Helping students beat the odds

Issue: Volume 100, Number 6

Posted: 20 May 2021
Reference #: 1HAKsF

Aurora College in South Invercargill embraces diversity and has a wide range of programmes, services and initiatives which aim to lower the barriers for students and help them reach their potential.

Coihan, Brooklyn, Elayne and Te Aroha all enjoy the school garden.

Coihan, Brooklyn, Elayne and Te Aroha all enjoy the school garden.

Aurora College has a wide welcome mat, according to the Education Review Office.

There’s the Service Academy, a basketball development programme, a successful Gateway programme, a school community garden, a hauora suite with resident counsellor, careers advisor and various visiting health professionals and agencies – and more.

Second, third and fourth chances are big at the school which routinely accepts students excluded from other schools. Families know that ORS students are well looked after. More recently, trans and fluid gender students have been finding their way to the high school. 

Teachers stay

Education Gazette visited the Year 7– 13 school earlier this year and talked to some staff, many of whom have been at the school since it opened in 2005 on the site of Mount Anglem College.

Principal Robyn Hickman and the core of dedicated staff she has gathered around her are committed to making a difference.

“Relationships are really important here. I can turn a person right off at the interview by saying: ‘there are three things that are really important at Aurora and that’s relationships, relationships, relationships’. You can tell if people want to be part of this, or look like they’re going to run a mile,” says Robyn.

“We have great staff retention here – people tend to buy in and know why they’re here and are committed to the kids and their whānau. No-one pretends it’s easy here – I always say there will be lots of easier schools to teach at, but we’ve got a good Board of Trustees, we value our staff and they get good opportunities for PLD – it’s a nice environment,” she says.

Deputy principal Greg Reeves and assistant principal Brent Tagomoa have been at the school from the beginning. Brent was a graduate teacher – he’d previously been a bouncer for eight years.

“What’s kept me here? It’s the values filtered down through Robyn and the Board of Trustees. We’re big with positive connections – relationships are massive here.

“We’re not just about academic intelligence – there’s social, emotional, spiritual, physical – if we can be a part of enhancing all those different types of intelligence and the student comes out all right on the other side, that’s good enough for me,” says Brent.

With an oversupply of teachers in his homeland Australia after he finished teacher training, Greg eventually found his way to Southland.

“It’s good to see kids come out the other end who might have struggled when they were younger. A sense of achievement may just be getting through to Year 12 or 13. It may be getting a job after leaving school, an apprenticeship. For some it might be going to university. It’s good to see them grow into decent citizens, and we see that here.

“I remember one kid who used to hide under the tables when things would go wrong. He ended up going through Year 13 and going to university,”
says Greg.

Aurora College’s senior leadership team: Greg, Robyn and Brent.

Aurora College’s senior leadership team: Greg, Robyn and Brent.

Community involvement

Year 9 dean Gareth Scott is passionate about the community programme he’s running, which has a focus around local curriculum.

“We do a four-week rotation. We take a class down and serve soup in the streets of South Invercargill. They walk around the streets and offer people soup – the purpose is getting to know the people in their community, as well as being seen. We go through at least two big pots of soup every time we go down. Especially for the kids who don’t fit naturally into a classroom, they really enjoy getting out there and relating to people.

“Another group will go down to the local primary school and spend time reading and helping in classrooms. They go into the local rest home and spend an hour and a half with residents. Lots of them were hesitant about how to communicate with the elderly, but were able to come out and say ‘wow, we did that’, or ‘I had a great conversation with an older person’,” he says.

The Year 9 students also help out at the local South Alive orchards.

“It’s a really good chance to get the kids out working in their own community – they can go back in their own time and see the benefit of what they’ve done,” says Gareth.

“We want our kids to grow up knowing that they can make a difference in their own lives, as well as their community,” adds Robyn.

Academy role models

Sonny Rangitoheriri has been at Aurora College since 2011 and director of the Service Academy since 2015. The former semi-professional rugby player is softly spoken, but he runs a tight ship and the Year 12 and 13 students in the military-focused programme are courteous, confident and disciplined.

But it wasn’t always like that.

“In the past it’s probably been seen as a bit of a dumping ground for students who have learning or behavioural difficulties, but now it’s kind of changed to students who are some of the top students in the school. We’ve got the head boy and the head girl this year. People are seeing us as the leaders in the school – and out in the community as well,” he says.

Sonny reflects that it’s been a learning curve, but he wants to pass on his own love of school to the students in the hope they will share their passion for school with their own children.

“Four or five years ago I was having some tough times with students. I think the way I developed it was by focusing them on something there was a need for, but also it could focus them away from the trouble they were having,” he says.

While Education Gazette was talking to Sonny, students were doing drill practice in the background. They were preparing for a two-week induction camp at Burnham Military Camp, where they were awarded three trophies for outstanding performances.

Focus on leadership

Sonny Rangitoheriri has been at Aurora College since 2011 and is director of the Service Academy.

Sonny Rangitoheriri has been at Aurora College since 2011 and is director of the Service Academy.

As well as NCEA subjects and developing fitness and physical skills, there’s a strong focus on self-discipline and leadership at the Academy.

“We try to cover the life-skill side of things, the values and ethos that we have in our school and use the military things and education as a vehicle for them to develop discipline and teamwork,” says Sonny.

“For me in particular, over the last couple of years, it’s been more about developing leaders, self-confidence and transitioning out of school. It was a worry in the past because some of our students were leaving and going into unemployment.

“Leadership is important because I know that leaders in workplaces are usually the manager or supervisor and I want them to have a bit of a leg up when it comes to that leadership,” he says.

Year 13 students Zahn and Antonio both credit the Academy with pointing them towards good futures. Antonio is head boy and interested in joining the Police; Zahn transferred from another school and says even his mum has noticed a change in him.

“I have learned life skills, communication, teamwork, confidence, self-discipline, leadership. We strive for excellence in everything we do. Last year I went through a bit of a rough patch and this Academy has just built my
self-esteem. I love it,” says Zahn.

Antonio was selected for a leadership course at last year’s Induction Camp at Burnham.

“The Service Academy has given me help, leadership and hope for the future,” he says.

Students at the Service Academy are seen as role models at the school.

Students at the Service Academy are seen as role models at the school.

Support and acceptance

School counsellor Vicky Fox has huge admiration for the students at Aurora College, whom she describes as ‘extraordinary and resilient’. Vicky and colleague Sally Jordan work out of links@aurora, which offers a wide range of wellbeing services to students at the school.

“The Year 7 and 8s love coming here – it’s special I suppose; they get seen individually by someone. As they get older most kids will just email me to make an appointment,” says Vicky.

Sallly Jordan and Vicky Fox are part of Aurora College's extensive student support network.

Sallly Jordan and Vicky Fox are part of Aurora College's extensive student support network.

Various agencies, a physiotherapist, a social worker and a health nurse all operate out of the links@aurora suite of rooms alongside Vicky, Sally and another part-time counsellor.

Sally describes her role as triaging visitors to the centre and she says she has got very good at reading body language. She is also responsible for career guidance.

“A lot of students are very unsure when they come to me. There’s a big push at the moment on trades. Looking at their profile sheets – especially the Year 12s – there are a lot of students who want to go into trades. That’s fantastic because it’s attainable for a lot of them,” she says.

The school has a culture of accepting and believing in young people, says Vicky.

“Family challenges are a big aspect for most of the young people I work with.

“I work really closely with other agencies: I’m on the advisory panel for Oranga Tamariki. Their focus has shifted more to making sure that people stay in families and that families are getting supported – wellbeing is a big focus now.

“We seem to have a lot of young Rainbow people coming to Aurora who haven’t had good experiences elsewhere but they are finding it is good here for them – they can be themselves,” says Vicky.

“One of the new students said it was good that nobody ‘cared that he was transgender’. That’s what we want for our kids – that they can be really accepting of diversity and embrace it,” says Robyn.

Sporting strategy

“Robyn is at the heart of how we tick, how we roll, our culture and all the good things that are going on. She’s strategic – she knows the people who are going to fit here,” says Vicky.

Part of that strategy is to employ former sports people, initially as teaching assistants. They are role models the students can look up to.

Sonny was one such hire and former Southland Shark Dan Peck is another. He’s working as a teaching assistant, training to be a teacher and running a very popular basketball development programme.

In 2020, Aurora College fielded an A-grade team for the first time.

“Our goal was to be the first school team from Aurora to ever win a senior A basketball programme. It was a huge goal – we won three and nearly won a couple more. By the end of the season, they had a whole new belief about themselves,” says Dan.

Former Southland Shark Dan Peck runs a popular basketball programme and is training to be a teacher at the school.

Former Southland Shark Dan Peck runs a popular basketball programme and is training to be a teacher at the school.

And for Dan, building confidence and self-esteem is what it’s all about.

“Students have to maintain a standard in the classroom to be able to attend the basketball. We make it fun and they love it and it’s a real team culture and they don’t want to let the team down, so it appears to be working,” explains Dan.

“I just love seeing the kids here understand potential and reach it. I’ve worked in all sorts of schools just through basketball coaching, but there’s just something about doing it here that pulls on the heart strings.”

This year, the school’s Board of Trustees has introduced zero fees for sports for the first time and sports coordinator Anna Crosswell says demand has been so high that she’s run out of uniforms.

The school’s Sports Club raises money to help students who may not be able to participate in sport.

“We set the club up in 2014 to cover all of our sports. We’re raising the money to enable students to participate and continue in sport – it helps with fees, equipment, travel costs. We also do this to get them to understand what being part of a sports club is – it’s not just turning up and playing,” says Deon Hourston, who runs the club.

Welcome mat gets wider

Ashton and Carl harvest a bumper tomato crop.

Ashton and Carl harvest a bumper tomato crop.

There’s so much good mahi happening at Aurora College that Education Gazette couldn’t possibly cover it all. We’ve written about another initiative in Issue 2, 2020(external link) – an accelerating English language class for older Colombian students – that Robyn welcomed with open arms.

“A lawyer said to me ‘You’re at Aurora’. She said ‘I just want you to know that a lot of people here think that you people down there are doing a really good job’,” says Greg.

“There’s still a perception in Invercargill that South Invercargill is really rough. I probably did dwell on that to start with, but we don’t dwell on that anymore,” adds Robyn. 

Student kōrero

Education Gazette asked some students: What’s different about Aurora College?

  • The teachers are kinder, friendlier, and treat you like adults. Contrary to rumours, I have seen less rule breaking here. Cait, Year 13.

  • Teachers are more accepting and more supportive with schoolwork. The school acts quickly when a situation arises. It doesn’t ponder or stretch out issues. Ash, Year 13.

  •  The teachers are always there to help you when you need it, even if they have to push and push you. Last, but not least, they never give up on you, even if you’ve given up on yourself. Dejohnae, Year 11.

  •  I have ADHD. I feel pretty good because now I’m accepted. Teachers have interacted with me, which has made me trust them. Anton, Year 10.

  • Opportunities like the Garden Club and Junior Service Academy make me feel good and have boosted my confidence. Carl, Year 10.

  • The teachers are very caring and willing to help whenever. Students at this school are caring of each other and friendly, as some students have it quite hard. All up, Aurora is very caring. Keegs, Year 10.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:29 AM, 20 May 2021

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