The OC: School of hard knocks

By Andrew Laxon

Sick of a barrage of outside criticism, the head of a decile 1 South Auckland college invites the Herald to see what they're doing right.

Head boy Cheran Hawkins, head girl Amelia Niu and principal Gil Laurenson in front of Otahuhu College, Auckland.  Photo / Steven McNicholl
Head boy Cheran Hawkins, head girl Amelia Niu and principal Gil Laurenson in front of Otahuhu College, Auckland. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Principal Gil Laurenson calls it O-ta-huhu College. Most of his Polynesian students use the old-fashioned Ota-hu. When they talk to their friends, or teenagers from other schools, it's just "OC".

However they say it, it comes out with a mix of pride and defensiveness - a feeling of "us against the world". Because everyone here knows that South Auckland schools are seen as educational failures and they're pretty fed up about it.

"If you come from OC, people are like; 'Oh, that's a prison school'," says deputy head girl Lorna Tongotongo. "Hey, it's the best prison in the world."

The students around her crack up laughing but it's clear they feel the insult too. Head boy Cheran Hawkins says South Auckland schools come across in the media as gangster, which feeds back into the school.

"The mindset of our students goes down," agrees deputy head boy Amandeep Singh.

"They don't boost themselves up to do the best they can."

Historically, South Auckland decile 1 schools have gained this reputation because their students are overwhelmingly from poor Pacific Island and Maori families, who by virtually all measures are not succeeding in education. Almost one in five New Zealand students leaves secondary school without formal qualifications but for Pacific students the figure is one in four and for Maori, one in three. And although schools like Otahuhu College are closing the gap, their NCEA and University Entrance pass rates are still nowhere near the national average. Only 32 per cent of the school's Year 11 students passed NCEA Level 1 in 2010, compared to 75 per cent nationally.

For many here the failure tag became official last December when Prime Minister John Key launched a new policy of privately run but state-funded charter schools, starting with South Auckland and earthquake-ravaged Christchurch.

" There's plenty of failing schools, particularly in poorer communities," he said, when asked why the policy was necessary. "We want to resolve those issues."

Laurenson responded furiously, first in an interview with the Weekend Herald, then in an opinion piece (reprinted in yesterday's paper), saying students were gaining more qualifications than ever and the community was right behind the school.

"My plea to all commentators on education is; visit your local high school and see what is happening, rather than relying on hearsay or your own experiences of school, possibly many years ago," he wrote. "Come along and be part of the solution."

When the Weekend Herald rang Laurenson to take him up on his offer, he was at first reluctant. Every time his school or others like it appeared in the media, it seemed, they were misrepresented. But a few weeks later, after mulling it over and talking to staff and his board, he agreed.

The main block at Otahuhu College is the original 1931 red brick building with a semi-circular drive and ornamental lawn, which echoes the style of the city's older grammar schools. A trophy cabinet inside the main door is full of prefects' cups, house cups and a glowing tribute to last year's all-conquering rugby league team.

Pictures of famous ex-pupils David Lange, Sir Barry Curtis and Waka Nathan hang outside the hall but they are almost dwarfed by students' artwork of today's multi-cultural school population. Down the corridor a map with colour-coded pins shows most of the 1400 students live within the suburb but a fair chunk come from further south. About 70 per cent are Pacific Islanders. The next biggest group is Asian - mainly the big Indian community in Otahuhu but Laurenson says this is changing - "our First XV halfback this year is from Laos". Maori come next and Europeans just make double figures.

"My wife thinks I'm mad doing this," he growls, as he ushers me into his office. We start with a few complaints about more South Auckland education stories the Herald has got wrong before launching into a comprehensive tour of the school grounds.

It's not bad, Laurenson admits. There are too many 1970s prefabs and a startling contrast with the expensive tennis courts of neighbouring Kings College over the back fence (the schools run highly popular exchange visits on Friday afternoons.) He's more enthusiastic about pointing out the commercial kitchen and the dance-drama block where families come on a week night to watch student productions.

Laurenson spent five years as principal of another South Auckland school, Tuakau College, before coming to Otahuhu College in 2004. The 60-year-old is an old-style headmaster - gruff, defensive towards perceived enemies and passionately proud of his students even as he barks instructions at them.

He interrogates anyone out of class as we walk round the school but eventually the mask slips.

"It's called a pen," he shouts across a classroom to a girl at her desk. "When you move it across the page, it leaves a mark."

"Hi, best friend," replies the girl behind her.

Best friend?

"She calls me that," he grins.

For many Otahuhu College students, the biggest educational challenges happen outside the school gate, says Dr Fionna Bell, who heads the school's health centre.

"It's the ongoing stress of poverty. It grinds families down."

When parents are struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table, she says, even suicidally depressed teenagers wouldn't dream of asking to see a doctor.

"Families put up with so much more pain... we've got kids with sores all over their legs because the family can't afford (to put) their toe in a Band-Aid or because there's no bath in the house - because a lot of rental properties are appalling."

She runs through some of the related big issues; unemployment, relationship break-ups, parents or siblings in prison and gang affiliations.

"Probably the most disturbing thing is safety, violence in the home. We know CYFS (Child, Youth and Family) quite well."

The health centre is a 12-year-old partnership between the school and Otara-based general practice South Seas Health Care, to ensure at-risk students get health checks at school.

Bell works here 12 hours a week, along with two nurses, two social workers and a visiting physiotherapist. The nurses assess every student in their first year, which picks up a lot of problems early and helps students to stay at school and keep learning.

The ambulance at the bottom of the cliff is the school's service academy, which since 2010 has offered military-style training and education for students generally regarded as unteachable.

"I come on fairly hard with them," says Nick Cowling, the ex-army and air force instructor who runs the course.

"I will get in their face and force them to deal with their anger. Their first reaction is to go out and hit someone."

He teaches them "enforced self-discipline". Any backchat means instant army-style consequences - running with tyres or press-ups (girls do full press-ups in his class).

Cowling says his students' attendance records go from the worst in the school to the best. In his first two years he managed to get nearly all of them into work or relevant training.

This year he started with 20 but is down to 12 after a shaky start. One boy was expelled after a fight at the local bus depot, which was caught on video and made the 6pm TV news, and one was snatched away by his father in a custody wrangle.

"Some of them, their home life is just a shambles," he says. "None of them are bad kids... I don't know if the system failed them or they failed or the system just hasn't worked for them."

Jacquie Brayshaw runs the school's Gateway programme, which gives senior students practical experience in the workplace for one day a week. Last year she found work experience for 140 students, which led to seven apprenticeships - a great result in her view, as she used to get about 10 apprenticeships a year across 12 schools when she ran the scheme in the former Waitakere city.

Brayshaw works hard to raise her students' expectations. She says the girls want to be flight attendants and the boys dream of making it as professional rugby or league players, which only a few will achieve. Most Polynesian students can't imagine themselves working in a big corporate office in the city, so she takes them in for a look and brings back successful students to reassure them they can break through the colour barrier.

One ex-student who returned for the pep talk is now at Westpac in the city, says Brayshaw. "He says 'I'm the only brown face in my branch and what does it matter? I don't care, they don't care'."

Whether schools like Otahuhu College are failing, as the Government implies, or succeeding heroically against the odds, as Laurenson maintains, depends on whether you take a glass half-full or half-empty approach.

Laurenson argues that achievement levels have increased significantly since the full changeover to NCEA. In 2010 only 32 per cent of his Year 11 students got Level 1 and 59 per cent of Year 12s made Level 2, but students on their second attempts bumped up these figures to 72 per cent and 87 per cent respectively.

That's far better than under School Certificate when returning students usually failed again, says Laurenson. "I agree, we want them getting level 1 in year 11 but... if they're getting it in Year 12 that's surely a plus."

Unfortunately the first-time figures are still much worse than the national average, where 75 per cent of students get Level 1 and 80 per cent get Level 2. Two-thirds of New Zealand students get University Entrance, compared to 23 per cent at Otahuhu College. The figures for all Auckland decile 1 co-educational schools are only slightly better.

Analysis by Auckland University researchers confirms the link between poverty-stricken schools and educational achievement. The education faculty's Starpath project, which aims to get more Maori, Pacific Island and poor students into university, found the UE success rate rose by a consistent 5 to 6 per cent for each school decile. Pakeha and Asian students tracked upwards together. Maori and Pacific Island students also improved at roughly the same rate but from a much lower starting point.

Project director Professor Liz McKinley, who works with 30 schools in South Auckland, West Auckland and Northland, says poverty is a big factor but students at low-decile schools also suffer from poor subject choices. Teenagers and their parents have been overwhelmed by the many options under NCEA and schools often haven't made the right courses available or steered bright students in the right direction. Researchers found most schools did not have good enough information systems to know what choices their students were making and whether they were performing to expectations.

McKinley adds that many senior students still spend too much time out of class for non-academic activities such as music, drama and sport.

Unlike Laurenson, who says he generally has no problem finding good staff, she believes teacher recruitment is a challenge for South Auckland schools because it's such a tough environment for the mainly middle-class profession.

Asked if South Auckland schools are succeeding, she replies; "They do a lot of really good work. I think they could work better and they believe they could work better, which is why they bought into the programme. But having said that, I think the people putting up charter schools have no idea about schools like Otahuhu ... in terms of what they have to deal with in the care and education of these kids.

"The work that people like Gil Laurenson are doing in the schools down there, it is really, really hard work and I take my hat off to him."

The project's work on NCEA choices led to an academic counselling and target-setting system for its partner schools, including Otahuhu College. Students, parents and teachers now discuss academic goals together and schools track reading and writing test results from Year 9 to 11, pinpointing where some students start to fall away.

As a result, Southern Cross Senior Campus in Mangere increased its Level 3 NCEA success rate from 22 to 41 per cent in 2009. Manurewa High School took its Level 1 pass rate from 44 to 59 per cent and its Level 2 rate from 40 to 51 per cent in 2010. Parent attendance at the three-way conferences in all schools has jumped from about 20 per cent to 80 per cent, with rave reviews from many parents.

Laurenson makes a plea to critics to give the changes time to work. "How do you suddenly get an enormous shift if a kid's been in the system since they were five and they're a long way behind? It takes a long time to work its way through."

If you look at all failing students, he argues, most of them don't come from South Auckland schools. "They keep giving that message out that failure only happens here. It bloody doesn't. It happens everywhere."

But he concedes the school is not even close to its academic goals and won't be until it reaches the national average. So far he has doubled the number of students going to university to 45 a year and wants to double it again to 90.

"We know from Starpath that academic mentoring will give us a lift in exam results and that will plateau after a while. After that it's all about literacy."

The project's influence is clear in the school's health sciences academy, which started last year. It's designed to steer the school's brightest young scientific minds into studying science and, in many cases, going to medical school - standard practice in wealthy schools but hard work in South Auckland.

Academy teacher Fiona Taloa says the students all have textbooks, paid for by the Pasifika Medical Association, and they will soon get their own laptops. "I reckon it keeps me out of trouble," says Vili Ohuafi. The 16-year-old, who plays number 8 for the First XV, was late for his last game because he was out catching a pig for Mother's Day. Last year he admits he didn't come to school much and the teachers "were always on my case". Now he wants to be a surgeon.

Phyllein Pauli, aged 17, wants to do cardiology and is grateful for the chance. "The resources are there. It's just up to us."

It's a theme echoed by the Year 12 and 13 students in Laurenson's office. Head girl Amelia Niu plans to do family law because she thinks Tongan people need to learn to stand up for themselves.

Moi Logo wants to be a commercial pilot and is concentrating on maths and physics so she can do a Bachelor of Aviation degree at Massey University.

Sharmiela Loua Leautuli wants to be a politician. She says it's heartbreaking to see the way Pacific Island students in South Auckland are put down but thinks only they can turn it around. "If we change it ourselves it will just radiate out that we're not as bad as people think. We might not have all the resources that other communities have but we can still try."

Education jargon explained

* Decile 1: A school whose students come from the poorest 10 per cent of New Zealand families. A decile 10 school draws from the richest 10 per cent.

* NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement): The standards-based system that replaced School Certificate and combines internal and external assessment. Level 1 is aimed primarily at Year 11 (fifth form), Level 2 at Year 12 (sixth form) and Level 3 at Year 13 (seventh form). However, students can achieve these levels earlier or later, depending on their ability.

* University Entrance: The minimum entry requirement for university. It does not guarantee admission to all courses.

- NZ Herald

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