Sometimes good things come from bad. Kirsty Johnston reports how a violent death was the catalyst for a school changing Pasifika futures, one child at a time.
Auckland consistently ranks highly in lists of the world's best cities but is never number one. So what would it take to turn Auckland into a first-class city? This week the Herald begins a 10-day series examining some of the biggest hurdles Auckland faces, from housing and transport to entertainment and education. We look at what we are doing, what we need to do, and why Auckland's success matters to the rest of the country. In part three of the series we look at education.
It started with a murder. The year was 2006 and the dead man was Sita Selupe's cousin. Just 17, a "sweet boy", he was beaten to death by a group of thugs with a baseball bat, one of a spate of terrible attacks to sweep Otara that year. The killer was found to be part of a youth gang, his victim a harmless bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After the funeral, the family gathered, and prayed, and sat around the table for a talk. "It made us think," Mrs Selupe says. "How are our boys tracking? Could this happen again to one of our other boys? And we said we had better do something."
A primary school teacher with Tongan and Niuean heritage, Mrs Selupe had already been running classes for her sons and a few nephews and nieces in her garage for around a year. Each Saturday morning the kids would come for a couple of hours, and Mrs Selupe taught them using an "inquiry" method - teaching through applied learning - picked up at her previous job.
"It was only meant to be four of them," Mrs Selupe says. "But then the rest of the whanau found out."
After her cousin's death, the family decided the homeschool was one way they could help Pasifika children in the area, and placed a renewed focus on education. The numbers of students increased. The school was renamed Rise UP, as a message of hope. And Mrs Selupe became a woman on a mission.
"There is a saying in Niue - if you've got something good you share it with those you love the most," she says.
"For me, that was teaching. All we ever wanted was to raise Pasifika achievement."
Almost ten years on, Mrs Selupe still has the same goal. However after a decade's hard work, she now runs her own government-funded school with around 85 primary-aged kids.
One of the country's first partnership schools, Rise Up last year posted some encouraging results, and is on track to do so again.
The road to get there was a long one. As the homeschool grew, Mrs Selupe also started workshops teaching parents how to help their own kids. They were so popular, the group decided to form a trust to formalise the project. The trust got some local funding for more workshops, and then eventually, after a lot of hard work (including a management diploma for Mrs Selupe) they were rewarded with an ASB Community Trust Grant
"It was funny," Mrs Selupe says. "We've got hairdressers, butchers, mechanics in our family. The family will go to them if they need their hair cut or their car fixed, but before then no one came to me for help with their kids' learning."
When the gates opened, however, it became obvious there was great need. Kids were not succeeding. A lot of the parents were not engaging with the education system, either through misunderstanding or cultural difference.
Mrs Selupe says the aim of the parent programmes is to give them the confidence to get involved. They help families set goals, access other social services, and encourage them to take responsibility for their children's learning, rather than standing back. One of their most common measures of success was that parents would start asking questions at school interviews.
"It's a huge shift," Mrs Selupe says. "Questioning is not part of Pasifika culture, but it is the most powerful tool we have."
Changing parent culture was key to introducing the inquiry model, and therefore to helping the kids, as well. They had to encourage children to ask questions at home, without fear of getting in trouble.
The kids, particularly boys, thrive on experience-based learning, Mrs Selupe says. Earlier this year, the Year 3 and 4 students spent a term researching and designing a playground. Eventually their designs went off to a planner, and now the playground has been built in the front of the buildings they share with a church.
"That was very exciting for them. Those experiences motivate them," she says.
The school's results seem to show that it works. Last year Rise UP's children reached national standards in reading, writing and maths at a rate of at least 20 percentage points above the average of the other children in the Mangere and Otahuhu areas. They were also well above the national average, and within their contract obligations.
Partnership, or charter, schools are one of the government's new initiatives aimed at reducing educational inequality. Aimed, solely at "priority kids" they are publicly-funded but privately operated, and get their funding in bulk.
The schools were introduced in an election deal between National and the ACT Party. ACT MP David Seymour says the school's point of difference is that they can drawn from a range of educational approaches, and have flexibility with their resources.
"While our state school system works very well for most students, there are groups who have not been able to achieve their full potential," he says. "Partnership schools allow local educators to use local knowledge to address the specific learning needs of their students."
However opponents are fearful that more school choice will simply undermine the schools that already exist, creating a more fractured system instead of building on the one we have.
Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute Professor John Hattie's research underlines that point, saying the effect of charters is "miniscule" and it would be better to focus on quality teaching and expertise.
"Given that the variance in student achievement between schools is small relative to variance within schools, it is folly to believe that a solution lies in different forms of schools," Prof Hattie writes.
The Post-Primary Teachers Association is another key opponent, who say what is being done at charter schools could be done elsewhere. It believes the only key difference is that the schools currently get more intensive resourcing - and if more money is key, then more money should be given to all schools to help with priority learners.
Mr Seymour says state schools will eventually benefit from "observing which techniques are successful for which students, and potentially applying these lessons to their own priority learners."
"Partnership schools can serve as clusters of innovation from which new ideas can be born and spread," he says. "Even opening a small handful of partnership schools increases the diversity of New Zealand's education approaches."
At Rise UP on a Tuesday, a beautiful song comes from one of the pre-fab classrooms out the back of the church hall. It is the girls, practising their harmonising while a teacher plays the guitar. The rest of the children run around the playground, as a train thunders past the back fence.
The surroundings are not plush. One of the classrooms fits among the pews where worshippers sit on Sunday, a small square partitioned with brightly coloured boards.
Rise UP currently runs on the lowest per-student budget of any of the schools. It still relies on its ASB Community Trust Grant to educate parents, but that will run out in two years. Mrs Selupe is unsure how they will fund that key part of their programme after that, which is problematic because parent engagement is one of the school's key points of difference.
The other is its Pasifika understanding, and its success. Mrs Selupe says they wanted to give parents another choice outside what she calls the "malmangement" resulting from Tomorrow's Schools.
"It is systemic," she says. "Everyone is part of it - ministry, parents teachers. It's obvious there are shortcomings. If there weren't there wouldn't be the brown tail."
However Mrs Selupe doesn't believe the school is undermining the wider system. She likes to think it is another way to keep kids local, rather than travelling to get a better start. "In my day, every day, there were buses taking kids to school in the city. I wonder if our school provides another chance, if we can stop those buses. That would be good."
There are no plans to run an empire, to have ten charter schools. Instead Mrs Selupe says it would be better to take their learning and bump up the "cultural capital" of all schools, and to increase the achievement of more Pasifika and Maori kids.
"We know what works, and what is a good investment," she says. "What we do, any school could do."