Northland’s inaugural charter school has opened its doors exclusively to The Northern Advocate. Today, education reporter Jessica Roden reports on the factors linked to a drop in the Whangaruru school’s roll

The trustees behind a Northland charter school that has been heavily criticised attribute the drop in enrolment to the kura's isolated location and media scrutiny.

When Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru opened on February 10, it had 61 students and now has around 50. However, it is funded for a minimum of 71.

Reports released under the Official Information Act show attendance has been as low as the mid-30s.

Sponsored by Nga Parirau Matauranga Charitable Trust, the trustees said the kura had addressed initial issues and they were confident enrolment would continue to rise. Trustee and interim manager of the kura, Makere Laurence-Bade, said she attributed the roll drop to the daily travel and negative media coverage.

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"I think the constant media attention, the constant bad stories out there, meant some people couldn't handle it," Ms Laurence-Bade said.

The kura was given a $1.68 million grant, of which $620,000 was used to buy the 81-hectare farm the school is set up on at Whangaruru, about 60km north east of Whangarei. Each term, it has received $377,140 in operating costs, bringing total ministry funding to $2.8 million so far.

When asked directly last month whether the school was under any legal obligation to the return the land to the Government should it close, the Ministry of Education could only confirm it would enter into "commercial negotiations".

Behaviour at the kura appeared to be an initial issue, for example, a "bong" for smoking marijuana made out of the one of the school's apples was found in the second week of operation.

There were also issues around students using gang signs, bullying, racism, suspected theft and swearing.

The trustees said each instance of negative behaviour was dealt with accordingly.

The trust had referred some students to addiction counselling.

Trustee Robert Carpenter said no students had been expelled and they had no intention of expelling any students, "no matter how difficult those problems are".

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The school is close to Mr Carpenter's heart after his teenage son took his life. His son had struggled with learning disabilities. "This school provides the opportunity for many parents and families that are in similar situations."

The trustees are hands-on at the school, with Mr Carpenter and Ms Laurence-Bade meeting regularly with whanau of students identified by the school's social worker as needing assistance.

The kura started with two co-directors, Glen Sadler and his niece Natasha Sadler. However, the trustees created the position of manager on February 26, following "serious concerns" about the operation of the kura.

Natasha Sadler and another senior staff member visited a charter school in the US a month before the school opened.

At that time, there were no classrooms on the site.

But Ms Laurence-Bade said before the school year was the only appropriate time for the visit. Charter schools were opposed by Opposition political parties and boycotted by the PPTA, making it more difficult to attract staff, Mr Carpenter said.

Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said: "All of the identified challenges have now been overcome or are in the process of being managed."

The kura is already advertising for enrolments next year and are confident their role will rise.