The first glimpse of Te Pumanawa O Te Wairua is something of a shock. We have driven more than three hours in the sweltering heat from Auckland, through Whangarei, winding past paddocks of cows and horses, the billionaire's mansion at Helena Bay, the run-down old school at Mokau, a Mormon chapel, and finally up a hill from where we can see the long harbour of Whangaruru glittering below.
Then, a turn into a gravel driveway. And here in a paddock, at the base of a tree-covered hill, is the school variously called a failure, an "experiment", that has been shouted over in Parliament and so far cost the taxpayer $3 million, prompting a warning from the Education Minister that could see it closed by May.
It is underwhelming. Two pre-fab classrooms. A Portacom toilet block. Offices housed in a poky former homestead. And one giant boatshed converted into a hall, with the marks still on the wall for "car", "trailer", "boat" so its ageing former owner knew how far to lift the garage door.
"Welcome," says the curriculum director, Natasha Sadler, as she comes to meet us with a kiss. "And you are welcome, but please be aware that we have real human beings here with real feelings who have been affected by what's gone on here."
By now the charter school's troubles are well known. It opened with 61 high school students in January 2014, under intense scrutiny. It had a soaring vision to raise local achievement. By April, it was a mess of staff infighting, leadership struggles, a lack of quality teachers and at one point, a lack of enough staff to run the school at all. Kids were coming to school with drugs and using gang signals. Some kids simply weren't coming. There was no curriculum policy as late as June. By then, families had began to pull their children out, for their safety but also because they were not learning as they were promised.
However, that's not the full story, the school says. When the Weekend Herald visited Whangaruru last week, school leaders agreed to answer some of the criticisms ahead of a vital audit this week.
"Those issues - the drugs, the gang insignia, the truancy - were true. We did have those issues at the time of the Education Review Office report in April last year. We were struggling," Sadler said.
"But we are not that school anymore. We do not have those issues now."
The Government line on Whangaruru is that - despite warnings from the ministry - Education Minister Hekia Parata decided the school was ready to open and gave it a green light. Any problems since then have been blamed on the quality and capability of management.
The reality, said trustee Wayne Johnstone, who joined the board somewhat reluctantly last September, is that the school simply was not ready.
"Everything from the opening was behind and it just snowballed from there."
Johnstone, among many others - principals, teachers, unions, iwi and whanau - said the school's location and the type of student on the roll meant the challenge was more complicated than even those behind the plan had initially believed.
Some of the problems could have been overcome given more time. The location, for example had meant bringing services to the school was more difficult. Wi-fi was still "patchy", Johnstone said. "It costs an arm and a leg to get anything out here."
Better community consultation would have helped. Ngatiwai Trust Board chairman Haydn Edmonds said it hadn't known about the charter school proposal until after it was already with the ministry.
"It has been a disappointment the way it's all come about. It put people in the community in different camps, so right from the outset people were at odds," he said.
However, it is unclear if even more time may have helped the school be able to meet the level of their students' immediate needs.
Whangaruru is what PPTA vice-president and local teacher Hazel McIntosh calls a "stressed" community. It has the worst score on the deprivation index, a 10. The average annual income is $15,000.
A whanau member said the type of child attending the school was likely to have come from a state home, to have gone without meals. Some have parents who are in gangs. Others are involved with social services or police.
Sadler said not all of the students should be tarred with the same brush. But many are what the system terms "high needs".
"We have the students that other schools didn't want," she said.
There are learning needs, with many senior students below a junior level. Many also have behavioural problems. There is substance abuse. And more than that, there is the ever-present spectre of youth suicide.
This is brought up by both McIntosh and Edmonds, with some hesitation. In 2012, there was a cluster of suicides at Northland schools and some of those were from Whangaruru, they said.
"People will disagree with me saying this but it is an area where youth suicide became quite horrific out there," Edmonds said.
"But I know, because two nephews in my family have committed suicide."
Johnstone said although the trust was aware of the community issues at the start it admittedly didn't realise it was going to be quite so difficult.
The school is now dealing with the needs of its students with the a social worker who comes in three days a week. There are specialist resource teachers and three teacher aides who work alongside struggling kids.
All are paid for by the school.
McIntosh said she still felt the students would have been better off at a public school where the infrastructure - and access to services like educational psychologists - for high-needs learning was already in place.
Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said opening the school before it was ready had been disastrous for children who needed support and care - not more stress.
"These kids were used and abused by the Government wanting their pet project to look good," she said.
"The minister must now promise to provide whatever help is needed to these children and their whanau."
Up to 30 of the school's founding pupils have now left.
Some have returned to their former schools and some are out of education altogether.
Principals nearby said those who returned were welcomed back without question.
"The parents thought they were going to get a better deal there," Bay of Islands College principal John Paitai said. "But it hasn't worked out that way.They were drawn in by the presentations and in the end they were disappointed."
The presentations for the school - the initial proposal, the interviews, the prospectus - were glossy and impressive. But they differ significantly from what is now offered at the school.
The description of the site, for example, promises 21st century learning environments. The reality is the two pre-fab classrooms. The prospectus offers a subject list that includes coding, food technology, visual arts, construction and automotive engineering.
A subject list given to the Weekend Herald did not include any of those things, instead offering maths, English, Maori, agriculture and horticulture as core subjects, plus a handful of options.
The school also promised it could get a roll of 70, improve achievement, have engaged learners, low truancy, offer a "Ngatiwai" curriculum, quality teaching and management.
So far, the ministry says, none of those things have been achieved. In a report to the minister from February, the finger was pointed squarely at Sadler, general manager Makere Laurence-Bade, and the four trustees for failing to deliver.
Sadler, the driving force of the school, has been referred to in documents as "autocratic", difficult to manage and appears to be seen as a risk because so much depends on her.
However, McIntosh said she felt targeting Sadler as the cause of all the problems was unfair, as the plan was flawed from the start. A whanau member and other principals said Sadler was an efficient, top-of-the rank teacher. Paitai said not even the best teachers would have been able to pull a school together that fast.
Johnstone said the issue was not in Sadler's ability or passion - she often stayed late into the night - but that the ministry obviously felt the management was a problem.
Under Johnstone's lead, the trust has decided to restructure the school and will advertise to find a new principal. Sadler will be kept on as a teacher if she accepts an employment offer.
The trust was actively recruiting new members. Several Maori academics had been contacted and were providing advice either free of charge or for a koha.
"We are doing what we can to jump through the hoops and keep the school open," Johnstone said.
Truancy was under control, and the roll was looking up. Classes had settled in well this year. He hoped it would be enough.
"I don't think the minister has set us up to fail but it's started to lean precariously towards that angle."
During the Weekend Herald's visit most students were unaware of why we were there, although a few seniors knew the school was under threat. "We like this school, don't let it close down," said 15-year-old Tepa Hauraki, who takes diving and coastguard as his optional subject and is working towards getting a dive licence.
If the school is closed, it is unclear what will happen, as the land now belongs to the trust. New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin has suggested it could be turned into a State-run alternative school instead.
The effect this will have on other charter schools is unclear. In most cases, it has only added heat to the fire of opposition. Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said what had occurred at Whangaruru highlighted the weaknesses in the charter school model.
"The fact you don't have the same issues elsewhere doesn't mean the model works. At any future point we may end up again in this same position."
Johnstone said in the end, if the school closed it was about more than just a failed education policy.
"The success of the kura has implications for wider Maori success. It's about communities and families, hapu, iwi as well."
Te Pumanawa O Te Wairua: facts and figures
Students at Whangaruru take five core subjects - English, Maths, science (by correspondence), te reo, agriculture and horticulture. Core subjects are taught by gender.
On Fridays, students take an optional subject - basketball, performing arts, coastguard and diving, or surfing.
On Mondays, students do integrated projects - possum trapping for the first half of the year and fencing for the second half. Most of the options and projects are taught by external providers.
Because the school is small, it can offer only a few subjects. Kamo High School, 45 minutes away, offers 40 optional subjects.
Charter schools have minimum standards they must achieve to fulfil their obligations to the Government.
Roll: The minimum roll at Whangaruru for 2015 was 40. It was dropped from a minimum of 70 last year. Four more students who may join this year.
Truancy: The minimum standard for truancy in 2014 was 2.5 per cent but the school's current rate is 11-17 per cent. To combat this, the school is phoning students every morning. If able to attend, they will be picked up. If there is an unjustified absence for three days, a social worker will talk to parents.
Achievement: The school needs an 80 per cent pass rate at NCEA Level 1, and 66 per cent at Level 2. It achieved 24 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. This compares to pass rates of 83 per cent for Level 2 at nearby Kamo High School, and 72 per cent at Tikipunga. However, the school says 19 of its junior students have already got some NCEA credits.
• 61 students last year
• 34 students this year
• 5 teachers
• 4 trust members
• 2 admin staff
• 2.6 teacher aides
• 1 social worker