After missing five years of formal schooling, Rickee Te Wini McQuoid wasn't sure he'd be able to "fit back into the system".
He had been studying at home but at the age of 17 he was looking to the future and realising without formal qualifications he wouldn't be able to enter university.
His disrupted schooling background meant he was an ideal candidate for Manukau Institute of Technology's School of Secondary Tertiary Studies.
Also known as the Tertiary High School, it is the first school of its kind in New Zealand.
Students who find the mainstream secondary school environment isn't right for them can study towards NCEA, just as they would at secondary school, but can also make a start towards tertiary qualifications for trades and careers.
Classes are small with a ratio of around 15-20 students to every teacher, meaning there is more one-on-one time with staff.
Rickee, now 19, was one of the school's foundation pupils in 2010 and after two-and-a-half years of study successfully completed NCEA levels one to three.
"After so long away from school the first couple of weeks were terrifying. But the teachers were always hands on and it was almost like having a private tutor," he says.
Rickee is now studying towards a bachelor of arts at Auckland University and aims to cross credit his papers into a law degree which he will pick up in 2014.
He is one of many successful students graduating from the Tertiary High School.
Deon Blackburn, 16, was struggling at secondary school. He would go to class, sit at the back of the room and switch off.
His lack of engagement meant he was failing and his parents, believing he was on a dead-end path, looked to the Tertiary High School as an alternative.
The decision turned Deon's life around and he is now positive about education.
"They treat us like we are adults. The teachers really care about what happens to us. I stopped mucking around and started thinking about where I want to end up," Deon says.
After a year of study, Deon has now enrolled in MIT's certificate in motorsport and plans a career as a mechanic.
Similarly, the Tertiary High School was what Sione Salu needed to turn his life around.
He too was a foundation student and completed his third and final year in 2012.
This year he will embark on a two-year diploma in architecture and eventually wants to study for a bachelor's degree.
The 17-year-old says he didn't have a good relationship with teachers at mainstream school and found it difficult being constantly told what to do.
"Here we have more freedom and trust. There is no uniform, we can leave campus at lunchtime and we are trusted to get back to class on time. If we don't there are consequences but we are not treated like kids," he says.
Aaron MacDonald, 16, was on the verge of being excluded from his high school when his mother began investigating alternatives for him.
"She heard how they run things here and thought it might work for me.
"I love it and the teachers are all really good people," he says.
Tertiary High School deputy principal Steve Samuela says mainstream education does not work for everyone.
"We offer the students a lot of support. We work with them closely to see where their interests lie and what we can do to help them achieve their goals."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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