Old boys have returned to St Stephen's School at Bombay in an emotional step towards reopening the historic school next year.
The school, which educated generations of Māori leaders from 1844 until it closed in 2000, has become derelict and was used as target practice by the army, police and Fire Service for three years up to 2009.
Old Boys' Association chairman Joe Harawira, who led 40 old boys back to the school for a working bee on February 27, said the return was "a powerful experience".
"There were smashed windows and graffiti and it looked like people have been living up there every now and then," he said.
"For the vast majority, it was the first time they had been back since they were at school, some of them in the 70s and 80s. They could see a little bit of a glimmer of hope.
"It was a really powerful day, a day of laughter and inter-house banter about the old days. We managed to get a lot done in one day."
The working bee was called to clean out the buildings so that drones could be put in to create visual images that will be used to plan renovation work.
Adam Martin, general manager of the Anglican Church trust board which still owns the property, said the board has applied to the Ministry of Education to reopen the school next year as a "designated character" state school.
"We are having in-depth discussions with the [ministry's] property team. We are hoping they will lease the buildings," he said.
Most of the buildings will need major renovation, but one building dating from 1975, Whitiora, already complies with the current building code and the trust hopes to open for 50 students in that building next year, then build up slowly to 250-300.
"We are looking at a transitional school for 50 boys in 2022 - 30 in Year 9 and 20 in Year 10," Martin said.
The board wants the school to be a boarding school for Māori boys, as St Stephen's was for 156 years.
Nathan Durie, the founding principal of Manukura in Palmerston North who is advising the board, said there was still a demand for boarding schools from Māori families. Seventy per cent of Manukura's 200 students come from outside Palmerston North and board in the city.
"We have our roll capped at 200. We turn away well over 100 kids from all around the country and Australia," he said.
"We have a number of Mozzies - Māori from Australia - who have returned here desperate to connect to their culture."
Durie, who attended St Stephen's in the late 1970s and early 80s, said students gained "a belief and a confidence that we could take initiatives".
Former Education Minister Trevor Mallard closed the school in 2000 "because of concerns about student health and safety". The Education Review Office said there was a "culture of violence" with poor teaching standards and unsatisfactory arrangements for protecting boarders.
But Durie said boarding schools could be safe as long as they treated everyone with respect and kept the students actively occupied.
"The opportunities for me are really important in terms of creating a 24/7 education programme - changing our education system that operated between 9am and 3pm. This is a programme that is going to operate from 8am to 8pm," he said.
Martin said the cost of restoring the old buildings that can be salvaged and building new ones would be in the millions of dollars and "could be eight figures" ($10m-plus).
The trust board has sold several properties to build up $35m in financial investments but wants to keep much of that to fund scholarships for students who can't afford the fees, which are likely to be between $15,000 and $17,000 a year for paying boarders.
The board has applied to the Lottery Grants Board and Heritage NZ to support restoration work, but is also discussing what the Ministry of Education can pay for. The ministry is spending $20m to build a new campus for 300 students for Manukura.
Ministry deputy secretary Katrina Casey said the ministry was "working with the applicant group to make sure it meets the requirements for a designated character school".
"Once confirmed, we'll provide a report to the Minister of Education asking his agreement to carry out consultation with the schools whose rolls may be affected," she said.
"Consultation with the school boards of trustees is a valuable part of the decision-making process and once completed informs the second report which will seek a final decision on the proposed new school."
St Stephen's old boys
Hōne Heke Ngāpua (1869-1909), Northern Māori MP
Sir Maui Pomare (1875-1930), Health Minister
Sir Kīngi Īhaka (1921-1993), Anglican minister and Māori Language Commissioner
Hoani Waititi (1926-65), author of Te Rangatahi Māori textbooks
Sir Hirini Moko Mead (1927-), anthropologist and co-founder of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi
Archdeacon Hone Kaa (1941-2012), campaigner against apartheid and domestic violence
Sir Baddeley Devesi (1941-2012), Governor-General of the Solomon Islands
Derek Fox (1947-), broadcaster and Mana Magazine founder
Waihoroi Shortland (1952-), actor, journalist, Te Mātāwai chair
King Tuheitia (1955-), Māori King
Te Ururoa Flavell (1955-), Māori Party co-leader, now Te Wānanga o Aotearoa CEO
Hōne Harawira (1955-), Mana Party founder
Shane Jones (1959-), Minister for Regional Economic Development
Ngahiwi Apanui (1963-), Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori CEO
Dallas Seymour (1967-), All Black
Main source: St Stephen's School Old Boys' Association.