Generations of service, love and respect

Issue: Volume 95, Number 21

Posted: 21 November 2016
Reference #: 1H9d5M

A finalist in the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards this year, Auckland’s A’oga Fa’a Samoa has been immersing students in Samoan language and culture since 1984.

Language, culture and family are the building blocks of success at A’oga Fa’a Samoa, an early childhood education centre in Ponsonby, Auckland.

Janice (Jan) Taouma and her husband, the late Dr Papali’i Pita Taouma, were initiators of the a’oga amata from the start, setting up the first of its kind in New Zealand.

The Samoan immersion centre first opened in Herne Bay in 1984, and moved to its Ponsonby site, on the grounds of Richmond Road Primary School, in 1987. In 1990, it became the first licensed and chartered Pasifika centre in New Zealand.

“When my husband and I came to New Zealand with our children, I was a trained primary school teacher and became very interested in early childhood education,” says Jan.

The Poutu model

A’oga Fa’a Samoa has developed a strong philosophy based on Samoan culture and values.

Jan says the philosophy can be described using the metaphor of the fale (house) and the poutu (posts at the centre of the fale). Just as the poutu needs to be fixed and stable to hold up the fale, so the values of alofa (love and commitment), tautua (service and responsibility) and fa’aaloalo (respect) remain constant. This philosophy acknowledges strong connections between a child’s language, their identity and their educational success.

“I believe our principles and guiding philosophy are different from other centres, because the Samoan language is really important for forming our identity – it allows the children to learn about their place in the world and who they are. It gives them a strong sense of belonging,” she says.

“The parents of our students want to ensure their children have access to language and culture, especially if they did not have that access themselves for whatever reason.”
Teachers speak Samoan only, and teaching resources and documentation are all in Samoan."

“Because our students come from a large variety of backgrounds – some parents are fluent, some understand Samoan but speak English and want their children to learn what they missed out on, and some have only one Samoan parent – we do encourage non-speakers to attend language classes in the community."

“In the immersion environment, children become fluent quickly, but they do lose the language as soon as they stop speaking it. That’s why it’s important they carry it on at primary school and home.”

Jan says that by closely observing the Kōhanga Reo movement, the initiators of A’oga Fa’a Samoa realised that children need to learn a language for more than five years if they are to retain fluency.

Smoother transitions

Moving the a’oga to the grounds of Richmond Road Primary School allowed the students a smooth transition from the centre into their primary education.

“Language learning is strong at Richmond Road Primary School, and in the 1980s they established a Samoan immersion unit. The principal welcomed us to become part of the school family, and today about 90 per cent of our students still go on to Richmond Road once they finish at the centre,” she says.

The transition process starts when children are four and a half years old, with school visits and joint assemblies. The a’oga students also use the primary school’s library and some other facilities.

“They’re really familiar with the whole primary school environment by the time they turn five, and they transition very easily,” says Jan.

Richmond Road Primary School is zoned, and now has Samoan, Māori and French immersion units, for which special enrolment processes apply.

From Bokashi to cloth nappies

Caring for the environment is an important part of daily life at A’oga Fa’a Samoa, and Jan reports her students are keen junior gardeners. In accordance with Te Whāriki, the children are exploring concepts in science and sustainability by participating in gardening and composting. All food waste is recycled by way of the compost bin and a bokashi system.

The resulting compost from both is returned to the vegetable garden to nourish a plot that Jan admits is “heavy on silverbeet” but has also produced celery, carrots, pumpkin, kumara and beans, depending on the season.

The centre employs a cook who prepares lunch for the children, and their lovingly grown and harvested vegetables often make their way into this meal.

Through the Auckland City Council’s WasteWise Schools programme, the a’oga has said goodbye to disposable nappies. By joining with a sustainability education plan at Richmond Road Primary School, Jan says the decision was made to go completely disposable-free.

“The council asked if we’d like to be part of a trial of cloth nappies that was also happening in other centres. After the trial we made a commitment to it, applied for a grant and bought a big supply of cloth nappies."

“Once they’re laundered, the children learn about the power of sunshine and wind by helping to hang the cloth nappies outside to dry. It does mean more work for our staff but it translates into a big saving for parents, and of course for our environment too."

“Allowing the children to explore their place in the world is important to them becoming lifelong learners. We want them to have the confidence to perform and be active participating members of their community.”

Shining a light

In addition to being named a 2016 Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards finalist, A’oga Fa’a Samoa has participated in various academic studies on immersion and bilingual education, and was one of six Ministry of Education Centres of Innovation from 2003 to 2006.

The centre also opens its doors to student teachers and researchers from around the world and Jan reports a group of academics from Denmark will be visiting in December to learn about bilingual education.

The most precious visitors though may be former students now at the primary school, who regularly drop in to say hello, and, more importantly, find out what’s cooking for lunch.

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

Posted: 2:03 PM, 21 November 2016

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