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The staff and students of Selwyn College must have been bowed under the weight of the responsibility.

Auckland University history professor Jamie Belich has argued that the little 900-pupil state secondary school, tucked away on a green Kohimarama slope, was the future of multi-cultural New Zealand.

"If multi-ethnic schools like Selwyn don't work, then Auckland is not going to work," he said.

Well, last week Selwyn College stopped working. The new Government sacked the board, sent in a commissioner and the local MP gave the school six months to sort itself out.

So watch out, Auckland. Watch out, New Zealand.

Selwyn College, it seems, has been unable to reconcile rich and poor, white and brown, conservative and liberal. There are those parents who believe their children's development is aided by performing arts sessions, holistic learning, restorative justice and time off lessons on Wednesday mornings.

And there are those who think an entire term without any maths classes is just a bit much to swallow.

There are now 28 schools that are run by commissioners because the performance of their boards of trustees was regarded as inadequate - but only Selwyn carries with it the hopes of multi-cultural New Zealand.

Former principal Carol White had quoted Belich's words approvingly at the start of last year, as she looked back on the school's 50th jubilee celebrations and predicted another

50 years in which Selwyn "promotes the power of the mind and heals the heart".

She had every reason to be happy: the 65-year-old had just been made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Her harshest critic, National MP Allan Peachey, had been forced to apologise in Parliament for warning he had a "knife in her back".

And the last academic traditionalists on the school board of trustees were set to be ousted by a band of her most loyal supporters. Ousted in a gentle, liberal, restorative manner, of course.

Her lilting optimism would be short-lived.

That year, a ministry adviser was appointed to keep watch over the school's governance and management.

A few months later the tuckshop manager was knocked to the ground and a police officer was punched in the head as they tried to break up a gang-related fight at the school. The police had no time for restorative justice: three students were charged with assault or disorderly behaviour.

The Education Review Office (ERO) inspected in August and was not impressed. Carol White told friends that same month that she would be retiring after 20 years at the school. It was a time and place for someone younger, she said.

Last April, with the Government threatening to step in, a new principal, Sheryll Ofner, was appointed. The Education Minister was concerned that the college was so poorly regarded - with its history of poor discipline, low grades and tumbledown buildings - that local parents refused to send their children there.

Only one-in-10 local teenagers attends the school; those in the wealthier suburbs such as Orakei, St Heliers, Kohimarama and Mission Bay climb on buses to the city's grammar schools and private colleges.

Last week, with the latest damning ERO report and the sacking of the board, Peachey - whose party is now in Government - could claim vindication.

He warned the school had only six months to stop blaming the poor grades on the socially mixed catchment area, and to start delivering results.

"My experience is youngsters learn when they are expected to learn - they don't learn when adults make excuses for why they're not learning," he told the Herald on Sunday.

The appointment of a commissioner is the result of years of clashes between the school's so-called liberal ethos and the wishes of some local parents for a more academic thrust.

Some parents aren't convinced even the past week's dramatic events will be enough to shake the school out of the complacency they believe it suffers.

They say the appointment of Collene Roche (a former principal of the North Shore's Carmel College) as commissioner will not help, citing a lack of progress during her 18 months as a specialist adviser to the board.

Many spoke on the condition they not be named, citing concern for their children who attend the college.

One parent says "it was like hitting a brick wall" when she asked if the parents could form a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in the community: "I got a very defensive response."

Another parent, who asks to be identified only as Craig, says

his partner's son attends the school, but his daughter attends a girls' school outside Auckland.

Craig was shocked at the different school work and homework standards. His partner's son is in Selwyn's advanced learning programme, but Craig says the work he is set is of a lower standard than the normal classroom work his daughter is set at her school.
A security fence was built along the back of the school grounds at a cost of $110,000, but Craig said the fence is easily climbed and does not cover the back field. He feels the money would have been better spent on upgrading the school maths block.

Last year his partner's son had a term of Latin ("a dead language", he says) but no maths.

"All we want to do is get a decent school in the area and send our kids to it," he says.

The Selwyn community has been riven by factions for years.

The recently sacked board contained five members of a group called "Positively Selwyn", a group of Carol White supporters formed to counter two other local lobby groups, Vision Selwyn and Friends of Selwyn.

With such a history Bruce Adin, Ministry of Education northern regional manager, says the latest intervention in a college has to work. "There is no plan B after this."

Adin met with local parents on Thursday to hear their concerns.

Students will start this school year with new uniforms and freshly painted buildings. But Roche, the new commissioner, warned, "some things cannot happen quickly".

Joycelyn Tauevihi has first-hand experience of the turbulent times Selwyn College has been through. She sent her eldest son to the Kohimarama school, and now her 13-year-old daughter Maxzyena is about to start year 10.

"My baby loves the school. I've asked her twice if she would like to move and the answer's 'no'."

Tauevihi has felt her requests as a parent have not always been listened to by the school. Last year one of Maxzyena's teachers was using the class as guinea pigs for her PhD thesis, despite Tauevihi's request that her daughter's learning not be disrupted.

But after writing a letter to the principal, Tauevihi decided to let the matter rest. After all, Maxzyena is doing well at the school. She has received an excellence award for Te Reo Maori, and plays netball and volleyball.

Tauevihi was torn between support for the liberal curriculum that had helped her daughter thrive socially, and sharing the desire for a more rigorous, grammar school approach.

Now, she says, parents need to back the school. "There's been too many problems going on - the focus is being taken away from the student achievement," she says sadly.