A once-failing high school's spectacular bounce back from the brink of closure should make prejudiced parents think again, an education leader says.
It was an irony that, as Masterton's Makoura College capped a six-year renaissance this week, principal Tom Hullena was not there - for once.
The man who hardly left Makoura as he worked long hours leading it back from years of damning educational reviews to a Prime Minister's Education Excellence Award in the leadership category, presented at Te Papa on Wednesday, is on sabbatical at Harvard studying - unsurprisingly - leadership.
"They've been a bit like a phoenix rising from the ashes . . . just unrelenting focus by a principal on what's best for learners as the school redesigned itself," said Tim White, the Ministry of Education-appointed commissioner who oversaw Hullena being appointed principal during Makoura's darkest period.
Wairarapa's lowest-ranked school on the ministry's socio-economic scale, at decile 2, Makoura was built on Masterton's east side in 1968 to take overflow from the town's only other state school, Wairarapa College. The roll peaked at about 800 in the 1970s before social problems in the state-housing dominated area, and an east-west Masterton social divide, took hold from the 1980s. Following years of plunging rolls, fleeing staff and soaring suspension rates, by 2008 Makoura had 200 pupils, was rated as one of the country's three worst schools, and its board of trustees recommended it close.
But a groundswell of community support led to the involvement of White and Hullena, the roll reaching 300, 2013 NCEA pass rates well above the national average in both the Maori and all student categories, and, ultimately, to Wednesday's $20,000 prize.
Year 13 pupil Tom Feringa is from the west side of Masterton but chose Makoura after a friend praised it. He said prejudice against the school was "just sad" and would hopefully drop off now.
"If it doesn't it's just plain ignorance, really."
Makoura's journey to join the best schools in the country should prod other state schools, White said. "They can provide really excellent outcomes for learners and they shouldn't shy away."
Deputy principal Kellas Bennett said prejudice was being replaced by admiration, with other schools contacting him asking for "best practice" advice.
An outcry protesting at Makoura's impending closure was boosted when former pupil Jemaine Clement, of comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, added his voice. Wairarapa MP John Hayes was another supporter and said the school's growing roll vindicated the community's refusal to let it close.
"I don't necessarily think that really big schools suit everybody . . . and every time you take a school out of a community you take the heart out of the community."
Wednesday's inaugural Prime Minister's Education Excellence Awards were for four categories, identified internationally as keys to improving student achievement: teaching, leadership, community engagement and governance.
Makoura won the Excellence in Leading - Atakura Award because of its personalised approach, the panel of expert judges said.
"The whole school embraces tikanga Maori and the significance of mutual respect and high expectations. The result is an impressive improvement in student achievement, pride and engagement in education."
- The Dominion Post