Country school at heart of community

Issue: Volume 100, Number 5

Posted: 28 April 2021
Reference #: 1HAK4Q

A small country school in south Wairarapa is riding high on the shoulders of its committed community.

Principal Gene Moore is optimistic about the future of his school.

Principal Gene Moore is optimistic about the future of his school.

When Gene Moore saw the principal’s job at Pirinoa School advertised, he hopped on his motorbike to go and check out the school and rode past, missing it completely. 

A one-time barber, policeman and teacher, Gene attended a small rural school and remembers his school days at Mangaroa School, just outside Upper Hutt, as the best time of his life.

“I’ve always had a calling to country schools because it was just such a formative time in my life. I was in a class with my brother and sister; my little brother was in the next class.

“The funny thing about that school is it was just out in the middle of the paddocks – there was no community around it. The culture of the school was family – this is very much part of my vision for this school,” says Gene, who became principal of Pirinoa School in 2020.

The south Wairarapa school is just 15 minutes from the North Island’s southern coast and is surrounded by heartland farming country. The first school opened its doors to 23 pupils in 1887 and since then has educated generations of children from Ngāti Kahungunu and Rangitane whānau and European settlers’ families. 

Country kids

There are four Year 8 tamariki and three Year 7 tamariki in Room 3: the Year 5-8 class. Romy (Year 7) and Aria (Year 8) say this means everybody gets a turn to be a leader.

Romy is as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they come. He’s come to Pirinoa School from Pinehaven School over the hill in Upper Hutt.

“Pinehaven is a big school – about 10 classrooms. This school obviously has three classrooms which is a BIG difference! It’s very nice because everyone knows everyone. It was very different at first. 

“I like how it’s very community-like and we get so many opportunities to do things. We had those opportunities, but not so much at some schools because there are so many kids. Sometimes we would audition for something like kapa haka and not get in. In the production me and Aria had the biggest roles,” he says.

Aria has been at Pirinoa School since she was five. (By the time Gazette went to print, Aria had started at Kuranui College in Greytown.)

“It’s a good school because everyone is friendly with everyone and everyone knows everyone and we are quite close to each other.  

“This school has not many kids in a class. You get more one on one with a teacher. You don’t have to work on the exact same things as the other students. If

you’re at a higher level, you can work at that level. That’s what’s good about being in different age groups,” she says.

Gene says that children who come from other schools quickly become country kids.

“They relax. I tell them, ‘You don’t have to be anything here other than yourself; you be who you are and the kids will like you for who you are’,” he says.

The whole school turned out for this photo at the entrance of Pirinoa School.

The whole school turned out for this photo at the entrance of Pirinoa School.

Community support

When the fish factory at the nearby coastal fishing village of Ngawi closed, the school’s roll dropped from about 90 pupils. The challenge for a school like Pirinoa, with a roll of 44 in December 2020, is sustainability. 

But this little school has two things in its favour:  incredible community support and a principal with a plan.

Angela Aburn married into a long-time farming family – her two sons, husband and mother-in-law all attended Pirinoa School. She began working at the school in 2004 as a teacher aide and since then has supported individual children with learning support needs, as well as working alongside classroom teachers to support children.

“There’s a strong sense of community – without our community, there would be no school,” she says.

As well as working bees, this support has included Reading Grannies, a 90-year-old who helped students with maths and a parent who was a member of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and helped out with music at the school, she says.

A large local farm business, Palliser Ridge, is a great supporter of the school, providing money for prizes, funding wetland planting and encouraging its many workers to send their children to the school.

Optimistic about future

Gene is optimistic about the future of the area and thinks the school’s potential is untapped.

“I think the Wairarapa is going to grow hugely and it’s going to reach out to places like here. We could do nothing and the roll would still grow. It’s that migration away from the cities and people are discovering the lifestyle and how much you can get for your money.

“We have a couple of families who have moved from Wellington, they’re involved in businesses around here and they just love it,” he says.

Gene has a plan to further grow numbers and the school has bought a van. This will be helpful for school trips, but he’s also exploring offering a school bus route for tamariki in the neighbourhood who are not on a designated bus route.

“Because we do have such a nice environment and because we have the smaller classes, we might be able to attract more children. All it takes is for one or two families to come out this way and then people just vote with their feet. Distance is an issue but we can certainly make it a more attractive option by putting on some sort of transport,” he says.

Romy and Aria are two senior pupils who welcome the leadership opportunities provided at a small school.

Romy and Aria are two senior pupils who welcome the leadership opportunities provided at a small school.

Historic school at heart of community 

In 1894, the West Coast Times described the settlement of Pirinoa and its school, established in 1887. 

“Pirinoa, as seen yesterday, is a desolate spot. The school is the only wooden building in it – a neat one-roomed building, with a big fireplace and a roomy porch, over which there is a big weather-vane and arrow. Beside the church is a store and residence of corrugated iron, just across the road is a smithy, and beyond it the smith's cottage. All these are of unpainted corrugated iron, and they constitute the settlement!  

“Around is a dreary waste of rolling downs, covered with stunted manuka and gorse. A spring cart resting on its shafts in front of the school house was being climbed over by three little children.”  

Nowadays, we would describe the scene as bucolic. There’s rolling farmland, rural views as far as the eye can see, and over the road from the school, the former smithy is now the excellent Land Girl Pirinoa Coffee House. 

Many hats 

When Education Gazette visited, there was a drop saw in principal Gene Moore’s office. He was planning to build library shelves, along with mud kitchens for the junior play-based learning programme. The warm, mellow sound of a cello flowed through the school, as newly arrived resident, Caitlin Morris shared her love of the instrument with students. 

“We got a music person in and everybody got a turn at that. She’s just moved in down the road and she came up and she’s going to teach us stuff like violin,” says Romy (Year 7). 

“Everybody wants to have a go!” adds Aria (Year 8). 

A barber by trade, Gene went to Teachers Training College, taught at Tapawera Area School in Nelson, before becoming deputy principal at his old school, Mangaroa School. He was in the Police for nine years and while stationed in Wairarapa, began visiting a small rural school near his home. 

“I would just turn up there with the Police car and they’d want to see your handcuffs and bits and pieces. Then Karen Goodall, principal of St Mary’s Primary School in Carterton, asked if I had ever thought about relieving. She said: ‘You probably should, because it would be really good and the kids would love to have another male around’.  

“Before you knew it, she’d organised the registration supported by a return to teaching plan to meet requirements from the Teachers Council and I was relieving. She’s still my principal mentor!” says Gene. 

As teacher/principal at Pirinoa School, Gene says he’s ‘changing hats’ all the time but his life experiences have made him very versatile and equipped him with a range of social skills. 

“Coming to a small community like this, you have to be ‘on’ all the time – it's a bit like being in the Police. You’re under the spotlight and you’ve got to keep that in mind.  

“These little communities have their ups and downs – I have joined the Fire Brigade and the tennis club and you start to see the core of the community at these different things: people step up. Like during the Covid lockdowns, the community was great – they boxed on and did what they do –helping each other,” he says.

Angela Aburn has supported children with learning needs at Pirinoa School since 2004.

Angela Aburn has supported children with learning needs at Pirinoa School since 2004.

Building bridges 

But Gene is aware that all is not rosy in this longstanding rural community and he’s keen to renew and build relationships with the local marae and see some children who have been home schooled, return to Pirinoa School. 

“There’s been a fractured relationship with the marae over the years and one of my goals has been to re-establish our connection. We’ve had two hui group meetings with them. They are so on board and want to be part of the school again. Each term we’re going to have a day where they come to us, or we go to them. At the start of the year, we’re always going to have a marae visit where we all get welcomed on.  

“I think there is massive potential for this school to be the true hub of this community. You do get people in here- but it’s the same people. We want to bring our whole community into the school – this is part of our future direction – we want this to be the place where the farmers, beekeepers, fishermen, and people from the marae come. “ 

Relationships and teamwork 

For teacher aide Angela Aburn, the relationships staff have with the children is what makes Pirinoa School special. 

“We know all our children – we know their birthdays, we know if they’re having a bad day as soon as they walk inside the gate. And you get to know the extended families. We see the children as a whole person – you know they are going to get educated mentally, physically and emotionally. That’s the greatest thing about a small school – no child goes unseen,” she says. 

As the warm-hearted support person for two special needs children at different times, she says that professional development (PLD) and consistent support can be difficult to access because of travel distance and changing specialist staff. 

“Being a teacher aide in a school like this, you have to be very flexible and resourceful.  When it comes to special education in the rural areas, often we are IT. You do get various agencies come in from time to time but you never get that bond with an educational specialist because they don’t stay long.   

“My relationship with the child and family is key– I have to be the advocate for those children. But we work alongside the teachers- you have to be a team in a small rural area,” she says.

Pirinoa School

Pirinoa School

Special character 

While small rural schools like Pirinoa School can face some turbulence and uncertainty, Gene believes there’s still a place for them. 

“I think the experiences that these kids get, only a country kid knows what that means. And they have very much the same chance of becoming someone as a child who goes to a bigger school,” he says. 

And for Aria and Romy, it’s all about fun and opportunity. 

“There are lots of things that small schools can have that other big schools can’t, like we have a trampoline that everyone gets a go on. At the moment our class is on a quest to get everyone to do a back flip on a trampoline,” says Aria.  

“We always have fun. Even outside playing games, we play in different age groups. If we’re playing say dodge ball, we always ask Room 1 or 2 if they want to play. Everyone can play. If there’s a little kid running in dodge ball and everyone is trying to go for them, we always make sure that they’re OK,” says Romy. 

“That it’s fair,” adds Aria. 

“Especially because there aren’t many teachers, us older kids have to take leadership, so we learn more leadership roles here,” says Romy.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 4:09 pm, 28 April 2021

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