Nicola Ngarewa is like a doctor for schools.

If a school is struggling, with students receiving poor test results or the roll is in decline, Ngarewa is a principal that can come in and patch things up.

When Ngarewa enters, she rips off the band aid, employs her own treatment – which may be considered unconventional - and then the healing process begins.

This is what she did at Patea Area School.

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When Ngarewa fielded a call from the Ministry of Education in 2015, the school was in big trouble.

It was under statutory management, the roll sat at 80 students and the NCEA level of achievement was low with a 63.6 per cent pass rate at level one – 10 per cent lower than the national average at the time.

Ngarewa took the job on because she saw a chance to position the school as one that is modern, innovative and cutting-edge.

Working in education runs in the family, Patea Area School administrators Airana Ngarewa (left) and Celeste Ngarewa (right) with principal Nicola Ngarewa in the middle. Photo / Bevan Conley
Working in education runs in the family, Patea Area School administrators Airana Ngarewa (left) and Celeste Ngarewa (right) with principal Nicola Ngarewa in the middle. Photo / Bevan Conley

"There were some significant challenges to overcome at the time, but within every set of challenges, there's an amazing set of opportunities," Ngarewa says.

"I saw it as a blank canvas, I don't want to disrespect the previous administration, but we couldn't do any worse, therefore, we could take some really well-reasoned and calculated risks."

The biggest of those risks was a complete overhaul of Patea Area School's curriculum.

Gone were the days of arriving at school, waiting for a bell to ring and then running to the classroom to sit down with your legs crossed awaiting the instructions of a teacher.

The school doesn't have a bell, they don't operate on timetables, they don't even necessarily have a start or end time.

"I really strongly believe in disrupting the norm, I could bring a set of skills that other people had helped me acquire and apply them to this community that I absolutely love," Ngarewa says.

"We do impact enquiry projects, as well as STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) and we do experiential, authentic learning."

Jesse Moroney, Luke Barnett and Michelle Hurley participating in some STEAM work. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics. Photo / Bevan Conley
Jesse Moroney, Luke Barnett and Michelle Hurley participating in some STEAM work. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics. Photo / Bevan Conley

Every second Thursday the school is closed for students to go out and get some hands-on learning experience, such as going to surf school, dive school or doing enviro-fitness.

Just last week students traveled to Wellington where they presented their case in Parliament as part of students against seabed mining (SASM) and they even provided locally collected seafood for morning tea.

In terms of enquiry projects, the school has investigated topics such as gaining equitable access to digital fluency, which featured a Feast or Famine fundraising dinner where 10 people at a table were served either a delicious seafood platter or a bowl of rice or beans.

During the event, students made a presentation surrounding global challenges such as hunger and poverty and highlighted that not everyone has the means to access wi-fi, whether that is due to availability or not owning a device that can connect with it.

It is also the only school in Taranaki that has a Mandarin teacher, funded by the Confucius Institute at Victoria University.

This type of learning helped Patea Area School jump to a 100 per cent success rate at NCEA level one and two last year, the best results in Taranaki – and earned them an education sector award.

In April, Patea Area School traveled to Parliament to receive the award in global citizenship education from the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.

Kelsey Rozburgh, Natalie Dwyer, Madison Thomas, Anah-Rose Stephenson, Wayne Cribb, Nicola Ngarewa and Tileah Abraham discuss their students against seabed mining presentation. Photo / Bevan Conley
Kelsey Rozburgh, Natalie Dwyer, Madison Thomas, Anah-Rose Stephenson, Wayne Cribb, Nicola Ngarewa and Tileah Abraham discuss their students against seabed mining presentation. Photo / Bevan Conley

"It's a national award around values that we absolutely believe in, we're always challenging our community to be big and bold, to be courageous and to make a difference," Ngarewa said at the time.

"It's not about outsmarting anybody, it's about being a good global citizen, it means that the work the kids have been doing is making an impact and making change."

Personal recognition is not something Ngarewa warms to, not because she isn't proud of her success, but the humble principal is always quick to point out that it's not a solo effort.

One case that stands out is when Ngarewa received an award recognising her efforts during her first post as principal at Tamatea High School in Napier.

"That school had some real challenges at the time, I went in there and worked with my team and within a three-year time frame, we dramatically altered the results," she says.

"That led to the Sir Peter Blake leadership award, which I have to say I'm really embarrassed about because it has my name to it, but actually, it's an award in recognition of that whole staff and community."

That recognition of staff and community still exists at Patea Area School today.

Patea Area School students and staff with their award accompanied by associate education minister Jenny Salesa and chair of the NZ commission for UNESCO Robyn Baker. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Patea Area School students and staff with their award accompanied by associate education minister Jenny Salesa and chair of the NZ commission for UNESCO Robyn Baker. Photo / Mark Tantrum

"We have an amazing, dynamic staff, who I hold in the highest regard," Ngarewa says.

"Now, we have this nationally recognised curriculum and our staff can be proud that they worked to create that."

You could say that Ngarewa was destined to be the principal at Patea Area School.

She was born and raised in Patea, the youngest of four children to Colleen and James Ngarewa.

"My mother was actually the cleaner of the school, where she became the principal, it was Patea Primary School at the time," Ngarewa says.

"My father was a second generation freezing worker, after the works closed, my family made a commitment to stay in Patea, which meant that they had to retrain.

"He retrained as a secondary teacher and spent almost all of his teaching career here at Patea High School which is now Patea Area School."

Nicola Ngarewa is quick to praise her staff, but on this occasion, 9-year-old Hana Forbes leads by example and makes sure her classmates are hard at work. Photo / Bevan Conley
Nicola Ngarewa is quick to praise her staff, but on this occasion, 9-year-old Hana Forbes leads by example and makes sure her classmates are hard at work. Photo / Bevan Conley

The struggling Patea Primary School closed in 2004 and students flocked to Patea High School, which became Patea Area School.

Area schools are usually formed in small towns where often, due to financial reasons, it is no longer feasible for separate primary and secondary schools to exist.

After going to Patea Primary, Ngarewa attended Sacred Heart College in Whanganui, which amalgamated with St Augustine's College to form what is now Cullinane College.

Following secondary school, she attended Victoria University and went on to work at the Western Institute of Technology in New Plymouth.

While working at WITT, Ngarewa received an opportunity that she could not turn down and so she found herself working as an educator in New Zealand prisons.

Despite her parents being educators and the fact that she was already working in education, it was during this time that Ngarewa really found her passion for the job.

"It was during my time working with 16 to 20 year old young males that made me think 'something needs to seriously change and I need to be a part of the solution'.

"It was a really massive and really empowering learning curve for me."

Patea Area School's motto is one Nicola Ngarewa believes in and takes with her wherever she goes. Photo / Bevan Conley
Patea Area School's motto is one Nicola Ngarewa believes in and takes with her wherever she goes. Photo / Bevan Conley

So Ngarewa turned her attention to schools, to help grow good people for a changing world, as the Patea Area School motto says.

Since Ngarewa started at Patea Area School, the roll has doubled and they have the highest NCEA pass rate in Taranaki, so it may come as a shock that she will leave the school at the end of term three in 2018.

"I am a person that likes to have a challenge, I like to bring about change and then when it's at a strong and sustainable point, I like to move on to the next challenge.

"As far as I'm concerned the value I have added to Patea Area School is done and now it's about making sure another person is able to come in and continue to grow the great things that are happening."

Ngarewa has taken on the role of principal at Spotswood College in New Plymouth, the school that she started at and somewhere that she has a strong affinity.

She has good memories of her two children tearing around the classrooms while she was teaching there, a school in which they spent a lot of their childhood in from five years old.

"Patea Area School is perfectly positioned, it's an absolute gem for anyone that's looking to become a principal or is an experienced principal," Ngarewa says.

"In my viewpoint, I've been in senior leadership for well over a decade, this is an education utopia and someone's going to get a golden ticket."

He kotuku rerenga tahi - A white heron rarely seen. Art work on display within Patea Area School. Photo / Bevan Conley
He kotuku rerenga tahi - A white heron rarely seen. Art work on display within Patea Area School. Photo / Bevan Conley

There is no doubt that Ngarewa will leave behind a legacy.

Besides pass rates and student numbers rising, during her time as principal Ngarewa saw the school have its first ball for over 20 years and it fielded a rugby team for the first time in 14 years.

Moving forward, Patea Area School will be part of a professional learning group with Auckland's Hobsonville Point Secondary School and Albany Senior High School, Haeata Community Campus in Christchurch and Spotswood College.

Ngarewa starts at Spotswood in term four and Patea Area School are currently searching for a replacement.

"I will have an overwhelming sense of love when I reflect on my time here, to be honest, every little thing that I see at the moment, I try to capture it with my heart and mind.

"I keep thinking that it may be the last time I get to experience whatever particular thing it may be with these amazing kids.

"It has been an absolute joy to service this community."