One year ago, we brought readers the story of a year inside Papakura High - a school on the brink of survival. Today we return to discover optimism, and change.

When the first students of the year arrive at Papakura High School today, they will be greeted by the signs of progress.

For the second time in two years, the school once labelled among Auckland's "worst" will have increased its Year 9 roll. It has managed to retain all its teachers, even gaining funding for some extra staff.

And the school's new logo - a stylised Kereru with the motto "Kia Rangatira", or "be chiefly" - has been hung at its entrance, hailing a new era.

WATCH: Herald documentary Under The Bridge

Advertisement

For principal John Rohs, however, the changes he's most proud of are those you can't see.

"When I first arrived at the school, everyone was so down, it was really dark," he said.

"But we've turned the school on its head - completely restructured not just how we operate but in terms of the culture. It's a different kind of school, there's a much greater sense of pride."

Papakura High School Principal John Rohs says he's moved from hope to confidence. Photo: Nick Reed
Papakura High School Principal John Rohs says he's moved from hope to confidence. Photo: Nick Reed

The Herald first met Rohs in early 2016, when he was appointed as a "change principal" at the struggling South Auckland school, in the wake of a damning Education Review Office report.

With a falling roll and one of the lowest NCEA pass rates in the country, Papakura was rumoured to be on the brink of closure, but despite that, Rohs and a group of Year 13 students were determined to see it succeed.

Rohs and three of those young people - Wendy Savieti, Jayden Schell and Robert Downes - became the subject of the Herald's first documentary "Under The Bridge", which followed as they struggled to turn the school around - all while grappling with issues like bullying, homelessness, and poverty.

Robert Downes was one of three students who featured in the Herald documentary Under The Bridge. He's now working and taking care of family.
Robert Downes was one of three students who featured in the Herald documentary Under The Bridge. He's now working and taking care of family.

By the end of the film, and the end of 2016, the school had gathered enough momentum to give Rohs "a sense of hope" that it could be saved.

Now, with another 12 months under his belt, Rohs says while there is still much to do, things have come a long way.

"We've gone from a sense of hope to a sense of confidence," he said.

"There has been a significant change in how the school itself sees its future. Lots of people had lost hope and now the community see there is no question that we have a solid future ahead."

Other changes included aligning the school more closely with its students' predominantly Maori and Pasifika identities - such as replacing the "house" structure with three whanau - Otuuwairoa, Te Aparangi and Kirikiri.

Prefects were now "kaitiaki" or guardians, and there was a student council, who helped come up with the logo and motto.

The school was also part of a wider community of schools within Papakura, with a growing mutual respect.

That bond in turn had helped boost the roll, with all but two of the neighbouring Papakura Intermediate graduates to attend the high school this year, an intake expected to be up at least 30 students from the prior intake of 150.

Jayden Schell has put his theatrical talents to work at Spookers, and plans to do a graphic design course this year. Photo/ Mike Scott
Jayden Schell has put his theatrical talents to work at Spookers, and plans to do a graphic design course this year. Photo/ Mike Scott

However, despite progress, the school remains under a government intervention, with a Limited Statutory Manager in place "until necessary". Work remained to be done on achievement and engagement levels, the education ministry said.

It was also under an Education Review Office pilot programme, meaning it was monitored closely by officials there too.

Rohs said the school's 2016 NCEA pass rate for level three was up from 8 percent to 33 percent but he thought it would drop slightly this year.

This image of Papakura High School students preparing for Polyfest went on to win a prize at the New Zealand Geographic photography awards. Photo/Mike Scott
This image of Papakura High School students preparing for Polyfest went on to win a prize at the New Zealand Geographic photography awards. Photo/Mike Scott

New school board chair Deanna Howard-Afeaki said although there were continued interventions, she was positive about the future.

"If the officials think you can turn achievement levels around in a year, you're dreaming," she said

For her, the important thing was that after ten years of being involved with Papakura High, she was finally seeing kids that felt a sense of ownership, and a school that was embracing its culture.

"For the first time last year we had a haka competition, and I was crying. I have waited a long time for things like that to happen."

Former Papakura High School head girl Wendy Savieti is now studying at Auckland University and still lives in Papakura. Photo/ Mike Scott
Former Papakura High School head girl Wendy Savieti is now studying at Auckland University and still lives in Papakura. Photo/ Mike Scott

Local MP Judith Collins said she had noticed a better attitude towards the school in the community as well.

"It will take a while to change people's feelings. It's not easy. It's a difficult job John Rohs has got," she said.

In the wake of "Under The Bridge", the school received so many donations and offers of help it set up a trust, run by alumni.

The $12,000 fund pays for experiences like Outward Bound for students who might not otherwise be able to participate.

However, Year 13 student Montana Henare said the film had more than a financial impact on the students.

"It changed the view of us. It made us know that we could be beter," she said.

"None of my siblings have made it. I just really want to finish school. And help grow the next leaders. I want to let everyone know they're their own leader, they can do well."

Where are they now?

The three students from Under the Bridge graduated high school at the end of 2016.

• Former head girl Wendy Savieti is studying at Auckland University

• Jayden Schell is working two jobs - one at Spookers, one at Mitre 10 - and plans to start a course this year

• Robert Downes is working, and focusing on family.

All remain living in Papakura.