Principal's big plans

03:34, Aug 16 2014
Karen O'Donnell
FAST PROGRESS: Wairau Valley School principal Karen O'Donnell with most of the school's 22 students.

A boxful of new playground trolleys, six new iPads, a new information centre, and fast broadband.

Re-organised classrooms, new staff, enthusiastic parents asking to join the new board of trustees, and, above all, 22 happy children.

It's only been about four weeks since Wairau Valley School's new principal started in the job but Karen O'Donnell has hit the ground running.

Vowing to put the school's recent struggles behind it, Karen has big plans for a bright future. She is not doing it alone.

Parents and other community members have been beating down Karen's door seeking information and offering help and support.

''It's been overwhelming.''


This was particularly evident during the school holidays when many hands made light work creating a new information centre, which also includes the library.

''Three rooms literally had to shift,'' says Karen.

Ultra-fast broadband will be hooked up in about two weeks, replacing internet which Karen describes as slower than dial-up.

The new resources, with more to come including desktops and data projectors, mark a big change from a year ago when the Ministry of Education appointed a commissioner, Bev Moore, to help the struggling school.

In May this year, it was announced that pupils' achievement levels had improved and the school was financially sound. Karen already taught the school's junior classes and started as principal at the beginning of this term.

She is keen to foster a happy school culture, including, importantly, its six staff. She also wants to draw in the wider community and ask them what they want for their school.

So far, there has been no shortage of feedback and it has all been positive, says Karen. People have been asking to join the new board of trustees, which will be set up by term two next year. Parents are keen to support their school and get involved - and for good reason, according to the principal.

''This school is totally wonderful in terms of teacher to student ratios and support for learning. I see staff consistency coming up. We've got kids who are really enthusiastic about coming through that gate, because we make it fun.'' 

Karen is no stranger to tough times at school.

As principal at Koromiko School principal from 2008, she had the difficult task of closing it for good.

''In February 2013 I shut the door of the school. It was heartbreaking.''

Wishing to never go through such a closure again, Karen admits it's her second such experience: She taught at tiny Kaiata School on the West Coast when it merged with another school. The impact of the merger on students was evident for years. ''It was jolly hard actually.'' 

Though difficult, Karen says she learned from both experiences.  ''It upskills you.'' 

She is also no stranger to rural communities. Originally from isolated Mangarakau, southwest of Collingwood in Golden Bay, she attended school in Nelson before travelling widely, including China and time in a remote Australian aboriginal community.  

''I just love [small places]. It's not that I love the isolation, I just love the people in small communities.''

But Karen's goals are big, and not just for her new school. A keen skier and tramper, she is a frequent visitor to Nelson Lakes National Park and the Red Hills.

But she is aiming much higher: Karen's lifetime personal goal is to reach Mt Everest's Base Camp.  The walk there, she says, will take about a week.

''I just need to find someone silly enough to go with me.''

The Marlborough Express