Rich learning environment on Rakiura/Stewart Island

Issue: Volume 100, Number 5

Posted: 27 April 2021
Reference #: 1HAK4k

Stewart Island | Rakiura provides a natural playground and classroom for the children who attend New Zealand’s southernmost school.

Halfmoon Bay School's teachers enjoy the opportunities of teaching at the remote school. From left: Alison, Kath and Emily.

Halfmoon Bay School's teachers enjoy the opportunities of teaching at the remote school. From left: Alison, Kath and Emily.

The flight from Invercargill to Stewart Island is short, noisy and thankfully smooth. But Rakiura is a world apart. When we arrive, Halfmoon Bay School principal Kath Johnson says: “Sure you can borrow my truck – it’s parked outside, the keys are in it.”

Education Gazette arrived on a Friday morning in time for the weekly kapa haka practice with Whaea Pip Hakopa, who comes across from Bluff to take te reo Māori lessons for the community on Thursday nights, and she’s at the Year 1-8 school on Friday mornings.

Kath tells us the Army Band had been due to visit but was delayed because of Covid restrictions (they eventually visited for the first time ever in mid-April).

There was also a regular fortnightly visit from KiwiCan leaders, who have been visiting the island and running their life values and skills programme for at least 17 years.

“We really try to make sure the kids aren’t impacted by their physical isolation. It’s probably more like a childhood from the 1980s, but it’s going forward too.”

Digital and real-world opportunities

Kath says the school is “pretty big” on digital technology with its senior students.

“They take different classes through the Virtual Learning Network Primary,” she says. “Last year one of my Year 8 girls did five different classes, including sign language, extension maths and French. There are a whole lot of opportunities we can open up to them through the digital world.”

Rakiura’s stunning natural environment is the playground and classroom for the students at our southernmost school, and provides plenty of opportunities for them to become involved in real-world projects.

Since July last year, the school has teamed up in a pilot scheme with the New Zealand Penguin Initiative and local environmental group SIRCET (Stewart Island / Rakiura Community & Environment Trust) to observe little blue penguins/kororā at Ackers Point, near Oban.

Richard Seed from the Penguin Initiative was visiting to check out the project and talk to the children about their contributions to science.

“We’ve possibly been lured into a false sense of security here because the kids have just been so good. Their data entry has been flawless – they’re in tune with the environment,” he says.

Six generations of Colin's family have attended Halfmoon Bay School. From left Ellie, Emma and Colin.

Six generations of Colin's family have attended Halfmoon Bay School. From left Ellie, Emma and Colin.

Long history

There’s been a school at Halfmoon Bay for about 150 years. In a label at the new Rakiura heritage centre, Roy Traill (1892-1989) remembers his school days around the turn of the 20th century.

“At lunchtime the boys were off down the beach or up Mill Creek. We’d jump off the rocks and swim about, no such thing as bathing trunks... Now and then we’d have to wade right out and get a ball, or grab a dinghy from the wharf and pull it out.”

Six generations of Colin Hopkin’s family have attended the school, from Colin’s maternal great-grandmother to granddaughter Ellie, who’s in Year 4. Colin was at school from 1958 to 1965; daughter Emma attended from 1989 to 1994.

“There were two classrooms. School was a lot more basic than it is now – it was reading, writing and arithmetic. It was a bit of a shock leaving the island, but you had to go to a school (Waitaki Boys’ High School). It was just putting in time until I was allowed to go fishing,” remembers Colin, who has recently retired.

Nowhere better

When Emma was at school, there were 60 or 70 students – enough for some sports teams – and she remembers a netball and rugby tour to Dunedin when she was eight as a ‘pretty major trip’.

“We’re obviously still in this environment so we did get to do special camps and special trips. The older kids would always go to Mason Bay on the other side of the island, which is a full tramping trip. Younger kids go out to Māori Beach – there was a school there in Dad’s day,” she says.

All children from Rakiura have to go to boarding school on the mainland from Year 9 and for many, like Emma, this leads to tertiary education and working and travelling away.

“But then I never found anywhere I liked more than home, so it was always in my head that I would come back. It’s a really lovely place to bring up children. The childhood doesn’t really change much: being able to go to the beach and explore outside and having that community that looks out for all the kids too,” she says.

The children agree with Emma. “I like all the opportunities like we get to go off the island, back on the island. We get to do a wide range of things like going diving in the sea, we train for athletics and triathlon on the beach and the sea,” says Ava, Year 6.

“It’s cool because there are a lot of experiences here – like we do snorkelling. Earlier this week we did a wharf jump for our triathlon training and we did a survival swim in our pyjamas. We do rat trapping and stuff and the penguin cams are probably the best things we do,” says Fionn, Year 7.

All hands on deck

The Board of Trustees tops up the funding for three teachers so the Year 7 and 8 students can have a separate class for the three days a week Kath teaches them. The community pitches in with support and fundraising.

“Peter who owns the local garage has a swim squad, so Tuesday/Thursday morning they swim. We always have awesome results at the Southland and Southern Zone swimming sports,” says Kath.

Every Friday, Bevan Mudie, a retired secondary school art teacher from Auckland, originally from the Catlins, volunteers to teach art. He’s assisted by another local, Mikayla Joy, who is a Fine Arts graduate.

One of the largest buildings on the island is a superb gym and community hub which is used by the school and the community. Funding came from the Ministry of Education, Southland District Council and a group of locals who said ‘we want the best community centre’.

Kath happily shows us around the school’s refurbishments which include a new breakout room, wide covered verandahs and double glazing. A solar system with batteries to improve their energy resilience and reduce their dependence on the island’s diesel generator has been approved in Round 2 of the Ministry’s Sustainability Contestable Fund.

Kate and Ava enjoy Rakiura’s gym, which is a wonderful facility for the school and community.

Kate and Ava enjoy Rakiura’s gym, which is a wonderful facility for the school and community.

Punching above weight

Kath is proud of the achievements of the children at the 36-pupil school.

“The big thing for our Board of Trustees and our community is that our kids on Rakiura don’t miss out on things. So we go out of our way to make sure they’re getting the best deal they can. We think they are, ERO thinks they are,” she says.

Every year Kath prepares a report for the board showing how well the children have done in a range of regional competitions. The report for 2019 showed that while they are one of the smallest, most remote schools in the Southern Zone, they came 20th out of 44 schools in the Southland Primary Schools Swimming Sports. There were top placings in the Southern Zone cross country, merit awards at the Southland Science Fair, third places in the Southland speech competition and the Otago BandQuest regional final – and more.

“They definitely punch above their weight,” laughs Kath.

In 2018, teacher Alison Fitzsimons and her family decided to have an adventure and she accepted a one-year teaching position at Halfmoon Bay School. They relocated from Cambridge and within a few months decided to make the move permanent. The two older children are now at boarding school in Invercargill and Fionn is thriving at the school.

“The opportunity came up to stay and because they had so many different opportunities here and I could just see their growth in confidence and self-esteem, we did!” says Alison.

Teacher workforce

Teacher retention is clearly not a difficulty. Education Gazette was unable to meet Bonnie Leask who had taught at Halfmoon Bay School for 32 years. Kath moved to Stewart Island when she was 15, worked away for 17 years and has been principal at Halfmoon Bay School since 2007.

She delights in telling the stories of her other two staff: Emily Joy who came for an eight-week stint nine years ago and Alison Fitzsimmons who moved from Cambridge with her family for a year.

Emily teaches PE and Years 3-5.

“I had never been here before. I came for eight weeks! This is my first job – I knew I didn’t want to teach in a city. In the first week I was already planning on staying and just trying to see if I could get work elsewhere,” says Emily, who has married a local fisherman. Her parents and two sisters have also relocated to Rakiura.

“What has kept me here? I think the relationships you can have with the students and the families and the community because the school is such a central part of the community. The opportunities the kids get are awesome. People assume you don’t get many opportunities here, but you clearly do. More so with the lower numbers, you can really get to know the children really well and cater to what they need,” explains Emily.

Nature is playground

Alison, who teaches Years 1-3, says the children are well supported and she enjoys close relationships with them and their families.

“Nature is our playground. The first year I was here, they were at bush school and they had a mudslide. Half of them left their backpacks on and they came back to school like monsters. The dad who came with us was a volunteer fireman and said ‘do you want me to hose them down at the fire station?’ I waited for the parent complaints to roll in, but they were all delighted and that will be one of the kids’ favourite experiences!

“As a teacher, I’ve just done far more things here and I guess it’s exciting to teach. We went to Māori Beach for a camp and they kayaked from Port William to Māori Beach and then they walked back out. Little kids can do it! The parents are behind their kids, rather than finding excuses; the kids just go. I guess the opportunities just sit really well with our values,” says Alison.

“I like going to school here because it’s less people and more one on one time and you can make friends with almost the whole entire school,” says Ava.

Lania, Laurence and Ngakau are involved in the revival of tikanga Māori on Rakiura.

Lania, Laurence and Ngakau are involved in the revival of tikanga Māori on Rakiura.

Māori revival on Rakiura

From the early 1800s Māori leaders of the south encouraged relationships between Māori women and newly arrived Pākehā men to maintain social control and secure trade connections. By 1840, about 140 Māori women and Pākehā men around Foveaux Strait had formed families.

There’s no marae on Rakiura and it wasn’t until the opening of the new heritage centre, Te Puka o te Waka/Whare Taonga, in 2020 that a waiata, Rakiura te whenua, about the special places on the island, was composed by mana whenua and performed by the school and members of the community.

How it began

It all began when Whaea Pip (Waikato Tainui, Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Māmoe) , who had lived on the island in 2000, contacted Kath Johnson (Ngāti Kahungunu) at the school and asked if she could give back to the community that had once supported her.

“I’ve always been really interested in Māori connections. There are a lot of Māori who have an iwi, or have some Māori whakapapa on Rakiura, but very few of them are connected, know the language, know their pepeha,” says Kath.

Pip was working for Ngāi Tahu to affect their education strategy in the schools around the Western Southland district. She says there’s only a small percentage of mana whenua on Rakiura and she wanted to teach te reo, tikanga and kapa haka to whānau on the island – she offered her services for nothing, as aroha.

“Last year there were nine in the te reo class, now there are about 20,” says Pip.

Kath will be taking a sabbatical in term 4 to focus on exploring the iwi connections of tamariki at the school.

“I want to try to help them find out where their marae, maunga, awa are. I want to empower them to make connections with their iwi. I started with my iwi and at the moment I have eight nephews and nieces at the school here!” she says.

Whaea Pip travels from Bluff each week to teach te reo and kapa haka.

Whaea Pip travels from Bluff each week to teach te reo and kapa haka.

Empowering experiences

Lania Edwards is mana whenua (Ngāti Māmoe ki Rakiura) and has spent most of her life on Rakiura. Fair-skinned and green-eyed, she says she didn’t feel she could identify as Māori because she didn’t look the part.

“We have rights to go muttonbirding and that had been my only link to my Māori heritage for a long time.

“But then I realised that’s part of my heritage and also part of being a New Zealander, it’s important that we keep this culture alive, not just for us but for our children and their children, so they learn with us,” she says.

The Edwards – Lania, Laurence (Rongawhakata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki) and their son Ngakau, helped Pip to write Rakiura te whenua for the opening of the Whare Taonga. They began learning te reo with Pip in 2019 and their command of the language, tikanga and Te Ao Māori is impressive.

“We have learned kapa haka, pōwhiri, tikanga from Whaea Pip. We hosted and ran the pōwhiri for the opening of the museum. We’d never done that before. Our long-term vision is, if not a marae, a cultural centre – somewhere where we can have weekend wānanga and open it up to visitors and share.

“Almost the whole school and members of the community – about 50 people in total – took part in the pōwhiri for the opening of the museum. We had four full-day wānanga just practising – it was tiring, but amazing,” says Lania.

Connecting to culture

Lania and Laurence are making sure their son Ngakau (Year 8) is fully immersed in te ao Māori. They couldn’t be prouder when he leads the haka.

“We’ve been singing waiata from the North Island and Ngāi Tahu for years. All the boys were on stage and the women were in front of us – that was quite cool supporting our wahine and being so tight as a group,” says Laurence.

“I was nervous and excited. Because it was the first time I had done pōwhiri – we’d done lots of practising beforehand. Learning the proper way of doing it felt special,” adds Ngakau.

Kath says about 45 per cent of children at Halfmoon Bay School identify with an iwi. She’s keen for them to grow their knowledge of te reo and tikanga Māori and hopes that Whaea Pip will be funded to work with the children and their whānau for about six wānanga days throughout the year.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:55 pm, 27 April 2021

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