A lesson worth learning for schools

Sadly, it's too easy to equate the nation's schools with deep problems - as a place which can't even get its sums right on pay day, where playground strife always gets high headlines, which seems to produce the community's dropouts and crims, where unthinking parents play no part and don‘t even give their trouble-making hoodlums school lunch, much less breakfast.

Think again.

New education is up and running.

So are the kids. Literally anxious to start each day, with new computer equipment, new ideas, new skills, enthusiasm.

It's epitomised at Pt England School, now the hub of a cluster of nine Tamaki district schools - two more to join later this year - where the new education is up and doing - and winning, harnessing the digital world.

Two quotes give a strong guide to the thinking and the product.

When curious business leaders visit, hopefully with a chequebook in their pocket, they are told: "We are training your key staff for the future - not caretakers or cleaners. These are the computer wizards, planners, engineers and accountants who will staff and build your industries."

This seems an unlikely target for a group of low decile, Maori and Pasifika suburbs. But they mean it, believe me. The other quote, colourfully and eloquently tells the story of growing success.

A league coach complained to principal Russell Burt that he couldn't get on with lunchtime training because too many of the team were in the library - reading books!

A hint that they might not necessarily make some future Warriors team but could end with a first class degree and a future.

I'm taken back decades to a Radio Pacific interview I had with Donna Awatere who had organised a scheme in South Auckland where pupils there had four minutes of reading, one-on-one teaching every day and where parents were taught how to coach at home.

She told of kids actually running to school so as not to miss their four minutes reading, of schools where truancy had dropped away, where high percentage staff resignations because of rough house classrooms and playground violence were things of the past.

Where parents previously unseen were joining in school activities.

South Auckland headmasters filled callback time with their enthusiastic backing for her claims.

But the government of the day refused grants so the scheme struggled on briefly with Save the Children funding then died.

Donna went her sometimes bizarre career way. On the basis of her four-minute plan I've always rated her as a lost talent.

Times and policies have changed dramatically. There is no money risk in this innovative Pt England-centred scheme.

The problems there reflect a statistic of our time. In those distant years ago when you and I went to school - perhaps with a framed piece of slate to work on, later chalk and a dusty blackboard, many of us at five were already able to spell our name and perhaps the school's, able to recite the alphabet and count to 20.

Now in schools like those in the Tamaki decile 1 hub, many of today's 5-year-olds arrive with only the limited know-how of a 3-year-old.

The Tamaki hub's teaching methods and state of the art equipment deal with that lack and lead the kids down the first path towards a 21st century education.

Pat Snedden, chairman of the Manaiakalani Education Trust, explains the aims and the successes.

Nine Tamaki schools - 11 by next year - are part of a project harnessing the best of the digital age to improve educational standards in their largely Maori and Pasifika area. Overcoming that two-year lag from impromptu home learning is a first target. The group's promotional material talks about "ensuring the tools of digital citizenship are available to our students to achieve the best outcomes for them".

In partnership with the Manaiakalani cluster of schools and the parents of the Tamaki community, more than 2000 students in years 5 to 13 now have their own netbook (small laptop) to work on.

To balance some of those prejudices about neglectful, uncaring parents, what about this?

In an area where average adult income a year is only around $19,000 a year, Tamaki parents have committed themselves to pay $3.50 a week towards paying for the netbooks, their upkeep and safety.

More than that, around 300 parents are being taught to use the netbook at home and how to support their children's new drive for learning.

The trust is justifiably proud of its parents - and for good reason.

Those weekly new book payments are part of parents paying a third of the trust's bills. The Government and what Mr Snedden refers to as "philanthropy" from individuals and commercial institutions balance the books.

The shared cost: $4.5 million over four years so far with parents as the single highest contributor.

It's all a matter of huge satisfaction for all involved - like successfully swimming against the current.

The outcome: "Student involvement has improved dramatically, reading, writing, numeracy and oral expression have improved steadily in line with programme expectations."

More than that, the hub group is now working on a sustainable wireless network with Pt England School as its hub.

Mr Snedden sums up the future: "This affordable wireless internet which parents will help subsidise, will serve the entire Tamaki area - the first project of its kind in New Zealand.

"By the end of the first term all Manaiakalani cluster students with netbooks will have exclusive access to it. This is a noteworthy achievement, not only in a low-decile Maori and Pasifika community like ours but for any community around New Zealand.

"We aim to create a blueprint for community engagement in student learning and digital citizenship as a means of furthering educational achievement."

Learning systems pioneered in the Tamaki community will spread to other low decile New Zealand schools in a significant project which could potentially affect more than 100,000 in the next three years.

And the next step for Tamaki's future digitally skilled graduates?

Mr Snedden points to Tamaki College where progressive principal Soana Pamaka heads the school which she led to become New Zealand's first fully digital state school.

Mr Snedden and the cluster's ambition: "That Manaiakalani continues to be at the forefront of innovative eLearning solutions in this country … and around the world."

This means more of our children have the chance of the education they deserve - but too often miss - to succeed in this brave new digital world. It's a winner and deserves an A-plus mark.

Auckland City Harbour News