More than halfway through the first year of hard slog, and the students in the first intake of Naenae College's Service Academy are shaping up into a lean mean bunch of promising young people, academy director David Murden says.
Jermaine Pirihi is one of the stand-outs. The 18-year-old was seriously struggling with reading and writing at the beginning of the year but has just completed a leadership programme that the NZ Army hand picked him for.
"I dropped out of school when I was 16 - I couldn't do the work, so it kind of made me feel dumb," he says.
"Before I came here I was doing a lot of weed and drinking, I was a hoodlum but over that time I had my best friend passed away, he died of sniffing, and I didn't want to go down that road."
Jermaine's church Align encouraged him to sign up to the academy and he is now writing speeches, reports and stories, and learning to write in a formal style.
"It's improved [his reading and writing], and these days I want to do it. There's days where I don't want to do it or the physical stuff but I still get out and do it," he smiles.
Mr Murden, who is also the students' main teacher, says approval for funding for the military-style academy was only received from the Ministry of Education during the summer break, so staff and students were straight in at the deep end.
"Our first start was to clean up the room, it had been trashed by vandals during the holidays."
The students were set to work and then straight into an eight-day NZ Army course in Waiouru, where they were shaped into a close unit.
"They did confidence courses, drills, cleaning, leadership tests," Mr Murden says.
Jermaine nods agreement. "And if someone messes up we all paid for it, but it was a good feeling. It was hard work and at the end of that I felt proud of myself."
The Service Academy offers a fulltime alternative school programme focused on military careers. It combines outdoor and physical education, leadership and life skills, and NCEA units in maths and English. It is especially designed to meet the needs of students who find mainstream classes challenging.
Mr Murden's own background as a self-confessed school troublemaker, before spending five years in the Royal Navy, and another 17 as a reserve with the Royal New Zealand Navy while working as a physical education teacher, epitomises the ethos.
"It gives you the values that the military focus on - courage, commitment and comradeship, which I feed through to these guys.
"As a teacher I know that they have to get some credits or it means nothing when they come to get a job; you need level one English, so it's a good balance."
The students have access to intensive remedial teaching and can work at their own level.
"They've got the time and support to do it," Mr Murden says.
"A big change in them is confidence, self-esteem and self-belief; for some there's been personal challenges, and they are dealing with them better, they've had to confront them and deal with them."
The academy is the second in the region. A Mana College class which started in 2009 has reportedly produced strong turnarounds in attendance records, academic achievement and conduct in and out of school.
Mr Murden says he's grateful to have had the support of the Mana College staff and his students regularly meet with their class for training challenges.
Many of the Naenae students have also made huge leaps in fitness, motivation and academic achievement. Others still face hard yards to reach their goals but most have begun to make meaningful progress and are invested in the class.
"The programme's gelled together nicely, the kids are positive about it, after that it comes down to effort, and we've got some students who are doing very well.
"They are a great bunch of kids. It's the old story, you've got to get to know them and look for the positive, I've found that brings out the good stuff."
Jermaine now has a 100 per cent attendance record, is running up to nine kilometres a day with the class, and is crossing off the academic credits he needs to reach the entrance standard to join either the army or navy.
"I want to join the SAS, that's been my dream since I was little, and I thought I'd lost that," he says.
The academy has several spaces for students up to 20 years old and can accept new students throughout the year. The class is expected to get stronger as existing students are encouraged to act as mentors, Mr Murden says.
- Hutt News