'Passionate leadership' with a focus on student achievement helps Selwyn College to lift its Level 1 pass rate from 39 to 93 per cent in just seven years.
A little over six years ago, Selwyn College in Auckland was struggling.
The Government took over its governance after poor student achievement results, a bitter fight for control by opposing parent groups and the resignation of its long-serving principal.
This week, the decile 4 school, which has long had a multicultural roll and special emphasis on the arts, is celebrating the release of stellar NCEA results that underline a remarkable transformation.
Last year, 93 per cent of Selwyn students sitting NCEA Level 1 passed. Pass rates at Level 2 were 94 per cent, and 90 per cent at Level 3.
Compare that with the 2006 pass rates: 39 per cent at Level 1, 47 per cent at Level 2 and 49 per cent at Level 3.
Leading education expert Professor John Hattie has described the progress as some of the most marked he had seen.
"It is the evidence that leads to these comments. And it is stunning. And that this was achieved in such a short time shows what can happen with inspired, passionate leadership with a laser focus on students."
Selwyn, which is on the boundaries of the wealthy Auckland suburb of Kohimarama, has delivered brochures to local homes trumpeting its turn-around.
"I was trying to spread the word," explained principal Sheryll Ofner.
"Things have certainly changed."
Although Selwyn has no enrolment scheme, many children of residents in Auckland's upmarket eastern suburbs are effectively zoned for the school by being excluded from the zones of other state schools.
Near the height of its troubles, in 2007, only about 15 per cent of the students lived in the area.
Ms Ofner said a roll decline had reversed in recent years and there were about 930 students today. The Ministry of Education predicted a Year 9 intake of 166 students this year, and 233 enrolled.
"We are growing rapidly at all levels. You've got interesting developments happening, where you might have had only one physics class at Year 12 and now there will be two physics classes and two chemistry classes."
The majority of the past couple of years' intake of students were locals, Ms Ofner said, and feeder schools such as St Thomas reported almost all students going on to Selwyn.
In the past the secondary school was criticised by sections of the community who said its focus on the arts came at the expense of other subjects.
Tensions came to a head in 2007, with bitter in-fighting among trustees and opposing parent groups taking out newspaper ads, setting up websites and sending out newsletters.
The following year, the Government overthrew the newly elected board of trustees and put the school under the control of a commissioner.
The commissioner and Ms Ofner, who had only recently been made principal, oversaw changes which, according to the latest glowing Education Review Office report, led to a "significant transformation".
Better use of each student's achievement data, new and renovated buildings, improved teaching practices and a central focus on academic performance were cited as reasons for the improvement.
Selwyn now assigns each student a teacher to act as a mentor to help make sure their study will open doors to university or the workplace.
Head students Satya Sebenik and Callum Findlay, both 17, started there in Year 9 and have noticed a change in culture, with a stronger focus on academic performance.
Callum, who lives locally, said that shift extended to how people in the community viewed the school.
"When Selwyn had a bit of a bad reputation, it used to be, 'Oh, you attend Selwyn?' But now it's a more positive reaction."
Ms Ofner, who lives locally herself, came to Selwyn after working at Howick College and Rosehill College.
She said she took the job with her eyes wide open and in the expectation she was being employed to lead drastic change.
"So that's what we set out to do, and it's been really exciting, and I must say a lot of work."
The school still had "exceptionally high" standards in the arts, but its focus was as much on other subjects and extracurricular activities, including sports, Ms Ofner said.
"A state secondary school, in my view, is there to serve the needs of the local community. And the local community want the best possible school for their students, and that's the bottom line."
Lessons from winners
Schools that have lifted student performance will be profiled by officials to identify what exactly went right, Education Minister Hekia Parata says.
"I've written to the schools that have had a 10 per cent shift or more in the last two years in their NCEA [levels] one, two and three.
"We are looking systematically and systemically at what is happening in schools, and schools themselves are doing that for themselves."
Ms Parata said it was important that lessons from schools that had turned around student results be available to those that were still struggling to do so.
Education researchers have long pointed to a lack of collaboration between New Zealand schools as a problem, stemming from each school's high degree of autonomy and competition for students.
Ms Parata said the Investing in Educational Success policy, announced by Prime Minister John Key in January, would help to change this.
It will create four new "executive" and "expert" roles to be filled by the best teachers and principals, and pay them thousands of dollars on top of their regular salaries.
Executive principals will be given time and money to provide leadership across an average of 10 schools while remaining at their own, and struggling schools can apply for a $50,000 allowance to add to the salary they can offer principals.
The policy received strong support from education groups when announced, but one principals' association that was initially supportive is now wavering.
The Principals' Federation will use the annual regional presidents' meeting, scheduled to be held in Wellington tomorrow, to debate the policy.
President Philip Harding said he did not want to pre-empt any discussion there, but many principals held deep concerns about the policy and lack of detail around its development. "Into that space has been poured fear, speculation, rumour - the whole gamut has been poured in, and it has created a lot of anxiety."
Ms Parata said the Principals' Federation and other groups remained engaged in consultation that was genuine. "It is quite an adjustment to be working in a collaborative way from being outside the process and being highly critical of it."
Tomorrow: Around the regions.
Click here for more on schools' NCEA results