New thinking a winner at Kenakena School

Issue: Volume 98, Number 5

Posted: 20 March 2019
Reference #: 1H9sQg

Paraparaumu’s Kenakena School, the winner of the 2018 Electra Business Awards’ Business of the Year award, is also winning in its use of innovative programmes that support both students and staff.

Janet and dyslexia programme student Cody doing a reading exercise.

When Kenakena School Principal Bruce McDonald began leading the school more than 20 years ago, students were being lost to other schools, teacher morale was low and there was hardly any connection between governance and management.

These things flow into all areas of the school so the first thing Bruce did was to tell teachers they should do what excites them. He incorporated this into the school vision, which was the starting point for change.

Kenakena School’s current strategic plan revolves around six goals based on the National Administration Guidelines, which are basically the same as those developed 18 years ago.

Bruce says that what makes this approach work is that the consistent big-picture goals are supported by flexible strategies, which are extrapolated into an operationalised version of the strategic plan, leaving room for strategic thinking.

“There is a clear link between the strategic plan (vision) and the operational plan (action), which relates directly to student outcomes, and there’s flexibility for new ideas or research to be considered.”

For example, mid-strategic planning cycle, a company called Minded asked if the school would be part of its research-based approach to brain dispositions, including trialling a tool they were developing.

“We adapted our plan accordingly because this was a fantastic opportunity for our students, and one that fitted very well with our strategic direction.

“Minded worked with us to prepare our teachers for understanding the tool and with our students to prepare them for using it. It was a metacognitive exercise for our students, who learned about their strengths and weaknesses in relation to how they operated as individuals and how they could relate to others who were different from them when working cooperatively.”

Dyslexia programme

Clay modelling is an integral part of the dyslexia programme.

Kenakena School has around 20 students in the dyslexia programme each calendar year and use their own adapted version of the Davis Approach: improving classroom practice, individual assistance and expert advice.

“The results from the programme are astonishing,” says Bruce. “We have an average increase of 2.4 years in reading age in just over a year. After the pilot programme around 2009 and every year since, the board asks the same question: ‘How can we not do this?’”

The programme is run by two full-time teacher aides trained in dyslexia and an experienced full-time facilitator, Janet Pirie-Hunter, but funding remains an issue.

Every year funding the programme is a challenge, with the expense of Janet’s facilitator position the main priority. In fact, says Board of Trustees Chair Michelle Mason, sometimes they’re discussing how to fund the next term. Revenue from their international student programme has allowed them to put more operational funding into the programme.

Students come from other schools and teachers come from across the country to learn about the programme. One family sold their house in Wellington to move to the Kāpiti Coast so their child could participate in the programme. After their son had been in the programme for 18 months and was doing really well, they wrote to Bruce, saying, “The healing of our son’s self-worth has been the most important thing to us as a family.”

Bruce and Michelle say that these are the immeasurables. However, says Michelle, “We are between a rock and a hard place; we don’t want to advertise the programme because then we’d get inundated and we can’t accommodate that, but we need funding.”

Bruce has approached Kāpiti Business Projects to see if they can help develop a business plan for sustaining the dyslexia programme.

“When the kids say, ‘now I know I’m not dumb’, and they leave here with self-esteem, that’s what matters – and that’s why we say we can’t afford not to do it,” he says.

“What is unique about this programme is that it approaches dyslexia as a strength to be built on, not as a disability to be overcome. The Davis Approach utilises students’ strengths as ‘picture-thinkers’ and equips students with tools for mental and perceptual focus, stress reduction, and self-regulation of energy levels.”

Boys’ Mentoring and girls’ Future Choices programmes

The school also runs a Boys’ Mentoring Programme that came about through need.

Dyslexia programme student Oscar listening to “tings” to orientate himself before learning.

“We targeted 10-year-old boys because they are best friends one minute and fighting the next and are not sure how to accept and apply leadership. We teach them self-management, conflict management and leadership skills,” says Bruce.

One student said to Bruce, “I have learned to tolerate and get on with other kids that are not my friends.” Unprompted statements like this are a positive outcome of the mentoring programme. “The boys have become a lot more tolerant and we see fewer put-downs, which is flowing through to when they are Year 7 and 8 students.”

They present a Boys’ Mentoring Programme Boy of the Year award annually, which Michelle’s son Harry has won.

Michelle says, “Harry is a little bit invisible sometimes because he doesn’t get involved, but in the boys’ mentoring programme he hung out with kids who didn’t know him and they are now like ‘hi Harry’ in the playground and they look out for him.” 

The programme requires the boys to engage in a range of activities in which they have to cooperate in order to succeed. They learn to encourage and support rather than put down, which creates empathy, understanding and tolerance of boys outside their tight friendship groups.

Fewer group discussions are required to sort issues out, as the behaviour has improved so much, says Bruce.

The Future Choices Programme was introduced for Year 8 girls because they are being pulled into the adult world a lot faster than in previous years through social media and peer pressure. The goal is to build their confidence through gentle activities that lead to discussions on serious issues such as unwanted attention at college.

Recently Michelle joined the girls to decorate cupcakes and talked about her past life as a lawyer and her new life making cakes for a living. The key message was to be prepared to change direction if things happen to change the course of your career or life – and that it’s okay.


Teacher Aide Sarah and ESOL student Isis learning the English alphabet and sounds.

Employer of choice

Kenakena School has a very low staff turnover. Consecutive staff satisfaction surveys show that close to 100 per cent of staff feel satisfied or extremely satisfied that they are contributing to student outcomes, valued and that they are given opportunities to lead.

Michelle’s role on the board has given her a great understanding of what teachers do and how a school works. She says, “Teachers are really clear about what their students need and they go out of their way to help them in school and in life because they care about them.”

Some children have challenging lives and key staff will work with every agency they can to find ways to help them. Michelle says, “Sometimes systems within and between agencies aren’t flexible enough to produce an appropriate intervention quickly enough to address complex issues. This can be frustrating because there are limits to what the school can do without assistance.”


Experienced teachers mentoring new teachers

Bruce says a good thing about Kenakena School teachers is that they aren’t stale: “Some of our older, experienced teachers are driving our pedagogy work. They’re working alongside our younger teachers, e.g. one of our teachers in his twenties is working alongside one of our teachers who has just turned 60 and he says he is learning so much from her.”

Teachers here tend to find their pedagogy ‘buddy’ and apply for development projects, quite often sharing a unit and working and running the unit as a pair.

Michelle confirms that in a recent ERO review, the team leader mentioned they were impressed with the collegiality of staff, which is fantastic for the students.

There is also great collaboration among the principals in the area. Bruce says the local Ōtaki Kāpiti Principals’ Association (which includes primary and secondary schools) is terrific and collaborates in many ways.

“Attendance is high when we meet twice a term. The association is involved in many joint projects and initiatives. We have other schools nearby but we don’t see them as competitors. We just do our own thing and get on with it and if the kids come, they come.”

International students and their Kenakena buddies trying out the horse jumps at Pony Tales Riding School.

International student programme – mixing school with business

Kenakena School has been hosting long-term fee-paying students since 2002 and co-marketing with Kāpiti College since 2010.

In 2015, after a request from a local Chinese resident and ex-Kenakena School parent, Kenakena School began enrolling short-term international students (1–4 weeks) from China and Thailand and through word of mouth they gained repeat and new customers.

After Bruce visited China in 2016, they received an upsurge in enrolments and adapted their business model to short-term programmes to meet market demand.

“The new thinking award recognised that we’ve had to develop new solutions, including for over-capacity, which was an issue last year, and it’s the third time we’ve had to develop a new pricing structure,” says Bruce.

The school has a limit of three international students per class at any level of the school. Students who come on their own have to be 10 years of age or older so tend to end up mostly in the Year 7 and 8 classes.

“We had a request to take 12–17 additional students, so to manage this we set up an academy class where the students were involved in golf, soccer, and basketball,” says Bruce. “Each of the Chinese students had a Kenakena student as their one-on-one buddy in class.”

European families in the country on sabbatical are becoming more popular and the school currently has two families from Switzerland and one from Chile. Each family decides how much they want to be involved; for example, some parents help in the classroom and accompany the students on class excursions.

Hosting short-term students has seen revenue increase, which is then reinvested in other student programmes where the need is greatest.

The business of education

In 2018 Kenakena School won the Electra Business Awards’ Employer of Choice and New Thinking Achievement awards, plus the Large Business Excellence award and the Overall Business of the Year award.

Michelle and Bruce say winning the Business of the Year award attracted some online feedback questioning whether or not a school is a business.

Michelle believes a lot of people don’t understand what’s involved in running a school.

“The business of running a school is the business of education,” says Bruce. “We have to add value for children, and we have data to show that, but we also have our profit-making international student programme, which is approximately 20 per cent of our revenue.”

Bruce recently had the opportunity to talk to the business sector at the post-awards winners and finalists function.

His talk received the following response from a business owner in the region: “Listening to Bruce McDonald talk at the Electra Business Awards winners and finalists function tonight, it’s really clear that Kenakena School is run as a school AND along business lines, and that they thoroughly deserved Business of the Year. They entered the awards to get a measure of where they are at as a school and as an effectively run business that enables students to learn in the classroom.”

More information about the Davis Approach(external link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:05 am, 20 March 2019

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts