42% of Hawke’s Bay schools are in the lowest three decile brackets, but Hawke’s Bay is also home to some of the most prestigious schools in the country. The stereotype equates impoverished communities, struggling with the basics, to forgotten kids under-served in education, students falling through gaps.
But all may not be as it seems. Many of our low decile schools are actually doing very well, and this alongside running breakfast clubs and handing out raincoats – tasks wealthy schools often don’t need to factor in.
A triangular relationship
In three of our low decile communities, the very building blocks of society – traditional values, courtesy, family, active participation – have helped produce stand-out schools.
“In our school every individual counts, materially, emotionally, academically and without a label,” explains Nicola Ngarewa, Principal at Tamatea High School, a decile 3 school.
“We do work with a consciousness and an awareness that there may be challenges that arise in terms of food, clothing and affording the basics, but I never look at it and think, ‘We sit in the low decile bracket.’ We have to remove those kinds of barriers. If you put yourself in a box you only operate within that box.”
The whole structure of Tamatea High School is based around creating communities and strengthening ties to family. All 300 students (45% Mãori) and 40 staff operate in a house group structure, which means a group of 12 students are under the care of an adult who then has streamlined and regular contact with each of their student’s home life and family.
“Each group operates as a whanau, it’s a triangular relationship between student, school and home,” says Nicola. The system also has spin-off effects, like 90% parent attendance at community events.
Alongside academic pursuits all students have to take part in at least one co-curricular activity. The options are diverse, from sports, arts and culture through to knitting and model making.
“All interests are catered for and we ask our students to do their best. Whatever drives them, we find the scaffolding to make that work.”
Nicola Ngarewa has been with the school for 18 months and in part was brought in to address academic achievement levels pinpointed in a report from the Education Review Office, the same report that identified a strong sense of identity and pride among the student body.
Although statistically the school fits into a prescribed bracket, Nicola is quick to move the conversation away from bald figures.
“Never define us by a number. We ask our students to dress well, think well, act smart, and we take away parameters to make that happen.”
Saturate the school with courtesy
Andrew Shortcliffe, principal at decile 2 Hastings Intermediate School, is turning every myth about low decile schools on its head. With the school for four years, Andrew’s past roles include stints at St Kentigern’s, King’s and Dilworth, all prestigious Auckland schools.
“Yes we do raincoats, yes we subsidise our café – we do what we consider to be important for our children, so they’re warm and well-fed,” acknowledges Andrew.
But Andrew is also offering students a school with one of the best academy-based enrichment and extension programmes in New Zealand – one used as a best practice model by the Ministry of Education. Alongside the sport, hospitality, arts, academic, science and technology academies there are 50 clubs and sports teams.
“If we can engage our students and enrich their experience then they will enjoy their learning more,” Andrew says.
On top of Ministry of Education funding, the school is funded and supported by Rotary, health agencies, Massey University and 25 businesses, local and national. It could be viewed as one step away from a charter school. But Andrew prefers to think of Hastings Intermediate as offering a private school education at a level accessible to all.
“Traditionally there are massive behavioural issues in low decile schools. But we haven’t had a stand down in 18 months. Statistically over the past three years we should have had over 200 stand downs and 80 suspensions, but in reality we’ve had 35 and three.”
Some children come through with a history of behavioural issues and in the past they’ve either been ignored or avoided, or the child has been removed from the class.
“We actively teach what courtesy looks like, feels like, sounds like, we teach that to students as well as to teachers so they model those good behaviours. It’s a standard expectation of everyone in the school, we saturate the school with it.”
The concept of manaakitanga is also central to the philosophy the school is run on.
“The ideology is the same for everyone: pride and collegiality. You can see it – it’s a vibe. Children are valued, known and kept safe. We learn our children’s names and we meet them at the gate each morning.”
A testament to the school’s success is its ever-growing roll. In 2008 the roll was 230 and falling. Then Andrew arrived with his brazen, if age-old, ideas about manners and behaviour. From there the roll grew by 100 students every year. Projections for 2013 are 600 with a waiting list.
“We’re the classic example of the complete opposite of white flight,” says Andrew. “We were 51% Mãori and Pacific and now we’re 37% but we haven’t any fewer Mãori or Pacific we actually have more. But we also have pakeha coming in from high-decile primary schools,” explains Andrew.
Although much of the change at Hastings Intermediate School has happened during Andrew Shortcliffe’s tenure, he deflects any praise away from himself.
“Our success is the community’s success. It is not just a thing we can wish for, we have to actually do something. The students are committed and the staff are passionate, I just take the roadblocks away to make it happen.”
Third generation chess players
Martin Genet is Principal at decile 1 Peterhead School in Flaxmere, with a roll of 530 from Year 1 through to 8: 66% Mãori, 33% Pacific and 7% Pakeha.
Far from being a deprived school, it has a lot going for it with smart boards, iPads, a bike track, tennis and hockey facilities, music suites and children at every year level switched on to learning.
“We give our children options, we give them the keys to learning. We’re always looking for improvements, for programmes that work for children in the 21st century. We have a rich environment with fantastic resources, but iPads are only tools, we also have fantastic staff.”
Martin cites his parent body as the shining light of the school. “We have a stunning parent community, they’re very supportive and we respect them, they’re valued, we look after each other. It’s a two-way thing, a real partnership that works.”
Some come into the school to help during the week, many more come to weekend sports, to kapa haka and Passifika performances; a number also hold down two or three jobs to make ends meet.
“A lot of parents haven’t had a good experience with schools, we invite them in, we have a coffee and we chat about it. We have gang parents, they take their patches off before they come through the school gates, they’re very respectful,” says Martin.
The respect shown by parents is matched by the respect teachers have for families and for their children: “We ring parents and tell them how great their kids are, and their kids believe in themselves.”
There’s a strong tradition of chess in the school and it currently ranks third in the country at intermediate school level. There are children playing chess at the school who are third-generation Peterhead players.
“It brings in logic, problem solving, mathematical skills, strategy, risk taking, perseverance, patience, concentration, it ticks all the boxes.” For Martin Genet it’s that kind of innovative thinking, coupled with new technology and traditional values that makes Peterhead special.
The school’s dedication to students and the commitment to exploring new ways of teaching certainly pay off. Last year Peterhead children gained 12 scholarships to attend high schools around Hawke’s Bay.
“While we may live in Flaxmere and there may be a negative public perception around us, that needs to be broken, because our children go on to do amazing things.”
For Martin, it’s basic stuff that lead to bigger ideals around pride, respect and loyalty.
“It’s about relationships and looking after people, and not accepting just anything. We have high standards and expectations. We focus on what our kids CAN do, not what they can’t.”
As a low decile school Peterhead receives assistance in terms of KidsCan raincoats and shoes and Fruit in Schools. But for Martin that can only be seen as a positive: “There is undeniable need in our community and we don’t want our children to go without. But that need doesn’t define them as people. We want our kids to be skilled and armed with all the things they’ll need. When they’re fit and healthy they can do anything.”
Parent support is what makes it work
When it comes to combating the ‘low decile’ stereotypes, it is certainly a two-way street, with parents bringing as much to the equation as the school.
Phyllis Betham-Kereti – Samoan, 29 years old with three small children – is fully invested in Peterhead School, not just as a parent, but also as a vital part of ensuring migrant families have a smooth transition into the community.
Phyllis works as an interpreter with the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, also lending her skills to the school in any area she thinks can add value.
Her work brings an added dimension to her relationship with the school, in turn strengthening her commitment to her own children’s education and wellbeing.
“To be effective in the community, you must be in the community. It’s basic but vital. I believe it all begins with the very first relationship, whether it’s mother and baby or a new family’s first contact with the school. That kind of bonding … when we get that right then the child and the family can both thrive.”
For migrant families, it is frequently a matter of survival that people like Phyllis come out of the community to assist with often immense life changes and cultural challenges.
“It makes a very big difference if you can help people with an understanding of the New Zealand lifestyle and expectations. Often it’s very different from what they are used to. When you’re trying to start a new life in the community, settle children into school, there are processes which are actually very difficult.”
Phyllis helps in direct ways, from liaising with Work and Income and banks, to getting uniforms organised. That goes on to help children adjust, families settle in and the school concentrate on its job of providing a supportive and progressive learning environment.
Helping with the very basics
“I help people with some very basic things,” says Phyllis. “Whether it’s enrolling their child, or comprehending some terms, things like ‘next of kin’, what that means to them. It’s very satisfying for me. Once I have taught the baby steps they can go off on their own and do it for themselves, a little bit of help can deliver a lot of independence.”
“When migrant families first come to the school every single thing is new to them. As an example, the children are taking home library books and that’s not a resource in Samoa, so there’s a huge amount of respect for that simple thing. Here there are so many resources and so many things they’re learning. And the teachers are very important because some children are even learning how they speak from them,” Phyllis explains.
Ensuring new families, especially those for whom English is a second language, join the school with all the help they need means the whole community benefits, and any potential disadvantage is diminished.
With even small amounts of that level of parental support Peterhead teachers and principal Martin Genet are able to deliver above and beyond the stereotypes attached to low decile communities.
“The work we do with our new families at the school helps them settle into the wider community too, because Dad is often working and Mum is at home and she does all her learning through her children and the school,” explains Phyllis, adding, “A good strong woman should go on to teach her new skills and understanding to her husband.”
Phyllis has one child in the school and another beginning in the next term. She also has a two year old. Both younger children visit Peterhead frequently and already know the school, other children and many teachers well. They also have an intrinsic knowledge of the school’s expected behaviours, role-modelled by the adults around them, parents and teachers alike.
“From a parental perspective we support the school and teachers in a number of ways – it can be as simple as asking ‘Is everything okay? How can I help?’ – anything we can do to support them in doing their job.”
The values taught in the school are often taken home and mirrored there. In many homes the family value system is very strong, often based in the church, and it’s reassuring for parents to know those values are also upheld and respected at school.
Phyllis has seen great strides made in families when the school, the parent body and the wider community work together for the good of the child.
“It’s very easy to take the school values home when they blend with what is happening there. It makes for a strong child, a strong student; it’s very effective,” she says.