Garth George: Back to school and still learning

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The education system has come in for a lot of flak in recent years, some of it from this column, and I resile from nothing I've written.

But lately I have become involved with my local primary school, which has given me a whole new insight into what is happening where it really matters - at the coalface that is Rotorua's Owhata Primary School.

Yes, that's the school which featured in the local newspaper and the Herald on Sunday last weekend in a story recording that five 9-year-olds were caught puffing on a joint during lunchtime.

That, however, happened weeks ago, and was dealt with promptly by the principal, board of trustees and parents of the children involved. That sort of publicity unfortunately tends to take the emphasis off all the good things that are happening at the school.

As principal Bob Stiles points out, drug problems crop up now and again in almost every school, primary and secondary, these days. I was surprised that the local Principals Association chairman denied that.

Owhata Primary is a decile 3 school, which reflects the neighbourhood it serves - a friendly, hospitable suburb with an active community life into which my wife and I have settled comfortably, and with no regrets after nine months.

The roll of the school is 90 per cent Maori, with the rest made up of Pakeha with a leavening of Sri Lankan and Indian kids, and my twice-weekly visits to one Year 5 and 6 class of 9- and 10-year-olds are the highlights of my week.

The school has intimate ties with the local marae, whose kaumatua and kuia (male and female elders) attend all the school's public functions, and who welcome the children on to the Owhata marae, the history of which goes back to the legendary Tutanekai and Hinemoa, whose descendants many of these Te Arawa children are.

Te Arawa are major beneficiaries of the "Treelords" settlement and since most of that involves forestry and agriculture, Owhata Primary's trustees and staff have foreseen that science will be of vital importance.

So they have teamed up with the local Crown research institute, Scion, and set up a special science stream, so that the language of science becomes quite natural to the children, many of whom will be inheritors of the settlement lands.

"We have a huge forestry and farming base here and we will need people who know how to look after it in the future," says Mr Stiles, a big, bearded, forthright bloke who describes himself as Ngati Pom-Pakeha and his waka (canoe) as Boeing 747 - which arrived late, in 1975.

"I think it is important for the kids to see that scientists are real people ... " he says. "There is a perception that science is uncool and a geek subject. This way we can try to break those barriers."

The school is one of the first in the district to be equipped with interactive whiteboards, which hold me fascinated every time I go into "my" class.

Teachers can project whatever is needed on to the whiteboard from their laptops or PCs. The first time I walked into the classroom I felt there was something missing. It took a while to figure out that there was no blackboard or unique smell of chalk.

One of the things that really impresses me about Owhata Primary is the way it unashamedly embraces te Arawatanga (the history and traditions of Te Arawa people). The Maori kids receive from that a real sense of their history and, in learning where they come from, discover that they really belong in this unique part of the world.

The other kids enter enthusiastically into it, too - participating in song, legend and all the other aspects of kapa haka - and acquire an unusually comprehensive understanding of the area in which they live.

But it is in the classroom that I have had restored to me my faith in our ability to educate our children, the boys and girls who will one day be our citizens and leaders.

The bright eyes and eager expressions never fail to captivate me, and I find rather humbling the caring, commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers, teacher aides, administrators and part-time specialists whose determination to do right by their pupils goes on day after day after day.

I'm sure this commitment is replicated in school after school throughout the nation and thus am I persuaded that our children's education, in the classroom at least, is in good and safe hands.

My task, at Mr Stiles' invitation, is to encourage 27 "gifted and talented" youngsters to become more proficient in reading, writing and comprehension. It is a privilege. And I have already identified a prospective future Herald columnist.

- NZ Herald

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