Bolstering young parents through strengths-based learning

Issue: Volume 101, Number 4

Posted: 6 April 2022
Reference #: 1HATZU

A focus on students’ strengths and cultural connections at a Northland teen parent unit is transforming lives and prospects for vulnerable rangatahi and their tamariki.

Layken working with her son Mataatua.

Layken working with her son Mataatua.

There is no bell to signal the start of the school day at the teen parent unit in Kaikohe, Northland. School starts when the vans arrive. Two vans deliver students and their tamariki from as far as 30km away to the place they come to regard as a second home, Hiwa-i-te-Rangi.

This cheerfully decorated purpose-built unit opened in 2016 and is perched on the edge of farmland used by its umbrella school, Northland College. Out front are feijoa trees in full fruit that the students planted in 2019. Last year students bottled the fruit into jams and chutneys and sold them at a local market.

Mornings start with breakfast for tamariki before their mothers take them to the adjoining early learning centre, Kōwhai Corner. Back at the kura, ākonga prepare for their learning day with breakfast and a karakia.

“We talk about what our energies are like for the day and what’s happening with courses then break it all down into what we’re going to do that day,” says Eleanor Barker, manager of the unit.

Kaiako earn high praise

The mahi of Eleanor and her team was recently acknowledged at the 2021 Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards as finalists in the Teaching and Learning section.

Judges were impressed by how kaiako focused on the strengths of their students and how the programme linked young mothers into their education. It was also noted that keeping young mothers engaged in their learning produced better outcomes for their future.

“When we enrol a student, we interview them to find out their passions and interests. We call this discovering the student’s purpose. Then we find projects and subjects and standards that fit in with that purpose,” says Eleanor.

“For example, we have a student whose purpose is healthcare, especially dermatology, because she and her boys have eczema. Her programme last year was creating a healthcare product for eczema sufferers as part of a Young Enterprise Scheme programme (YES). She took biology to better understand how the body works. She didn’t need the credits as much as the experience and the confidence to pursue her passion, and now she plans to enrol in pre-nursing with North Tec.”

The project-based learning includes community involvement from the start, particularly by meeting with locals who have specialist knowledge in the students’ interests.

“Lots of specialists come here to interact with the students whether it’s about cooking, jewellery, careers, parenting, financial literacy, housing, hauora or kapa haka.”

Eleanor describes the learning as personalised and inclusive.

“Students need a voice right from the start about how they want the project to look. The local knowledge is a jumping off point, not everyone doing the same thing.

Personal connections

Books for pēpi and their māmā.

Books for pēpi and their māmā.

Project work begins with each student writing a personal story; last year’s topic was the concept of tūrangawaewae – tūranga meaning ‘standing place’ and waewae meaning ‘feet’.

For those who do not whakapapa to a particular whenua, it can also mean a place where empowerment and connection are felt.

Ākonga explored tūrangawaewae through writing, research, and visual arts, then travelled together to each other’s special places. There they were introduced to the whenua, papakāinga, whānau, and the histories.

“Writing their stories allows them to share where they’ve come from and allows us to get to know them. It’s also a process of starting anew, thinking about where they want to go,” says Eleanor.

“They can also earn credits very quickly and for some the feeling of achievement is one they have not experienced before.”

Another key goal for the kura is to promote connectivity and a sense of pride in the young māmā through regular contact with kaumātua such as carving tutor Nopera Pikara.

Every Thursday, Nopera works with students to produce a taonga for their pēpi based on whānau stories.

Co-designed learning

Students can enrol at any time during the school year and stay enrolled up to age 24. Each student co-designs her individual learning plan with kaiako through an interview, a careers quest and creation of a vision board, “Where do I want to be?”

Kaumātua such as carving tutor Nopera Pikara help students to strengthen their cultural ties.

Kaumātua such as carving tutor Nopera Pikara help students to strengthen their cultural ties.

One young parent, Maria, arrived at 16 with no NCEA credits and stayed the three and a half years she needed to attain Levels 1 and 2. She remains with Hiwa-i-te-Rangi while she plans her career

The centre caters for up to 30 students, has had as many as 22 at one time, and currently has a roll of 12. There are four teachers to cover the curriculum except for Biology which is delivered at Northland College, and Maths, Health and Te Reo Māori which are delivered by Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu | The Correspondence School.

The key focus is literacy and numeracy. “A lot of the students come to us without having had continuous schooling so we have to do a lot of groundwork before they can start on NCEA,” says Eleanor.

“When they arrive, they have little confidence in themselves, and we work hard to build trust.”

Parenting and budgeting courses are delivered in-house, and ākonga are encouraged to try their hand at business through YES.

Engagement is through online programme iQualify which “the students love and hate in equal measures,” says Eleanor. “It’s the hardest thing they do but at the end they are elated.”

One student, Petra, 17, won last year’s Young Enterprise Northland award for commitment. She had created her own business making hoodies for tamariki so they could wear their korowai wherever they go and carry their mana with them.

Another standout student is Pare-Huia, 20, who finished 2021 with three accolades: NCEA Level 3, the highest number of credits that year, and the second-best attendance record. Pare-Huia is still with Hiwa-i-te-Rangi while she plans her career path.

Former students embody the aspirations at the core of Hiwa-i-te-Rangi. Like Alex who graduated at the end of 2019. She completed the Young Enterprise programme that year and now manages Food in Schools at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Taumarere, in Moerewa. She also continues with her own businesses on the side. And Kaz who is studying nursing at Massey University.  

While academic achievement and transition to further education or work is the goal for these young parents, they have many obstacles to overcome along the way.

“Unstable housing is our number one issue,” says Eleanor.

“If your housing is inadequate, you and your baby get sick all the time. There is no emergency housing available to under-18s and the nearest mother-and-baby unit is in Whangarei which means a move away from everyone they know.”

Creating hope

A place to eat, feed tamariki, and learn to cook.

A place to eat, feed tamariki, and learn to cook.

Some mothers have no or little family support, and most have suffered significant trauma.

It’s this backdrop of adversity that inspired the unit’s name of Hiwa-i-te-Rangi, the youngest star in the Matariki cluster and the star representing hope and aspiration.

“We acknowledge that being a parent is hard enough without the extra challenges that many of our young māmā face. We offer support and encouragement, not just in terms of providing education and work experience but also by being a hub for the social providers in the Far North.”

Teen parents 16 and over are eligible for state assistance with living costs and childcare, but those under 16 are not. Under-16s also must keep their babies with them at school rather than enrol them in childcare.

Eleanor and her team try to eliminate all obstacles between the young māmā and their education. Breakfast and lunch are provided and there are two huge cupboards of clothes, one for the māmā and the other for the pēpi. Students can shower at school, and there is a sleep room for any young mother who has had a bad night.

Most receive a Chromebook through Youth Services, all have a sizeable locker for their possessions, they can wash their clothes in the school’s laundry, and help themselves to supplies of soap, toothbrushes, and sanitary products.

A school nurse works with each māmā to teach them to take care of themselves.

“She helps them to establish an expectation of being treated well, of being worth it,” says Eleanor.

Other holistic support includes weekly access to a counsellor, visits from a Mirimiri/traditional Māori healer, and lessons for cooking and driving.

“Our girls have no one to teach them to drive so Neville, a local driving instructor, comes every week.”

The cost of lessons and the first test is covered by the school’s operational grant, and the Kaikohe Rotary Club pays for students’ full licence tests. The acts of charity go both ways, however, with all girls on duty for Meals on Wheels twice a term.

Neville teaches the young parents to drive.

Neville teaches the young parents to drive.

“We think it’s important to give back and see that other people are struggling too,” says Eleanor.

The young mothers are also encouraged to link in with health and support services such as Ngāpuhi Iwi Social Services, Te Hau Ora ō Kaikohe, Family Start, Plunket and Ngāti Hine Hauora.

Finding purpose

“The māmā say that having a baby is the best thing that’s ever happened to them,” says Eleanor.

“They realise they need to provide for their pēpi long-term, and they start to make positive changes. They love their babies so much, and when I watch their mothering, I feel so proud of them.”

Eleanor says the māmā slowly change learnt behaviours as they journey from enrolment to graduation.

“Of course, they slip up, but we tell them that nothing they say or do is going to stop us from caring about them, and they gradually come to understand that.

“Their journeys are unique and personal, and when they find their purpose it’s amazing, they have a reason to become stable and get into a good place.” 

Strengths-based learning looks like:

  • One size doesn’t fit all.
  • Get to know the students.
  • Make the learning relevant.
  • What they want changes as they grow as people.
  • Give them plenty of opportunities to try out different experiences. How will they know if they don’t try?
  • Reward them for attendance and achievement.
  • Let them take control of their own learning.
  • Give them a creative outlet when they need a break.

Link this with project-based learning:

  • Community involvement is key. Start the community involvement early in the development of the curriculum. This could be trips out or visitors coming to share knowledge.
  • Learning is personalised and inclusive. Students need a voice right from the beginning on what they want the project to look like.
  • Learning success is more important than covering achievement objectives.
  • Don’t make it too hard. If all teachers are working together and it has been co-designed by the students and the community, there will be plenty of support.
  • Define what skills you want the students to gain from the experience at the end, not necessarily what the outcome is. Skills can be knowledge-based or confidence or behaviour.

Pare-Huia’s story

Pare-Huia graduated as Student of the Year 2021 with NCEA Level 3, the highest number of credits that year, and the second-best attendance record.

Pare-Huia graduated as Student of the Year 2021 with NCEA Level 3, the highest number of credits that year, and the second-best attendance record.

I had a rocky start at Hiwa-i-te-Rangi. I had a lot going on in my personal life and I just wanted to be alone with my baby, Ahurei, so I felt very shy and unsure.

I took some time out to focus on me and my baby, then started back here. This time I pushed myself to make friends with the other māmā and that helped me to become a lot more confident.

Our kaiako Susy and Mary, and our babies make Hiwa very special for me. I love seeing our smiley babies and I love listening to Susy and Mary’s stories from back in their days and how happy they look when they tell their stories.

With Hiwa’s support I have become more confident in myself and my work. Our last teacher, Michele Wilson helped me a lot by being on my case all the time. Our kaiako really push us to achieve and with their support I gained NCEA Level 3, Student of the Year, and the most credits for last year.

This means I will leave Hiwa with the qualifications and certificates I need to study to work in the beauty industry, and to become financially stable for me and Ahurei.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 12:05 PM, 6 April 2022

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