David Fisher

Senior reporter of the year

Greatest NZ stories: Taking heed of roots gave school its life

Principal Andy Morgan has turned Kihikihi School around. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Principal Andy Morgan has turned Kihikihi School around. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As part of the Herald's 150th birthday commemorations, reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Day 11: Kihikihi

Andy Morgan sat at his desk and wondered what he had walked into. He had taken the job of principal at Kihikihi School, only to find it was heading off a cliff. The roll was in freefall, down from 340 kids in 2000 to 93 in 2006. When he went to meet the board of trustees a month out from starting, they laid out four staff resignations.

He'd walked outside during his first lunch break as principal to check out the playground. "I walked around a corner and heard one 5-year-old say to another, 'I'm going to smash you, you c***'."

And then there was the naked man on the horse. He emerged from the trees at the far end of the school, near the area the kids call Snake Gully. The horse and rider ambled closer, around the junior block and then out on to the road, out of sight.

"The unusual thing about the gentleman was he was wearing a full Native American headdress regalia and a loin cloth. He was pretty much buck-naked on a horse.

"It turned out he was a police officer who had lost a bet with his workmates."

It wasn't the first time Mr Morgan wondered what he'd walked into and it wouldn't be the last.

Mr Morgan's own arrival at Kihikihi School was a circuitous amble.

As a teenager, there was an apprenticeship offer to become a fitter and turner. He didn't take it, disappointing his father. "He wanted me to take a trade. In the end, he was real proud."

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Mr Morgan went to work at Marsden Pt, at one stage spending 11 hours a day grinding at welds on large steel tanks. It was a time of huge upheaval in New Zealand - not long after the Springbok tour, Mr Morgan recalls. Marsden Pt was caught up in it, with the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Robert Muldoon, introducing fierce laws to force unionised staff to work.

In the midst of it, Mr Morgan was presented with a Vietnamese refugee who didn't speak much English and told to work with him. He did that - and taught him English as well.

"This Vietnamese guy soaked it up like a sponge. I thought, 'This is awesome, I'm going to be a teacher'."

He studied and qualified, ticked the wrong box on a job application and wound up at a Catholic school. "I'm not Catholic."

Then it was Ngaruawahia, then Waipa. There were role models and even now, years down the track, he asks himself, "What would Bruce do, what would Phil do".

It served him well. He worked for six years as a principal in three schools, coming to Kihikihi School in 2006. Since then, those role models have been more important than ever. "The school was in a pretty bad way."

He was aware the roll had dropped. The actual scale of the plummeting numbers came as a shock. "I knew it was going to be a challenge but I didn't realise it was that much."

The future of the school was in doubt. "The ministry had implied it was getting close to closure if it kept going the way it was." It wouldn't have been possible then to properly measure the scale of the loss. Years on, with Kihikihi School having regained its place as a community hub, the closure would have been a travesty.

It is the gulf between then and now that illustrates what went wrong. After that shocking first day, Mr Morgan reached out to the community, which had withdrawn so completely from the school.

"At that time, a lot of phone numbers [for parents] weren't working." There was no engagement with the school. So the home visits began - there were 30 in the first three weeks. Mr Morgan would leave the school and go knocking on doors.

"A lot of Maori whanau had left. Engagement around learning is hard ... There are parents who didn't like school, or hated it."

Not surprisingly, meeting Maori ambition turned out to be a critical but missing aspect for a school where 73 per cent of the pupils were Maori. "When I first came here and the dust settled, I looked at the roll and saw a third of kids had been through kohanga reo and there was no Maori being taught here."

Inside a year, the kohanga reo was operating out of the school, shifting from a nearby marae. The school now runs two curriculums, with two full Maori immersion classes.

"We found bilingualism wasn't really successful. They are now learning te reo Pakeha. We don't really like the term 'mainstream'. We prefer 'English medium'."

When those in the immersion classes reach a level of fluency, they also start learning te reo Pakeha. Mr Morgan says the students' ability with one language accelerates the learning of the new language.

The school's journey has been Mr Morgan's journey. He enrolled at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, embraced his Nga Puhi and Te Rarawa roots and is now an ambassador for the wananga. Teachers and board of trustee members have also enrolled.

"That's the crux to it - and getting whanau to believe what we're doing and listening to them.

"It was all about changing the culture of the school."

The roll surges and ebbs but more come than go. The ability for children to be shifted between schools has an impact, with families not grounded by the physical place their young get an education. "The old system of, 'You go to your local school' - I think it should still be that way."

But families move for other reasons, too, and schools are reflections of the community they inhabit. Some family members get new jobs, others lose jobs. Some leave for Australia because, they imagine, that's where the jobs are.

It is not a wealthy town, Kihikihi. About a third of the school community is dependent on some form of benefit, and another third would be classed as on very low incomes. It struggles sometimes to keep itself clear of Te Awamutu, which threatens to sprawl south and swallow it up.

Always, though, the answer is building a bridge to the community which provides the children. "It was engaging with the whanau, mostly. And appointing the right people. You can't do this by yourself."

It wasn't easy finding teachers who could connect with the community in which they lived.

The deputy principal's role, for example: "When we advertised ... we had four applicants and interviewed three of them and realised none of them were suitable. They were going to be eaten by the kids. I'll be straight and honest - they were white middle-class women who just would have no concept of what the kids here were going to be like."

Cleonie Whyte was in her fourth year of teaching - and working at Kihikihi School - when she was hired as deputy principal. It was a big step up, says Mr Morgan, but she took it in her stride. "It's about developing leaders right across the school."

And there were other more practical elements. They brought uniforms back in 2008. Yes, they have a work-around for the families with less to go around.

Mr Morgan arrived at a time of change in his own life. He'd been working up to 80 hours a week, all those hours going into his former school, not his family. "It killed my marriage of 17 years," he says. He married again in Kihikihi but that didn't work. It's not easy knowing where to stop, or to judge the impact when you're in the midst of it.

But look at the impact, says Hone Hughes, caretaker and kaumatua. He went to school here in the 1960s. Hated it. Every morning at the flagpole, he and others had to stand to attention and sing God Save The Queen.

Mr Hughes was not the most co-operative of students. With the site of the Battle of Orakau just down the road, he was raised on stories of how 1400 British troops overwhelmed 300 defenders, about a third of them women.

Histories record an interpreter describing "disgust at the generally obscene and profane behaviour of the troops" as the wounded were bayoneted where they lay. That's the flag Mr Hughes was asked to support at the start of each day.

Since Mr Hughes' school days, wooden floors have given way to carpet and heating has lifted the damp. There are no inkwells in the desks from which a young Mr Hughes once set loose a skyrocket. That caused chaos in the classroom.

The biggest change, though, is the people. "Since Andy started here, that's when it changed. The whanau who pulled their kids out of here have put them back."

It didn't used to be that way. "We were losing kids," he says. There was no connection with tikanga Maori. Just look at this town, he says, and ask how a school could be part of a community when it didn't reflect the community.

"It doesn't matter what culture a child is from. If a child understands who they are and where they come from, then they know where they are going to go."

There is a grounding influence in the school now. It resonates through every child, giving them roots and stability. In the immersion classes, te reo rules. Those without it might well be in another country, and once were.

Mr Hughes, he was lucky. "I was brought up the old way." He hated school but was grounded at home. He learned te reo as he grew.

There was learning in rongoa (traditional medicine), the influence of which can be seen in the sick bay from time to time.

There was hunting and the gathering of kai moana - all knowledge which create stories that flow from him to the young ones, who all sit up straighter and listen closer as he walks through the classrooms.

At the front office, Mr Hughes looks at the sky, sucks in some air and whistles it out again. The clouds are getting dark, fat and heavy.

"I'm hoping it doesn't rain too hard," he says. "I've got a pig to kill at 2pm."

There are a few more jobs to do before then, though, because there's always more to do around a school filled with children.

And that's no bad thing given that, for a while there, Kihikihi School threatened to be a school without children.

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