Fire-struck school bounces back

Issue: Volume 98, Number 2

Posted: 7 February 2019
Reference #: 1H9r1K

Flames may have destroyed one-third of the buildings at South Westland Area School on the West Coast, but the community rallied to help and the school is now stronger than ever.

There has been a silver lining to the disaster that struck South Westland Area School in 2015. After a massive fire destroyed many school buildings, the rebuilt rooms are modern and spacious, and the response to the fire brought the local community together to help with the clean-up.

“It’s easy for a fire to rip the heart out of a school, but that hasn’t happened because area schools like ours have unique spirits and phenomenal support networks,” says Principal Dr Mark Caplen.

“West Coasters take setbacks in their stride. They are resilient. They are used to having to cope with disruption and challenges, like those our weather throws at us.”

A tumble dryer caused the mid-winter fire that razed the social science and technology block and its adjacent classroom, as well as the science lab, corridor and locker bay. The fire affected one-third of the school and drew national media attention.

Students Tyler Cunniffe, Max Malone and Alex Wyatt prepare food in the new kitchen.

“It was a massive shock to the whole community. The young ones were shaken by it. Every room smelt like smoke,” says Deputy Principal Nick Glancy.

In addition to the disruption to everyday life in a school, he says, “there is grief that goes with a fire – grief for what you have lost”.

Students come from far and wide to the area school in Hari Hari, travelling from nearly 70 kilometres north, in Hokitika, and 70 kilometres south in Franz Joseph. For some that means a 140-kilometre journey each day. The upheaval caused by the fire meant disruption to staff, students, routines and classes.

The recovery process was led by the then Principal, Ross Brockbank, who retired at the end of term 2 last year.

“It took a while for everyone to settle into a new routine, once room sharing and alterations to our regular schedule were sorted,” says Nick, “but students were amazing during this time and took all changes in their stride, showing just how resilient and understanding they are.”

Mark says, “It was only really hard in the short term, because so many people stepped up to help. The community spirit was amazing and there are so many unsung heroes.

“For example, the day after the fire, locals came to help clean up the water from the firefighting and put tarps on the damaged roof. Ex-students came to mop up too.

“Other schools sent us resources to replace what had been destroyed or damaged. Westland High School held a mufti day to raise funds for us and donated desks, and the phone didn’t stop ringing with messages and offers of support.”

But adaptations were essential until the rebuild was finished, so the library was converted into a classroom. Teachers couldn’t deliver hard technology
(‘hard tech’) classes indoors so they looked to alternatives and switched to soft technology – electronics, pneumatics and graphics. They reorganised outdoor projects so that the students could complete the practical components of their NCEA studies.

Pride in new spaces

The learning at the school has continued and the rebuild is complete. The new block for hard tech and food technology, including a new kitchen, was opened in February last year. The restored hard tech building now provides a home for carving classes delivered by a master carver.

“We now have dedicated classrooms, whereas teachers had to share before,” Mark says. “The learning is more focused and we have many more ways of supporting our students to achieve. They take great pride in the new facilities – and the toilets are immaculate! Plus we still have some of the best outdoor education opportunities in the country.”

Year 12 student James McGuigan says, “I don’t think I could have achieved so much without the new classrooms. There is a lot of one-on-one learning here.”

Visit the school’s Facebook page(external link)

Lessons learned from crisis

What advice does Mark have for other schools that may find themselves facing a similar crisis?

“It’s not business as usual,” he says. “Don’t underestimate the amount of work needed by your leadership team and your support staff until things get back to normal.

“A rebuild project puts a huge amount of pressure on your existing staff and they need to be supported.”

Students help build backcountry hut

South Westland Area School is surrounded by stunning mountain scenry and senior students have been using newly learned skills to build decks, fences, benches, tables and components for a traditional backcountry hut that provides shelter. The hut replaces Saltwater Hut, overlooking Saltwater Lagoon in white heron (kōtuku) country, which was swept away by flooding in 2013.

The students are building the frame, a sleeping platform and a long-drop toilet at the school, and a helicopter is taking the various parts of the building from the school to the site, which is otherwise only accessible by foot along bush tracks. They are working alongside a builder on the project.

 “He teaches us the tricks of the trade, and it’s a really exciting project to work on.”

- Year 13 student Charles Alsdorf

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:09 pm, 7 February 2019

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