Māori Principal Revives Struggling NZ School

In the year Nicola Ngarewa has been principal of Patea Area School the roll has increased and attendance has improved, as have academic results. There was a school ball for the first time in many years and, after 14 years, the school once again had a First XV.

Ngarewa, 43, who is Ngati Ruanui and Nga Rauru, came back to her hometown of Patea after a successful stint at Tamatea High School in Napier that earned her a Sir Peter Blake Trust Leadership Award.

Patea Area School was one of the lowest ranked schools academically in the country, but this year it had a 100 per cent pass rate for Level 2 NCEA. 

She took the school in a different direction - from operating like a traditional high school to having a more modern and innovative approach to teaching and learning, she says.

"And that's been really exciting. It was like a blank canvas. We had a flexible timetable, so we started school at 7.30am, which means for senior students, who we were potentially losing to part time jobs, who needed the money, they could finish one hour early or work one day less out of a 10 day timetable. And we could run classes and training things into the evening."

The new curriculum included the community and every second Friday the students would go out and do something in the community, such as a diving course in New Plymouth, a surfing course, hunting and gathering.

And the more traditional academic subjects got a new twist. They didn't study English, they studied literacy, she says. If a student wanted to study traditional English they could, but if someone was interested in mechanics they did a literacy programme that focused on mechanics.

She didn't get significant opposition to the changes, she says.

"I think we were at a point where we were ready for some change to the education system. Everyone was pretty receptive and supportive." 

The curriculum is based on collaborating with the kids, so she asked them what treat they would like, because they had been doing some really fantastic things, she says.

"I thought they would pick a trip to Rainbow's End or something like that. I couldn't believe they chose a school ball."

The ball attracted national attention and the school was inundated with ball dresses, about 50 per cent of which were brand new. The kids were given 24 carat cufflinks, she says.

"I'm not into asking for a help. It's a bit cheeky. It should be reciprocal, but if you give to others it's OK to ask if you need it too and the response was overwhelming.  We got dresses from France. I get emotional and I can't express...   It was phenomenal." 

At the end of the year she took 10 senior students to Fiji for 10 days. The kids raised the money and also worked for it, she says.

"That comes back to whole idea it's OK to ask, but it's reciprocal. You have to give too.  We had the whole country come together for us, so we worked in an orphanage in Suva."

Next year they are going to be the first school in Taranaki to teach Mandarin, she says.

"Patea doesn't have to be this geographically isolated other world. It can connect internationally and globally. People thought I was crazy when I left a big secondary school to come to Patea, but I'm from Patea, so I wouldn't do it any other way. It's challenging all those stereotypes of what it means to go to a small rural school or to work and service a small rural community. And what Patea is or means." 

This year has been an "awesome" journey, she says.

"But there is still work to be done. It's work in progress."