Kawerau often gets a bad rap. For years the Bay of Plenty town struggled to shrug off its social problems. Its reputation for crime and poverty led to some of the lowest house prices in New Zealand and played a big part in the demise of the local high school and intermediate.

Yet, as anyone who has visited Kawerau will know, the town is also set in one of the most pure and beautiful parts of the country. With its forests, rivers, lakes and mountains, it is a mecca for hiking, mountain-biking, hunting, fishing and multi-sport. It is hard to imagine gang-related crime and drug use against such a clean, green, wholesome backdrop.

Tarawera High School turned to its unique and stunning environment in an effort to bring meaning and relevance to their students’ learning.

The school backs onto Tarawera River, which is flush with trout. Students and staff embarked on a shared learning experience, raising trout. They analysed temperatures and conditions before releasing them into the stream.

“We didn’t have great success the first year,” recalls principal Helen Tuhoro, “but we learned from it.”

The school doesn’t offer straight English and maths classes. Instead it offers an integrated curriculum, which incorporates learning into modules that are aimed to motivate students to, firstly, turn up to class, and, secondly, enjoy what they’re doing and progress.

The curriculum, which they’ve named the Authentic Local Engaging Curriculum (ALEC), was built by staff. The school closed at 2pm every Wednesday in 2014 so that teachers could work on building a curriculum that met the needs of their students.

There are pathways for kids who want to go to university, with advanced literacy and numeracy classes and physics and chemistry on offer.

“But not a high percentage of students take this path,” says Tuhoro, “We’d love it to be higher.”

This contextualised learning approach appears to be breaking the pattern of low pass rates and low attendance.

“It sounds radical but we had 56 per cent attendance when we started. Now they are doing what they want to do, so they’re actually turning up.”

Take outdoor education, for example. Activities like kayaking, rafting, mountain-biking and rock-climbing give students opportunities to learn through doing.

“If you said to them, we’re going to sit down and do geometry now, you’d get ‘ohhhh’,” says Tuhoro, giving a perfect imitation of a teenager’s reaction to an afternoon of geometry. “Instead, they learn about angles through belaying when rock climbing. Instead of sitting down and working out how to calculate velocity, they learn about measuring speed when out on the mountain bikes.”

For performing arts, students produced Animal Farm by George Orwell, incorporating literacy, technology, make-up artistry, budget-setting and so on.

The timetable is set up so that students do one subject all day, allowing them to really focus on what they’re doing. It also means they don’t disrupt other classes when they go on field trips.

Tuhoro says the goal is to keep students in education to at least Level 2. And they’re on track: the Level 2 pass rate that once sat at
46 per cent in 2013 rose to 90 per cent in 2016.

Transformation

How do you turn around a school where nearly half the students didn’t bother turning up in the first place? It required radical action.

The Ministry of Education made the decision to close Kawerau High School and Kawerau Intermediate School in 2012. The schools were in financial strife, the pass rates weren’t good and attendance was dire. Even so, it wasn’t a popular decision and caused a lot of resentment in the community.

“There was a lot of animosity and agro,” recalls Tuhoro. “The school was gutted completely once it was closed. There wasn’t a single book or resource left.”

A completely new school catering for years 7 to 13 was established in their place: Tarawera High School. It got off to a rocky start, at the height of the Novopay debacle – meaning new staff weren’t getting paid.

Of 46 new staff, only three from the old schools were given jobs.

“I wasn’t popular with the community for this, but I knew change was the only way forward.”

However, staff retention was an issue in the early years as the school embarked on such radical change. Some new teachers didn’t last the first term, says Tuhoro.

“I always tell prospective staff to walk around the school and talk to the kids. They’re very open, our kids. They want to know what you’re doing there. Once they know you, they’ve got your back,” she says. “Kawerau kids are very protective of their community.”

Tuhoro encourages her staff to take risks. Her mantra is to view challenges as opportunities. She values the ability to think outside the box above all else. This particularly appeals to young staff coming on board who relish the freedom to ‘have a go’.

“I always say to them, you’re not going to get a bad appraisal from me if you try something new and it doesn’t work.”

Not for the faint-hearted

Tuhoro had lived in Kawerau for over 30 years and taught there for 15 years, but she had never been a principal before. As first-time principal jobs go, this was surely one of the most challenging roles out there: leading a controversial new school into better times against a backdrop of animosity and some serious social issues.

Tuhoro admits it hasn’t been easy and is grateful for the huge amount of support from her husband, who works at the local mill.

The school had its share of issues, including a huge drug problem.

“I had to take a very hard line on this and excluded a lot of students. In the first years three busloads left Kawerau to go to [schools in] Whakatane; this has now significantly reduced.”

Things are now turning around at Tarawera. Tuhoro talks about the ‘Tarawera Way’, which is all about developing MANA, a clever acronym for the school’s set of shared values: Manaakitanga, Ako, Ngākau-pono, Āwhina. She says the PB4L (Positive Behaviour for Learning) programme has made a real difference.

“We still have our naughties, but they’re the minority now,” she says. “They used to be the majority.”

Perceptions are slowly changing and community support is building. A larger percentage of year 7 students from the two feeder schools are now enrolling in Tarawera High School. Tuhoro says the parents of kids coming through now remember her from when she taught them at Kawerau Intermediate school.

“So there is more trust now.”

2018 will also be the first year that students will have only attended Tarawera High School, and not transferred from one of the schools that closed.

Modern learning

Tarawera’s modern learning environment (MLE) opened in 2016. It was the first decile 1 school in New Zealand to have an MLE.

They built in a lot of community consultation and engagement around the change. An open school policy and iNative evenings helped to build understanding among whānau about what they were doing.

In spite of these measures, Tuhoro says it hasn’t been an easy change.

“A significant number of the kids live with their grandparents and it represents such a change from their schooling that it’s hard for them to grasp.”

She says some teachers have also struggled with teaching in a modern learning environment, and there has been some turnover as a result.

“We’re a Google school – so we’ve moved completely away from pen and paper. It’s a 24/7 job now – teachers will be up marking work that’s submitted at 10 at night.”

Tuhoro thinks they are another two or three years away from really understanding MLEs.

“We’ve got a long way to go. And to be honest we probably won’t ever get there. That’s the thing about 21st-century education – the yardsticks keep moving.”

Reality check

The bells and whistles of modern learning don’t hide the realities faced by the many students who live within what Tuhoro describes as “a community in high poverty”.

She gives a common scenario.

“A student might get to school at 10.30am because Nan’s not well and they had to make the little ones’ lunches and get them to school first.

“Many are adopting the parent role for younger siblings. We can’t pretend these sorts of circumstances don’t exist for these kids.”

“We’re a decile 1 school. We offer our kids breakfast four days a week. We give them shoes and socks and even macs to wear. We find them places to stay sometimes. We have a social worker (SWIS) and a guidance counsellor who are run off their feet. It is a community in high poverty.”

But there are signs that things are turning around, not just at school but in the wider community.

“We’re working on getting the gang culture out of school – enforcing the school cap, not gang colours. Youth Aid is supportive of what we’re doing, and teachers go beyond the call of duty to build relationships.”

Tuhoro can’t emphasise enough the lengths her staff go to for the kids. Among the school’s values is the notion of Āwhina and the proverb: ‘Kāhore taku toa i te toa takitahi, he toa takitini – We cannot succeed without the support of those around us’, which certainly rings true for Tarawera High School. But so too does this: ‘Haere taka mua, taka muri, kaua e whai – Be a leader, not a follower’.

Without Tuhoro’s gutsy leadership, it is unlikely that Tarawera High School would be this far along its journey of transformation.

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