He Ara Tika: Ākonga embrace the pathway to success

Issue: Volume 102, Number 5

Posted: 20 April 2023
Reference #: 1HA_Tc

A Senior Pathway Programme at Rotorua Lakes High School is proving transformative for ākonga who were disengaged from school. The approach gives ākonga agency, builds inclusivity through whanaungatanga and manaakitanga, and empowers them to succeed.

Kaiako and mentor Moe Tansey with students from the new Senior Pathway Programme at Rotorua Lakes High School.

Kaiako and mentor Moe Tansey with students from the new Senior Pathway Programme at Rotorua Lakes High School.

Walking into the Senior Pathway Programme learning space at Rotorua Lakes High School, there’s a buzz among the students, who along with their kaiako and mentor Moe Tansey, are brainstorming about designing their dream home.

The house they envisage building together is as big as their dreams for the future.

This is a success story playing out in real time – a year ago, these students were disengaged, unmotivated and not achieving at school, struggling in a system they felt invisible in.

Now, they’re at school, engaged and eager to learn, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Rotorua Lakes High School principal Jon Ward is a realist when it comes to what he believes is causing disengagement among his school’s most vulnerable students.

Jon is proud that his school has always been very good at getting academic outcomes. But he’s also critically aware of the fact that for some students, his school just isn’t a cool place to be.

Covid and a whole lot of other things have contributed to this, he says, but Jon is also a solutions man, who doesn’t like to waste time dwelling on the negatives.

“The question for me was not what caused this, but how do we solve it?”

A new approach

Looking at the number of students that were “disappearing” at a senior level and what to do about it, isn’t anything new at Rotorua Lakes High School or any other secondary school for that matter, says Jon.

Discussions around these issues have been ongoing, but the harsh reality for his school was looking at “a new and very different approach”.

And whatever that new approach looked like, it needed a collective effort, with buy-in from the school, whānau, the community and local mana whenua.

The Senior Pathway Programme at Rotorua Lakes High School is being implemented for the first time this year and has been specifically tailored to re-engage and empower a group of 17 Year 11 and 12 students.

A team of passionate educators at the school, led by deputy principal Pani McLean and including learning support coordinator AJ Harris, and kaiako and mentor Moe Tansey, has been pulled together with one common goal – to help these students believe in themselves and respect others and their environment, while setting goals for the future.

Jon is honest about some of the challenges that they have had to navigate through to get the programme off the ground.

Things had to be done properly including having a designated learning space where the students felt safe and ready to learn.

“Not everything went according to plan. There are some things that we really wanted to implement that have fallen through,” he says.

“Most of all, the ability to finance the programme will become an issue moving forward if we can’t secure the ongoing funding. I’m going to state that clearly from the beginning.”

But right now, with the programme in full swing and results already starting to speak for themselves, it is crucial to have a team leading the charge who have the flexibility to work around the issues along the way, says Jon.

Liam, Shelby and Brayden.

Liam, Shelby and Brayden.

Reconnection and re-engagement

Each of the 17 students handpicked for the Senior Pathway Programme at Rotorua Lakes High School has their own unique story to tell.

Although their individuality and what works for them in a school environment is what is being focused on now, there’s a common underlying theme among them all – the feeling of not belonging at school.

With a smile from ear to ear, it’s hard to imagine that a year ago 15-year-old Liam wasn’t happy.

Being in a classroom caused him such severe anxiety, that he would often leave school halfway through the day.

In his own words, his attendance “wasn’t very good” and his parents wondered if he was still on the roll.

“It was really stressful, I wasn’t doing any full days,” he says.

But this year is different. Liam’s smile says it all.

“I’m here every day, and all day and I’m glad to be here,” he says.

Brayden, also 15, speaks openly about how much he hated school. Last year, an average day for him looked like staying home and “gaming”. He was taken off the roll because of the amount of time he had off.

Without saying it out loud, Brayden felt invisible at school, he was drowning in a system that just didn’t work for him.

That all changed this year when he was selected to be part of the Senior Pathway Programme. This year, Brayden’s attendance is sitting at around 96 percent.

“I actually do work here. I feel like I’m achieving something.”

Their classmate Shelby says the only reason he attended school last year was because “he had to”.

“It wasn’t great, but I get a lot more help now.”

Building good relationships and having a sense of belonging and respect and pride in their environment and themselves, is at the centre of why the Senior Pathway Programme has been implemented.

AJ says even though it’s early days, the results are already becoming evident.


It’s the small things that speak volumes about how needed this programme, says AJ, like wearing the school uniform with pride and vast improvements in attendance.

There are opportunities to get a driver’s licence or look at study options at places like Toi Ohomai.

Students are encouraged to help in the community and to do what they can to contribute to looking after themselves and the environment.

“That whakawhanaungatanga has been crucial,” says Jon. “They need to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.”

For most of the students going on to Year 13 is now a very real possibility. Each student has signed a two-year contract – it’s not legally binding, but it gives the students accountability.

“It’s created this incredible bond, because there is ownership not only for themselves but for their classmates. They are coming here every day because they want to be here,” says AJ.

Paving the pathway forward

Jon’s interaction with students in the Senior Pathway Programme at Rotorua Lakes High School is fluid and effortless, which is rare when you think of the traditional model of authority in a school.

Respect is reciprocal – Jon, AJ and Moe, along with a myriad of others are genuinely and wholeheartedly invested in this programme.

AJ says being with the students in their learning space gives you a warm fuzzy feeling that can’t be adequately described without being there.

“If you know these students, you know how far they have come and I couldn’t be prouder,” he says.

The feedback they are getting from the students is enough for them to know that this programme is working.

However the question of where the funding will come from in the future continues to weigh heavily. 

The school’s Board has made it happen this year, along with massive support from the Graeme Dingle Foundation.

“We are extremely lucky and greatly appreciate the support of our Board and others in the community who are behind this programme as much as we are. The reality is, we need to make this sustainable,” adds Jon.

Rotorua Lakes High School principal Jon Ward and students from the Senior Pathway Programme.

Rotorua Lakes High School principal Jon Ward and students from the Senior Pathway Programme.

 A better future

In March, Te Tumu Whakarae mō te Mātauranga, Secretary for Education, Iona Holsted visited Rotorua Lakes High School to see their Senior Pathway Programme in action.

The school received a $30,000 Regional Response Fund towards their own financial contribution.

While there, Iona presented students with certificates for their first credits towards NCEA Level 2 for 2023.

Following the presentation of the awards students spoke openly with Iona about the improvements to their attendance, how they love their kaiako because she makes them feel comfortable and valued, and how the programme feels like whānau where they help one another and are in it together.

“The Senior Pathway Programme epitomises the presence, participation, and progress approach,” Iona said at the time.

Jon says there is nothing extraordinary about what they are doing at Rotorua Lakes High School. There are some fantastic programmes being rolled out all over the country.

He does, however, feel that the difference the Senior Pathway Programme is going to make will be glaringly obvious in years to come.

“We believe in what we are doing here. We are preparing these students for a better pathway and future.”

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

Posted: 9:35 am, 20 April 2023

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