Leaving the past in the past

Issue: Volume 93, Number 11

Posted: 30 June 2014
Reference #: 1H9ct4

They often say there’s something in the water in Tokoroa, given the small South Waikato town’s ability to produce sporting stars. Now this success seems to be rubbing off onto educational outcomes and opportunities for the students of Tokoroa High School, as the school leaves the past where it belongs and looks to the future with renewed optimism.

Tokoroa, traditionally a forestry town, has witnessed a massive transformation over the last decade in its oldest secondary school. The decile 2 school, with 60 per cent Pasifika and Māori students, has recently gained its best ever set of NCEA results, exceeding national averages for Level 1 and 2, and all but matching national results for Level 3.

After a period of falling rolls (to 371 in 2009 compared to a growing 545 in 2014), poor NCEA results, and a lack of staff morale, the school can now feel justifiably proud of its recent performance. A recently completed ERO review highlighted the significantly improved levels of student achievement, particularly among its Māori and Pacific Island students.

Raising expectations leads to increased expectations

Principal William Ford, himself of Māori and Cook Island descent, puts the changes down to a lift in expectations on staff, students, and the community. The school’s mission statement – “The best and highest qualifications for all” – is now being implemented on a daily basis and this has seen achievement and engagement levels increase dramatically.

“We are very much a community-based learning institution with high expectations of our young people, many of whom come from low socio-economic backgrounds and who, in the past, had negative perceptions about education. When the Ministry talks about high priority learners; Māori, Pacific Island, students with special needs, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds, they are talking about Tokoroa High School. Tokoroa High School has faced the challenge head-on and is now starting to reap the rewards of proactive initiatives. Our staff are fully committed to raising levels of achievement and have taken on board several new initiatives put in place by the board of trustees and senior leadership team.”

Initiatives making positive changes

These include the introduction of a points competition, based on the same formula as many universities use, whereby extra points are gained for Merit and Excellence grades as compared to Achieved grades. The three top academic performers in each year level, as well as an overall winner, are announced to the community.

The internal scheme acknowledges students who take predominantly internally assessed courses, while the external scheme acknowledges those students in the more traditional exam-based courses.

Board of Trustees staff representative and developer of the initiative, Dean Tereu, commented that “many of our students, and some teachers for that matter, had fallen into the trap of just doing enough to pass, without aiming and pushing for those top grades. Our community is a naturally competitive one, whether it is on the sporting field or cultural stage.

“The results suggest that our students have responded positively to being challenged academically. We now have students in the classroom working extra hard to gain these top grades and also to beat their friends and family. We publish the updated results each term to our school community, and it has been wonderful to see the looks on students’ faces when their names appear for positive reasons. One girl recently even had to take a picture on her phone because her mum wouldn’t believe she was leading after term one! They are determined to beat each other, and as in most areas, competition has led to better levels of performance.”

The school has also begun using the school newsletter, sent out to all parents, to acknowledge students who have gained Excellence grades in their internal assessments.

“They used to fit in a tiny corner at the back. Now they take up two pages and are always put on the front page – our signal to the community that academic achievement must come first, then sporting and cultural success.”

The pride this has generated for family and whānau, to whom family names mean so much, has been immeasurable. The scheme has snowballed to the point where students and teachers are now more demanding of each other, giving up time during lunch and after school to aim for the highest grade they are capable of.

“There has been a massive culture shift in the school, and in the 18 years I have taught here, this is by far the best academic climate I have experienced” says Dean.

Since the scheme was introduced, the number of course endorsements has increased from 14 in 2011 to 67 in 2013. The number of certificate endorsements has increased from a lowly five in 2012 to 20 in 2013, 45 per cent of which were gained by Māori and 15 per cent by Pacific Island students.

The recent introduction of a Junior Diploma, modelled on NCEA, is now preparing junior students more thoroughly for the academic requirements of senior school. With a particular emphasis on improving literacy levels through a school-wide professional development project, the extra effort required in the short-term should pay dividends in the long term.

The early tracking of students at risk, night school, weekend, and holiday programs have all contributed to a culture shift in the school.

Senior manager and past student, Brian Reid, has noticed the difference. “There are not many places that offer this amount of support to their students, and while it has required an enormous amount of time and energy, as staff, we drew a line in the sand and decided that if we don’t do it for these kids, then no one will. These are our relatives, the children of our friends and the future of this town. Our staff are incredible and our community has begun to realise that we really are the peoples’ school – always here for our students.”

Raising a community

A closer look at the composition of the staff at Tokoroa High School reveals a possible reason as to why things have changed so dramatically. 21 of the 40 teaching staff are of either Māori or Pacific Island descent, and 15 are past students of the school. Often perceived in the past as a difficult place to teach, the town now has emotional attachment to the school and vice versa, and the students are benefiting from this student-centred culture.

Tokoroa High School now has even more past students training as teachers, lining up to give back to their community. Ministry documents such as Ka Hikitia and the Pasifika Education Plan often allude to the value of having quality teachers inspiring Māori or Pacific Island teachers in front of Pacific Island students as being crucial in allowing students to identify with their own cultural groups, and this certainly appears to be paying dividends at Tokoroa High School.

Ministry of Education support and guidance has assisted the drive toward academic excellence at Tokoroa High. In 2013, the school worked with the Ministry’s Achievement, Retention and Transition team, and Dr Sally Scott, a student achievement function practitioner specialising in the analysis of student data. Similarly, raising the educational achievements of Pacific Island secondary school students was the focus of the work done through the Te Vaka o Manu with Professor Tagaloatele Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop and Salainaoloa Wilson from AUT.

Local Pacific Island reverend Timote Turu praises the school in saying “our Pacific people have always strived to achieve academic excellence. They just weren’t always fully involved in the process or aware of how to get there. Now this is being met with the school seeking and expecting excellence at all levels.”

As further evidence of the school’s growing role in the community, a Service Academy, Trades Academy, Teen Parent Unit, Breakfast Club, Special Needs Unit, student-built Social Café, and Community Homework Centre now all operate out of the Campus, while the school also acts as an RTLB Lead School. The growth of the Foundation Youth Development and Stars Mentoring Program has also had a profound impact on the feel within the school. Tokoroa High School is one of few schools in New Zealand to have its own school-based Marae – Te Marae o Noa – a truly multi-cultural meeting place used by a variety of community and school based groups.

“Our students are truly valued for who they are and where they have come from. Our job is to work with them to help them get where they want to end up” commented local Kaumatua Wiremu Graham.

A recent letter from Minister of Education Hekia Parata commended the school on its progress in the area of raising student achievement.

This acknowledgement reinforces that the school is heading in the right direction and on track to meet the Ministry’s targets regarding priority learners.

“While the accolades from the Ministry, ERO, and other schools are nice, the people who really matter to us as a school are the students and their families,” said principal William Ford.

“NCEA success is the end outcome of an enormous amount of hard work, planning, and reflection by all of our staff and as a result, our community, and more importantly our young people, stand to benefit for years to come. We want to create a self-perpetuating environment whereby success breeds success. We have a long way to go, but we are determined to get there.”

The community rightly feels that they deserve the best possible educational opportunities. The faith shown in Tokoroa High School by the community, as highlighted by the increasing size of the school roll and the significantly improved academic results, gives the school renewed confidence heading forward. This is all the recognition William Ford and his team need as they continue to be the heart of their community.

Whatever it is in the water, Tokoroa High School should bottle it!

Tokoroa High School NCEA Results, 2003-2013
  Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
2003 49% 28% 9%
2004 45% 54% 16%
2005 39% 45% 17%
2006 70% 54% 28%
2007 61% 32% 39%
2008 52% 60% 28%
2009 62% 67% 48%
2010 60% 73% 81%
2011 77% 61% 72%
2012 63% 86% 61%
2013 81% 93% 78%


Tokoroa High School Comparative NCEA Results, Level One-Three, 2013  
Tokoroa High School 81 93 78
National - decile 2 schools 67 75 68
National - all schools 80 83 79

BY Brian Reid

Posted: 11:26 pm, 30 June 2014

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