For the past 20 years, John Forsyth has watched with pride as streams of cornflower blue uniform-clad school children file through Monrad Intermediate's gates.
Every morning, the principal mingles with his charges on the basketball courts, and watches them line up at the school canteen to buy pies and soft drinks. Many of those in line are the very same who turn up to class barefoot every day because their parents are unable to afford school shoes.
Monrad is a decile three Palmerston North school. Its predominantly Maori and Pacific Islander roll comprises kids from some of the city's least affluent suburbs, including Highbury, where many children live below the poverty line.
Monrad's academic results, when compared against the national standards, lack lustre, but they also lack context, Mr Forsyth says.
"If you read the statistics, most of that one-fifth ‘tail' that the education minister and prime minister keep talking about as ‘under-achieving' - most of them are Maori and Pacific Islanders. So you can imagine that we've got a pretty big tail when it comes to achieving against the standards."
Many Monrad pupils' academic performance consistently falls short of the mark, but the school is determined not to fail its students.
One third of Monrad's pupils use the school's unique Mega Learning Centre for extra tuition, where one 11-year-old pupil bumped up her reading age two years in just two terms, which Mr Forsyth says is "incredible progress".
"Her reading age is now 10 years old. We think that's fantastic, and that she's wonderfully successful, but she still doesn't meet the standard. The ministry and the prime minister will say that child is part of the 25 per cent who is failing. That's sad for us because we think we are doing a good job."
A class of 35 children with "academic abilities" ensures that the school's brightest don't fall through the cracks.
Meetings with parents and the board of trustees elucidated a strong interest in their children's tikanga Maori, kapa haka and Te Reo education, and the school won this year's regional kapa haka championships, bolstered by a three-classroom Te Reo Maori bilingual immersion unit in which almost 60 pupils take their lessons each day.
The school's main entrance boasts a full to bursting trophy cabinet and Mr Forsyth lists a roll call of sporting alumni who have gone on to become Manawatu Turbos, New Zealand Warriors or Silver Ferns.
Monrad's low decile rating makes it eligible for targeted government funding to boost educational achievement.
Now and again teachers will cart a few of the barefoot population off to the shops to pick up some black leather regulation school shoes, free of charge.
But funding for extras is hard to come by.
There is no parent-teacher association and only about 20 per cent of parents pay the voluntary school donation.
Yet most parents are happy to shell out for technology classes, Mr Forsyth says - the school provides parent-funded traditional extracurricular favourites cooking, sewing and woodwork, alongside film-making and robotics.
Parent and school trustee Lorna Waerea has sent all three of her daughters to Monrad and says "it's one big family there at Monrad".
Putting her daughters' school on a league table would not fairly represent a "brilliant" school, she says.
"It's just putting us in that basket where other schools' national standards are right up there, but we've got kids who struggle outside of school."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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