Millie Tapusoa's son punched a girl in the face soon after he started at the South Auckland Middle School. But he wasn't punished.

The charter school recognised that the boy, Jaydon Solouota, had Asperger's Syndrome. Before he started in Year 7 in 2015, the school worked with his case manager at Idea Services to train staff "to get to know Jaydon from Jaydon's world view".

It gave Jaydon coloured cards so that if he got angry or anxious he could give his teacher the appropriate card and leave, no questions asked.

Read more: Charter schools at odds over Chris Hipkins' plans to abolish them

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That didn't stop incidents at first.

"Jaydon punched a girl in the face because she had come into his space and he had said to her 'Go away' three times," Tapusoa said.

"I picked him up from school, and over the next two days the school did a session with his class on what sorts of things made Jaydon happy and what made Jaydon sad. The school didn't punish him, but what they did was they educated his class."

The school's approach was unlike anything Tapusoa had experienced before. A former nurse, she pulled Jaydon and his older brother Tama, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, out of a Porirua school where she felt their needs were not being met.

"In the state system the word 'inclusive' is just lip service," she said.

"For example, at one school, my children wanted to play indoor soccer, but they didn't get into the team. I rang the school and they said, 'We've got two teams and there were a lot of kids who didn't get in.'

"So I got all the kids that didn't get into the team, the parents came along and helped, and they had an extra team for children like ours. We just want them to participate and have a normal experience."

Tapusoa believes that what made the difference at South Auckland Middle School was its policy of only 15 students in a class.

"Because of that, there is a lot more personal contact with the parents," she said.

"In partnership schools it is a partnership. It's me, the teachers, the kids and the community. The children at partnership schools get to enjoy everything. You are not excluded if you are not good enough."

Alwyn Poole has organised students at his South and West Auckland Middle Schools in 'villas' of 60 students where children stay for four years. Photo / Doug Sherring
Alwyn Poole has organised students at his South and West Auckland Middle Schools in 'villas' of 60 students where children stay for four years. Photo / Doug Sherring

Alwyn Poole, who founded South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland, has organised all students at both schools in "villas" of 60 children, each with a class of about 15 students in each of the year levels 7 to 10.

"The children are in the villa for four years so there is the ability to really get to know them," he said.

Read more: • Charter schools attack each other

The partnership schools are bulk-funded, enabling Poole and his wife Karen, the Villa Education Trust's chief executive, to hire more teachers by spending less on property and administration.

South Auckland Middle School saves money on property, which it leases from the Elim Church, so it can hire more teachers. Photo / Doug Sherring
South Auckland Middle School saves money on property, which it leases from the Elim Church, so it can hire more teachers. Photo / Doug Sherring

Their South Auckland site is leased from the Elim Church, which bought it from the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2013. The West Auckland school's two sites are also leased.

Karen Poole administers both charter schools with only one office manager in each school.

Alwyn Poole said the trust paid teachers "at least 5 per cent above state rates", but also required them to work "up to the last day of every term" and to write detailed reports to parents on each student in their mid-year and Christmas holidays. The school principals also teach classes for 12 hours each week.

He said the Education Act allowed for "designated character" state schools to keep control by outside trusts, but it was harder to see a compromise over teachers' pay and conditions.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Cabinet in a paper last month: "While we have made it clear that it is not an option for these schools to 'remain open' under their current arrangements, an application to establish a designated character school may incorporate elements of their special character."

The 11 charter schools have all been set up with requirements for at least 75 per cent of their students to be "priority learners", defined as Māori, Pacific, with special needs or from low socio-economic backgrounds.

In practice, 90 per cent of their students are Māori (63 per cent) or Pasifika (27 per cent).

Although their 1300 students are less than 0.2 per cent of all students in NZ schools, the 312 Māori students in Whangarei's two charter schools, both run by He Puna Marama Trust, comprise almost one in 20 of Whangarei's 6800 Māori students.

Raewyn Tipene's two charter schools aim at
Raewyn Tipene's two charter schools aim at "growing young people to be Māori but also to be in the world". Photo / John Stone, Northern Advocate

Trust chief executive Raewyn Tipene set up the trust with other Māori parents of preschoolers in 1997 because they wanted their children to learn in te reo but could not use kōhanga reo as they were all working and could not devote the time kōhanga required.

The trust now runs five preschool centres as well as the two schools, all with bilingual teaching aimed at "growing young people to be Māori but also to be in the world".

Ngāti Whakaue's new school Te Rangihakahaka, pictured with Pou matangirua (principal) Renee Gillies (left) and foundation students Leon De Souza, 7, and Raukura Kahukiwa (foreground). File photo
Ngāti Whakaue's new school Te Rangihakahaka, pictured with Pou matangirua (principal) Renee Gillies (left) and foundation students Leon De Souza, 7, and Raukura Kahukiwa (foreground). File photo

Roana Bennett of Rotorua's Ngāti Whakaue iwi, which has opened a charter school for 80 Māori students this year, said the school aimed to foster both tribal language and customs and global science.

"We don't want to be fed into a model that has historically failed our kids," she said.

Casey Tapara, director of a charter school set up by drilling firm Te Aratika which has run cadetships for Māori youth in Hawke's Bay for 20 years, said two-thirds of her 52 young male students this year had dropped out of education and work.

"Nobody wants them, they are in the too-hard basket," she said.

"We pick them up. We have just got a bus run [funded] through Ministry of Education, which is awesome - one from Hastings, one from Napier. The boys have to be on it at 6.45am to be ready for class at 7.30am."

Middle School West Auckland has provided a stable place for Preston Brown's son after he was
Middle School West Auckland has provided a stable place for Preston Brown's son after he was "let go" from several primary schools. Photo / Greg Bowker

West Auckland father Preston Brown, who has brought up his Māori son as a solo dad since the boy's mother was jailed, said the boy was "let go from a few schools" for misbehaviour.

After he was expelled from his second school, he was placed in the Westbridge residential school, but he had to leave there last year because his behaviour improved. Brown then put him into Middle School West Auckland, where the boy "has gone way back up again" academically.

"The best thing about it is there's only a small amount of kids, so the teachers can focus more on the ones that need a bit more attention," he said.

"In the other schools, because they are so overcrowded, they only focus on the good ones, not the ones with behaviour problems. The ones with behaviour problems get pushed aside and end up feeling worthless and being a statistic."