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5 October 2023
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When Colville Primary School and Te Puru Primary School were impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle, the communities did what they always do – supported each other through it.
For those who live on Te Tara-o-Te-Ika-a-Māui (the spine of Māui’s fish), the Coromandel Peninsula, rain is a part of life. But even for the environmentally attuned Coromandel communities the torrential rains that came during Cyclone Gabrielle in February of this year were a lot.
A quarter of the area’s annual rainfall, 450mm in total, fell over just five days. Metres-high flooding and multiple slips occurred with roads washed out and destroyed. Entire areas were cut off. Electricity and Wi-Fi were out, in some areas for months.
Understanding their role at the very heart of their communities, Colville Primary School and Te Puru Primary School stayed open as much as possible.
Where did that resilience come from? Education Gazette finds out.
Colville Primary School is in Colville, which is 26 kilometres north of Coromandel town. It has a roll of 32, and 10 members of staff including two full-time teachers. After Cyclone Gabrielle hit, Colville was cut off from the rest of the world for the best part of a month due to the condition of the road, says principal Susie Sumner.
“When the cyclone hit on Sunday there was a power outage. No electricity meant no pump for the water, so we had to close the school. After the batteries ran out on the cell tower, we had no phone.
“The only way to communicate was to go to the emergency response centre in Colville Hall, 750 metres down the road, and connect via Starlink. When the sun came out the community met up in the Wi-Fi garden. Electricity was back on by Wednesday afternoon and the school was open on Thursday.”
For whānau and staff, that whole period was challenging. Having the school open and being together helped, remembers Susie.
“For the past few years our community has been struggling with the loss of income and business; Cyclone Gabrielle has impacted this. When our tamariki returned to school we focused on wellbeing. They had everything they needed at school and could return to their regular routines, which meant our whānau could get on with keeping on.
“Most of the children were able to return to school immediately. We were quite lucky that the school bus could travel along the route to the north and south in between the landslides, where the major erosion had cut us off.”
Originally from Scotland, Susie has taught in seven different schools in the UK, Malaysia and in Wellington. This is her first principalship. She says prior to moving, she had spent time in Coromandel and was absolutely set on being a principal there.
“And every day my decision is affirmed. It’s a special place to be!”
She says she is constantly impressed by the innovation and curiosity demonstrated by the children at Colville.
“The students’ ideas on how to solve problems or create new things at school is different to anything I’ve experienced before. Recently we were figuring out how to fix something broken at the school and the students’ ideas were far beyond anything I had imagined.
“Some may think that it is only in big urban schools that innovative learning can happen, not an isolated rural school with a tiny roll. But it is here that we have to be innovative. Our rural setting is both an advantage and a challenge. Colville is an incredible environment to learn from and to teach in. We need to be more creative using our immediate environment and our local expertise.”
Susie says the school’s Garden to Table programme grows these future focused skills for their ākonga.
“Every Friday morning, everyone in the school participates... They might be in the garden harvesting vegetables, or prepping lunch in the school kitchen. They learn professional cooking techniques like knife skills in the kitchen, or about biodiversity in the paddock when collecting manure, checking rat traps or caring for our chickens.
“They are learning to be resilient, live sustainably and be the future problem solvers in our community.”
Susie says the significant rain experienced and post-cyclone uncertainties have been challenging.
“We are in a very vulnerable position. As a community we are thinking and preparing for the future. The Colville Project has designed a Health and Education Centre on land above any potential flooding.
“We have a whole host of people supporting us like the Colville Junction and the Civil Defence, who looked after us throughout Cyclone Gabrielle.”
Susie says she is delighted that the Colville Junction have secured funding through MPI for the school to have a generator and that from now on, there will be no more school closures.
“I think because we are rural, we were prepared and possibly more resilient because we have always had to pivot and change, and because we’ve all done it before.”
Susie is determined to provide wraparound care for their learning community.
“Some of the students catch the bus at 7.15am arriving at school by 8am and leave here just before 4pm. Our school cook serves delicious kai daily through our Ka Ora, Ka Ako | Healthy School Lunches programme. We are also supported by Fruits in Schools, KidsCan, Duffy Books and the Kickstart Breakfast programme.
“We take great pride in nurturing and nourishing our tamariki so they can thrive as learners.”
Following the cyclone, Susie stood, along with full-time teacher Aleisha Dreadon, at the ‘School is Closed’ sign with a basket of stationery and reading books for families to take away.
Her attitude is reflective of the wider community’s commitment to support one of the most remote schools in the country.
“Everyone in our community wants to make the children’s school experiences exceptional. The Colville Sailing Academy teaches our students sailing as part of a leadership programme, we made our kitchen plates at Driving Creek Pottery, and we’ve rented the local café for our Bake Sale.
“It will be our children who will be running the show. Everyone here is invested in helping each other.”
Just as Colville’s resilience is in their community and living and working with their environment, so too is that of Te Puru Primary School.
Te Puru Primary sits at the base of the western coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, just northeast of Thames. The school has a roll of 198 with a staff of 22 and sits right on the beach. Boats pull up to pick students up from school and they go for a fish on their boat home.
After the cyclone hit and the coastal roads were blocked on either side, the school stayed closed for five days due to safety issues around flooding and slips.
After that, several staff were going over and above to ensure they could open by boating to and from school. One boat took off from Te Mata, stopping at Ruamahanga before travelling by vehicle to school. The boat ride took 15 minutes; by road it was at times impassable or took hours. Similarly, staff walked from Tapu to Ruamahanga to ensure the school stayed open, says principal of Te Puru for the past four years, Karla Hull.
“This is what we do, people love living here and we deal with weather, and we work around it.”
At the end of term 2, when storms and flooding continued to hammer the area, the school managed to not only stay open, but to keep their celebration alive. To celebrate Matariki, they organised a huge hāngī catering for 400 people.
“We started like always at 5.30am with a karakia and putting the hāngī down. Staff stayed at the campground next door to make it happen. Dignitaries came. The school is not just a school, we’re our surrounding community and they were all here too. We ate well – the kūmara harvested from last year’s planting were beautiful – and we reflected on our past year and made plans for the year to come,”
As well as the people, at the heart of Te Puru is the sea and the environment, explains Karla.
“It’s us, it’s who we are. Here our unique environment is the beach. And our school and our learning and who we are is based around the beach. Our curriculum is based on Maramataka – how we link to what’s happening in the natural world and the Māori calendar. We know and teach that we are here as Kaitiaki.”
They do this via the school’s Kura Tātahi (Beach School) curriculum, as explained on the school website.
“Through Kura Tātahi our tamariki are immersed in ‘hands-on’ outdoor learning experiences fostering exploration, problem-solving, discovery, collaboration, environmental education and action, and the values of tikanga Māori. This engages passion, empowers tamariki and implements change to inspire the future.”
Every class spends time each week outdoors in their unique environment, with a learning concept for each term, explain Kura Tātahi kaiako Matua Jason Bax and Whāea Hayley Fenton.
“People ask us if we’re worried about more rain but when you work with the seasons you understand there is a time for rain. In term 1, we learned from Taha Wairua – it’s summer and we build our spirit with the holiday season.
“Term 2 is Taha Whānau in autumn, when we begin our harvest season in preparation for Matariki. Whānau come together. Term 3 in winter is Taha Hinengaro, a time for protecting Papatūānuku and a time when we traditionally stayed inside the pā to feed our minds with taonga tuku iho – knowledge of the past.
“Then in term 4 and spring, it’s Taha Tinana and we become active and fit. We do garden preparation and seed germination and focus on hauora and new growth.
“Each of the seasons allows different ways to teach our values and skills from water and sun safety and reducing our carbon footprint to learning about Whanaungatanga, Arohatanga, Manaakitanga, Kaitiakitanga and Tū Kaha –building resilience. We’ve been doing exercises to improve our mental strength because being resilient can be hard.”
Sitting in the Kura Tātahi learning space, with waves lapping at the sand mere metres away, Karla and ngā kaiako sit and talk about the upcoming kai. A small boy stops at the doorway and looks at Whāea Hayley.
“Fishing?” he says.
“Not today,” Hayley replies. “It’s too rough right now, and the tides are wrong. I’ll put a rod out first thing in the morning.”
Satisfied, the student runs off. Resilience, in action.
Explore more stories about how schools and communities rallied together during and after Cyclone Gabrielle in Education Gazette issue 102.3(external link).
BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, firstname.lastname@example.org
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