The school on the wrong side of the tracks
'Racist and snobbish' attitudes being driven by an east-west divide hit crisis point two years ago for Masterton's Makoura College and almost closed the school. As Tanya Katterns reports, the clouds are clearing but the fight to reverse attitudes remains.
It's a classic case of being on the wrong side of the tracks. Makoura College in Masterton - current pupil population nudging 260 - was built in 1968 as the youth population boomed and the town's only other state school, Wairarapa College, was inundated.
There was heavy debate over where to site the school. Land was available near the hospital, on the east, nicely nestled between a large state housing project on one side and a stretch of Lansdowne, where palatial homes were appearing and folk of local business influence were establishing themselves.
Foundation pupils, such as Keith Marshall, remember a school strictly run, with all pupils, regardless of east or west residency, taking advantage of fresh opportunities.
"I can only remember good times. I used to bike past Wairarapa College for miles to the other side of town. The only ribbing we ever got was because of our flashed-up uniform with caps."
By the mid 70s, Makoura had a roll of about 800, a strong and healthy school culture and academic successes.
"Back then, it didn't matter where you lived. You were all from Masterton and you either went to Makoura or Wai Coll or one of the Catholic or private schools," Mr Marshall says.
"There were competitive elements between the schools in sports and academic stuff, but that is as far as the divide went."
By the 1980s, the "Cameron Block" was becoming more and more in the public arena - but for all the wrong reasons.
It was a typical old Housing Corporation area, with 400 households.
Just about every government agency had concerns about the area.
It was steadily accumulating all the high bad statistics and low good ones: crime, low health and education outcomes and high unemployment. Makoura College was in the thick of it.
The wider community began to turn its back. Parents of children on the west no longer sought Makoura College as an option and Wairarapa College continued to grow while Makoura's roll began to drop dramatically.
Eastside boy Joseph Paku, a standout rugby star and athlete and academic achiever, left Makoura six years ago. He held his head high when the constant backlash was dished out, while waving the Makoura colours.
"You'd be at rugby or a sports event and the kids from other schools would call us a bunch of criminals, riff-raff, no- hopers not getting an education, who would just end up in jail and stuff. Yeah, there were some bad kids at school, but we were doing OK."
But what was on paper filtering through to education authorities the year after Mr Paku left was not a sign that all was OK. Teachers were leaving in droves, academic achievements had hit rock bottom, educational reviews were damning and the existing leadership was dealing with behavioural issues by chucking kids out.
Criminal elements had made their way into the playground, and suspensions and stand-downs were reaching epic proportions.
Almost every year the troubled college led the Education Ministry statistics in suspensions - on average more than one for every 10 pupils.
In 2005, a statutory manager was appointed to take on limited powers of the board of trustees in employment and human resources after the Education Review Office raised concerns. A year later, a financial adviser was brought in when it was discovered the school lacked sound financial management and its viability was at risk.
The ministry's confidential internal report into Makoura in 2007 revealed that there was a big breakdown in relationships between the principal at the time, Chris Scott, and senior management, as well as with staff.
Staff morale had plummeted because of the bad blood and rapid loss of pupils, the report said.
BY 2008, with a roll of 220 and still falling, the school's board of trustees decided it could do no more.
Lindsay Gribben, who was board chairman, says the recommendation it made for closure was, at the time, in the best interests of the oupils. "We had given our everything and we had run out steam. The east-west divide was so strong.
"I was quite shocked at some of racism that came in submissions against closure. Some said, 'We want the Maori students to stay at Makoura and leave Wairarapa College for the Pakeha.'
"I knew there was a socio-economic gap but I didn't realise the racist attitudes were that vicious.
"We had bent over backwards to keep it open and tried all initiatives. The bottom line was that the kids were suffering because the amount of money available was getting less and less."
The closure announcement came as a bombshell on the east side The school's turmoil struck a nerve with old boy Jemaine Clement, half of the Flight of the Conchords comedy duo.
Makoura, where the pupils were shunned by their more affluent peers across town and shouted down as "scum and crims", did not deserve the rap it was getting, he said.
In his blogs on a "Save Makoura" website, Clement shot back: "No gangs of 13-year-old thugs terrorised the science block, you couldn't get whisky with your salad roll and not a fight ever erupted during our sustained silent-reading class.
"When I was there, I think a lot of Mastertonians expected Makoura to be rough because of the part of town that it is in, but for those of us who were actually enrolled at the school, the idea was laughable."
His vocal support and hard-hitting words rallied community support.
The board and Mr Scott fell on their swords and the ministry appointed commissioner Tim White to fulfil the governance role.
As he began putting the pieces in place to make Makoura a viable and successful high school again, closure was taken off the agenda.
Tom Hullena leans back in his chair in his small cluttered office, his tie thrown over his shoulder and his eyes blazing with passion and frustration as he talks of the journey "my kids" from the town's east side have faced to get an education that no-one else seemed to want to give them.
To "my kids", the present 260 pupils, his arrival as principal, appointed last year by Mr White, was a sign of a sinking ship being refloated.
Mr White, a former provincial rugby and softball representative tossed in a plum job to fight not just for the school's survival but to give its pupils a future beyond "cannon fodder for the factories".
"Most of these students come from a sector of the community that is marginalised and alienated from the mainstream. It is not the responsibility of kids to breach the cultural divide," he says.
"I think it is sad because of Wairarapa College's enrolment scheme that the kids on our side of town don't get a choice of two state secondary schools.
"I think it is unfair so it is up to us to lift our game.
"My belief is that for the bulk of young people, they all have amazing inner talents buried inside them and our role is to pull them out."
It is a war cry in educational terms that has struck a chord just two years after the school was on the verge of collapse.
Year nine enrolments last year were 75. The Education Ministry predicated 40 to 45 at the most. It is a strong share of the declining secondary age population.
"It might have been in the past for the school community to handle that wrong perception that Makoura is or was a second-rate school. It isn't for me. There is such huge potential here."
Gone already is the cycle of failure. For a decile 3 school, it is punching well above its weight.
Seven years ago, just 22 per cent of the school's year 11 pupils passed NCEA level 1 and only 39 per cent achieved level 2 at year 12.
Last year's results were the best the college has achieved: a 75 per cent pass rate at level 1 and 62 per cent at level 2.
"The results are particularly pleasing, given the turmoil caused by the threat of closure," Mr Hullena says.
"Staff and student morale hit rock-bottom in 2008 but our staff's professional development has been pushed fast and furious and our pupils are starting to find the treasures within themselves."
It has meant fundamental change. Everything from the class timetables to teacher-student relationships to disciplinary processes has been transformed.
There are just three periods a day, giving pupils time to relate to their teachers and develop their work in each topic. A rugby programme, hands-on house-building technology class and visual arts incorporating computer graphics to "spunk up" art are all part of innovative approach to teaching and learning.
Standdowns and detentions are out - replaced by a restorative justice approach to curbing bad behaviour.
All the teaching staff has been asked to do "somersaults" and rethink the way they do things, Mr Hullena says. "I say to staff if they don't believe they can make a difference in the lives of these kids, they shouldn't be here because they are being fraudulent in my view."
He does not want Makoura just to tread water. He wants the school to be a viable alternative for families to choose because they like what it has to offer.
"There will be no east or west divide. I want it to have a point of difference that is attractive to everybody everywhere in Masterton.
"To be the school that allows our children to lift the lid off their waka huia [treasure box] and find the amazing person with a wonderful future that lies within."
The Dominion Post