Francis Douglas Memorial College students have helped to lift New Zealand's literacy rate.
Year 11 students Oryn Colgan, James Gray, Keshawa Jayasinghe, Elijah Lash, Sam Pan and Fletcher Williams, all 15, took part in Future Problem Solving New Zealand, and their project was placed first at the International Future Problem Solving Conference held on June 9-12.
Due to Covid-19, the event was a hybrid competition and rather than travelling to Austin, Texas, the students travelled to Queenstown to participate virtually in the conference.
The students participated in the community problem solving last year, which was assessed at the conference this year.
For the event, the students had to apply problem-solving skills to a problem in the community by developing a plan of action to have an impact on the issue.
The students wrote and submitted a report, and scrapbook and filmed a video on their project Seuss Sleuths to be judged at the conference.
Sam says their motivation for entering the international competition was their second place in the national competition.
"It inspired us to enter and do our best. That placing got us through to the international competition but we knew we wanted to try and place better."
The team placed first in the middle category and James says winning the event was humbling.
"The announcement came live at 2am New Zealand time and all of the group woke up to watch it. It was amazing to find out we won."
Francis Douglas Memorial College teacher Robyn Wackrow helped the students with their project.
"It's been a pleasure working with them and I'm so proud of each of them."
For their project, the students worked closely with Marfell School to try and improve the reading age and literacy rate of the pupils.
Oryn says the idea for the project started when the students were in Year 9.
"In English class, we would write stories to the Marfell School pupils. We formed a bond with those pupils and it all went from there."
Sam says after that the students began wondering about the reading age and literacy rate.
"We saw New Zealand had dropped from third to 15th for the reading age and literacy rate. We all decided we wanted to help improve that rate in the community so we met with a literacy expert who taught us the skills to improve those skills for pupils."
During 2021 the group went to Marfell School once a week to work with the pupils to improve their literacy skills.
Fletcher says the students partnered up with a pupil each.
"We did it as a one-on-one ratio to make it more personal to the pupil and to form those bonds with them. For the first session we went there and played games with them to build that bond, and then the next time we started the reading sessions."
The sessions were 40 minutes long, with 30 minutes dedicated to reading, and the final 10 minutes a chance to play games.
He says for five weeks, they had to stop the visits due to Covid-19, but they found other ways to continue that bond with the pupils.
"During the Covid-19 lockdown, we would email them and check how their reading is going, and make sure they were doing okay with the Covid-19 situation."
Keshawa says after completing the visits, they found big improvements in those students reading ages and literacy skills.
"There were also improvements in their social skills. It's quite humbling to know we played a part in improving their skills. We can see how much they have improved and how that improvement will continue to have on their lives."
James says he and Elijah joined the group late, to replace two members.
"They were patient as they taught us the ropes and everything we needed to know."
Oryn says as well as changing the pupils' lives, the project changed theirs as well.
"We all gained more social skills and confidence with speaking to people as well."
Once the project had finished, the group gave the students something to keep them going on their reading journey.
Keshawa says they built a bookcase for each student and gave them a personalised book.
"It was something for them to remember us by."
Fletcher says the pupils also showed their appreciation by writing them letters.
"My buddy wrote the biggest letter he's ever written for me and everyone received something from their buddy. It's been a pleasure to work with them. One of the pupils had improved his reading age by two years in the six months we worked with them."
Although the project is finished, Sam says they want to carry on the tradition of working with Marfell School.
"We've made a video to show the Year 8 pupils so once they get to Year 10, they're inspired to work with the school to continue that bond and help the pupils. We've also been contacted by the maths department at school to see if we can start up a similar programme to help the pupils with their maths."
He says the project wouldn't be possible without the help of school staff.
"We're so appreciative of both of the schools for helping us on this journey and we hope it's something we can continue to grow in the future."