'White flight' threatens school

By Simon Collins

"White flight" from the Rotorua suburb made famous by Alan Duff's novel Once Were Warriors is being blamed for the likely closure of a school and a slide into "Third World" conditions.

Education Minister Steve Maharey is due to decide in the next fortnight on a consultant's report on whether to close Fordlands' Sunset Junior High School, after its roll fell from a peak of 700 in the early 1980s to 70.

The years 7 to 10 school has been run by commissioners since the end of 2004.

A member of the former board of trustees, Kate McPherson, said low-income families had been thrown into the area's state houses, and since zoning ended in the 1990s white families had sent their children elsewhere.

"This area in the early 1960s was dysfunctional families, solo parents, new immigrants from the Islands, families with social diseases like alcohol or drug addiction.

"There was no balance. The dregs of society were thrown here," she said.

"You now have third-generation going into fourth-generation beneficiaries. We are talking Third World in the middle of a rich country."

All but two of the junior high's 70 students are Maori - a much higher proportion than the 71 per cent of all Fordlands residents who were Maori in the 2001 Census.

Deputy principal Ann Edhouse said only two of the 23 children in her class still lived with both their biological parents. Most live with sole parents or in step-families.

"One child has no one. I don't know where he's living. His stepbrother comes to check him out and support him."

The school runs a breakfast club with donated cereals, toast, scrambled eggs, spaghetti or mince on toast because most of its students do not get breakfast at home.

All students tuck in and so do the teachers "so the kids know it's all right to go".

Principal Peta Brown sometimes takes sick children to the doctor because their sole-parenting mothers can't afford the bus fare or medicines, even if the doctor's service is free.

Eighty per cent of the year 7 entrants last year were on the lowest three levels of the standard reading test, described by the Education Review Office as "very low levels of achievement for this age group".

In a report in October, the review team said the school's library had fallen into disuse with a library budget last year of just $200.

It urged the school to give students more time for reading and writing, to upgrade the library and to review the amounts spent on a week-long camp at the beginning of last year and an expensive "Successmaker" reading programme.

But the school prides itself on designing its "adventure-based learning" around the students' interests, strengths and learning styles.

"They took my 16-year-old son on a hunting trip. He came back so changed, so confident," Ms McPherson said.

The parents do not pay fees. Instead, the teachers work in their holidays to run English classes for visiting Taiwanese children.

The school's commissioner, Geoff Mooar, said the roll had shrunk so far it could no longer provide the range of learning that a true middle school should offer.

"Once Were Warriors did the school no favours, especially when the movie came out and those very graphic scenes were shot.

"If it were to stay open, it would have to change its character or type of school. I don't believe it could be sustained as a middle school, simply because of the numbers."

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