Growing a place where students want to be

Issue: Volume 101, Number 9

Posted: 21 July 2022
Reference #: 1HAV6A

Paeroa College is working hard to boost attendance and engagement by removing barriers wherever possible, providing rich learning opportunities, and really listening to students and families. Education Gazette’s reporter visits the school in the heart of Hauraki to learn more.

Year 10 student Majestic is in Paeroa College’s rumaki class and has relished the opportunity to continue her learning in a Māori medium setting at secondary school.

Year 10 student Majestic is in Paeroa College’s rumaki class and has relished the opportunity to continue her learning in a Māori medium setting at secondary school.

It’s a cold, wintry day on the Hauraki Plains but there’s a real warmth emanating from Paeroa College. A real vibe, so to speak. It’s appropriate to channel social media vernacular in this instance – I’d been tasked by my colleagues with filming a TikTok video that highlights the school’s participation in the free period products initiative. I was apprehensive about asking students to share their views on the topic, let alone fulfil any TikTok ambitions, but it quickly became clear that any associated stigma was mine alone; the rangatahi are articulate and refreshingly honest.

“Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity, because they are expensive for such a product that we need, you know, very regularly. So it’s good,” says Breanna, Year 13.

“And also if they are feeling awkward about asking their parents to buy them – like for people that only live with their dad, that can be an awkward situation.”

“Period poverty is a real thing”

Paeroa College was among the first schools in the country to take part in Ikura | Manaakitia te whare tangata – Period products in schools initiative, rolled out by the Ministry of Education. Now it is well embedded in the school, and is actually having an impact on attendance, says principal Amy Hacker.

Paeroa College principal Amy Hacker.

Paeroa College principal Amy Hacker.

“Period poverty is a real thing here,” says Amy. “I know that there were a number of girls who wouldn’t come to school when they were menstruating.”

Paeroa College introduced free period products at around the same time as it introduced Ka Ora, Ka Ako | Healthy School Lunches.

“There was an increase in attendance rates across the board. But then I ran the girls’ versus the boys’ data and the girls’ attendance was an additional five to 10 percent better than the boys’ in terms of the increase since prior to the lunches and the period products. And that indicates to me that the period products are affecting girls’ attendance rates,” says Amy.

Lunches help learning

The healthy lunches programme has definitely had a positive impact on attendance too, says Amy.

“You know that old joke that says, ‘Oh, I just went to school to eat my lunch’? Well, it’s sort of a thing. Of course, the first step to having students engaged in education is getting them physically here. We also have a breakfast club that runs every morning. So yes, the students do come to school to eat – but I think even more so, they’re able to engage effectively in their learning because they’re not hungry.”

Getting out of the habit

Paeroa College’s daily attendance rate is now sitting at around 85-90 percent, which given the school’s rural setting and demographics, and the ongoing challenges of Covid, is not bad. Amy is keen to do whatever it takes to get students attending school and engaged in their learning.

Hey Beautiful“We’ve had to work really hard at it. And that’s the reality. The barriers to attendance are as individual as our students.”

And Covid hasn’t helped matters.

“I think a lot of students got out of the habit of school,” reflects Amy. The move from virtual to in-person learning was daunting for many students, she says, especially those grappling with complex family situations.

“We have a number of our families who are doing it hard financially, and so their kids are working outside of school hours. So they might work late into the evening and not get to bed till quite late. And that might mean that they come into school late or they’re looking after siblings, getting those kids to school so that parents can work. Those are things that we can identify, and we can try to have some agency around, but we can’t always fix it.”

Amy says they are focusing on what they can control.

“We really do work hard to make this school a safe place and a place that our kids want to come to.”

Māori immersion pathway

As if to illustrate this point, the school bell rings for lunch, and students bowl enthusiastically into the gymnasium for Whetū Dodgeball as part of their week-long Matariki celebrations. It looks great fun. I try to grab a soundbite from one of the students. “I can’t sorry – I’m leading Whetū Dodgeball,” she says apologetically. “Majestic will talk to you though.”

Majestic, Year 10, is slightly appalled at being put on the spot, but fields my questions like a pro. She is enjoying the Matariki activities so far. Majestic is in Paeroa College’s rumaki class and has relished the opportunity to continue her learning in a Māori medium setting at secondary school, after being in a rumaki class for her primary school years.

“I like interacting with other students in my class and learning more about my Māori side and the history and all that,” she says.

When Amy joined the school as principal in 2019, she says it became clear from conversations with mana whenua that the needs of Māori – who comprise approximately 50 percent of the school roll – weren’t being met at the college. Students in the Paeroa community could pursue a Māori immersion pathway through primary school and then it just ended – they either went into English medium study or left the Hauraki area for their secondary education.

“Whānau were really strongly advocating that the college put in a Māori immersion pathway. So in 2020, we opened the doors to a Year 9 and 10 rumaki. And that now includes an NCEA pathway.

“We will have another community consultation hui to make sure that we’re refining that and delivering on our graduate profile for our Māori students. It’s exciting.”

Paeroa College students.

Paeroa College students.

Eliminating Friday-itis

The other thing that strikes me as exciting is the school’s approach to timetabling. Fridays are set aside for academies – elective subjects that rotate on a semesterly basis. Students immerse themselves in their chosen academy for the entire day. Unsurprisingly, attendance on a Friday is generally good.

Health & physical education teacher Ramai Gurnick leads the Mana Wahine academy.

“Mana Wahine is about lifting women’s resilience and wellbeing and helping them to become more confident with themselves. I’m extremely excited about leading this because I see some of our young women are a little bit down on themselves and I’m hoping to be able to give them some skills to be able to lift them and just be the really confident, beautiful young women that I know they can be,” says Ramai, who is also Year 11 dean.

Health & physical education teacher and Year 11 dean, Ramai Gurnick.

Health & physical education teacher and Year 11 dean, Ramai Gurnick.

It’s all part of the effort to keep students engaged in their learning, agrees Amy. She references the recently launched Attendance & Engagement Strategy.

“Really, that document is around getting students in school, keeping them engaged, and then helping them to make meaningful progress in their learning. And I guess for us, the biggest thing is that engagement piece. We believe that students will come to school if their families and they feel they’re getting value out of being here. And so that means that we work hard every day to make this a place where kids want to be.

“I’m a big believer that if you want to know what is going to get kids to school, you ask them and you ask their family. So, a lot of times adults in my experience will sit in a room and try to figure out how we’re going to get these kids to school. But actually, the biggest thing for us is really partnering with our community and saying, ‘What is it that we can do better, do differently to encourage your kids to show up every day, to be here, to be thriving the way that we want them to be?’”

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

Posted: 9:26 AM, 21 July 2022

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