schools devalue education with the introduction of a business focus and the potential to employ untrained, unqualified teachers. They don’t need to teach the New Zealand curriculum and they are not subject to the same review processes as state schools, which means they enjoy unfair autonomy, and risk poor quality that they may not be held accountable for.

In addition, speakers on both sides of the debate have been able to dredge up plenty of examples of charter schools that have worked (the Right) and been a disaster (the Left). Similarly, ‘research’ has emerged either supporting the idea that charter schools in other countries have targeted the underprivileged in order to improve their educational outcomes, or showing that such schools can screen out young people unlikely to succeed academically in order to make their statistics look good.

All of this is simplistic of course and detracts from the real question that New Zealanders should be asking. Is the current schooling system able to cater for all our children now, and into the future?

The clear evidence is that it doesn’t at the moment. Mäori and Pacific children are still lagging way behind Päkehä children in terms of educational outcomes in this country. Given that Mäori and Pacific will make up a rapidly increasing proportion of our schools and emerging workforce within the next decades, according to demographic data published by various agencies, what are we doing about that?

Sadly, some people would argue not a lot. They would say that with a few exceptions, state schools still in most cases look pretty much the same as they did 100 years ago, except our kids take buses rather than horses to get there. Whether you agree with that or not, currently we have 79,000 young people in this country who have left school and are not engaged in education, training or work (the NEET rate); many of them reside in our region. The NEET rate for Hawke’s Bay plus Gisborne is about 20% of youth aged 18-24 years.

That’s an unacceptable, incredibly sad waste of potential and a ticking time-bomb for our society that we can no longer put in the ‘too hard’ basket.

Interestingly, many iwi including Ngäti Kahungunu have publicly expressed interest in the charter school concept because of their desire to see more of their tamariki succeeding in education and transitioning into meaningful careers. Some key Mäori leaders in our community are very vocal about this – they are sick of seeing Mäori in short-term, labouring roles where they occupy positions that are the first to go in an economic downturn. With the treaty settlements gathering pace, iwi and hapü groupings are going to have much more firepower in terms of money and influence – and they will demand better educational outcomes for their young people than they are currently experiencing. If they can bypass the state system that currently fails too many Mäori, why wouldn’t they?

What about ‘partnership schools’?

In order to lift my head above this noise, I did some further reading about a partnership school model that I had heard about in the United States. Hear me out because this isn’t your traditional charter school model and I think we could easily achieve it within the current state system in New Zealand.

In September 2011, the New York City Department of Education, The City University of New York (CUNY), New York City College of Technology (‘City Tech’) and the IBM Corporation opened Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) — an innovative public school spanning grades 9-14 (roughly equivalent to our senior secondary school and beyond, 15-20 year olds).

P-TECH has no entry criteria, so students from disadvantaged backgrounds with poor prior educational achievement are as likely to gain admission as anyone. They graduate not only with a high school qualification, but also with an Associate in Applied Science degree in either Computer Science Technology or Electromechanical Engineering Technology awarded by their partner tertiary institution.

The education is fees free. Students receive mentoring from IBM employees, as does the P-TECH principal. STEM subjects are the focus (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) along with core literacy and numeracy, and at the end of their six years at P-TECH the students will be ready to secure entry-level positions in the information technology field and/or complete their studies at university. The current makeup of P-TECH is 67% male and 33% female, and many of them will become the first in their families to gain a tertiary qualification. Attendance rates so far are spectacular at 95%.

The interesting thing about P-TECH is that it was apparently never planned as a standalone or charter school – it was intended to pilot a new way of transitioning students from secondary school to tertiary, to careers. The goal was always to apply the knowledge gained in the innovation to develop a model that could be used in state high schools regionally and nationally. Although business is an important part of the model, it was the city itself, along with tertiary organisations and secondary school leaders and teachers who were the key drivers in establishing the school.

If ever I want some inspiration for a possible future model for Hawke’s Bay, I google P-TECH (and I have used information from the various associated blogs, sites and articles for this BayBuzz piece) and see a wealth of evidence that a partnership model may just work if we focused on young people and the Hawke’s Bay region’s needs, rather than our own political views. Here is a school that links 15 year olds with a tertiary culture and foundation skills. Students experience a curriculum that integrates career goals, mentoring, guest speakers, workplace visits and internships. Industry advisors help the curriculum and assessments to continually evolve as the industry does. IBM also reserves places for graduates in their firm.

The school has to meet all the state requirements for courses and outcomes, but the pace at which students work is highly personalised, and mentors from the school, tertiary partners and IBM work with the students regularly on their individual education plans. While all students are expected to meet high school requirements and earn their associate degree in six years, some work at an accelerated pace for a shorter time. The school day and the school years are extended beyond the normal state system to allow for all the individual support that is given as part of the model.

So … Is there a way that the P-TECH concept could be implemented within the current state system, and not just within the science and technology areas? I believe the answer to that is yes – we could start planning for it in Hawke’s Bay tomorrow.

In Hawke’s Bay at the moment we have some wonderful visionary school principals, teachers and careers staff who I believe would be more than capable of the innovation that P-TECH represents, providing it didn’t unravel the core principles of New Zealand’s fiercely proud state school system. There are industry and community partners willing to support a model that would help all young people, particularly our Mäori and Pacific youth, become productive members of the Hawke’s Bay and indeed global communities and workforces. There are tertiary organisations here and nationally based who would be very keen to help make this a reality.

Let’s drop the word ‘charter’ and work together to revolutionise our approach to teaching and learning within the new world that New Zealand and Hawke’s Bay are poised to enter. Our economy, our community and most of all our kids depend on it.

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