Charter schools claim early success

19:42, Nov 08 2014
Tamati Falwasser and Austin Graham
OUT OF THE DARKNESS: Tamati Falwasser, with classmate Austin Graham, at the South Auckland Middle School.

On the completed entry tests for next year's intake of students at the Vanguard Military School, one of New Zealand's first charter schools, there were plenty of 16 and 17 year olds who failed to spell ‘encourage', ‘describe', or ‘national' correctly.

They couldn't subtract 27 from 74. They didn't even attempt to answer the simple division and multiplication questions.

Isaac Berry, 16, used to be one of those kids. Last year he only achieved 14 credits towards his level one NCEA. You need 80 credits to pass.

"I kind of forgot to go to school last year," he said.

The talented BMX rider spent most of his time at the skate park. This year at the Vanguard school, Berry has discovered he also has academic talents. "It was when I got my first excellence I realised how far I could push myself," he says.

Now he has 70 credits and is certain to to pass Level One NCEA.

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"These are the kids hiding in the system and they need a chance to come out from wherever they are hiding and blossom," says Vanguard principal Rockley Montgomery.

Berry is one of those struggling students that charter schools say they are already reaching just nine months after opening. Targeted at the Government's priority groups: Maori, Pasifika, learners from low socio-economic backgrounds or with special education needs, charter schools claim they are already showing achievement and engagement benefits.

But opponents say charter schools provide a quick fix, throwing money desperately needed for struggling public schools at a problem which requires deep systemic change. They say the policy is backdoor privatisation and will further marginalise those demographics charter schools purport to help.

The Vanguard military school is one of five charter schools which opened in early 2014 as a result of the ACT party's highly contentious partnership school policy.

It operates under a strong military ethos. Discipline is strict. Students are taught to iron their black lapelled uniform with matching tie, and in the afternoons march in tight formation for physical training. The school has 108 year 11 and 12 students. Next year the roll is expanding to 144 and year 13; it's oversubscribed.

Charter schools are government-funded and free to attend. They can also raise money from third parties like philanthropists, iwi, charities and private companies. They have increased budgeting flexibility and each is bound by a contract to deliver defined student outcomes such as improved exam results. If they fail, they can be shut down.

Thirteen years ago Alwyn Poole left his job at Auckland's prestigious St Cuthbert's College to start Mt Hobson Middle School in Remuera. It offers a unique style of schooling for children aged 10 to 14 to prepare them to return to the mainstream in year 11.

With fees of $12,000 per year, there are a maximum of 15 students in each class. They teach core subjects like English and maths and work on cross-curricular projects throughout the year, treating learning as seamless and interrelated.

Parents in this affluent area can pay for alternatives - but in areas where children struggle the most, there are usually no options, Poole says.

As the architect of charter schools, ACT MP David Seymour puts it: "We are taking Remuera education to Manurewa," he said.

So Poole's Villa Education Trust opened South Auckland Middle School (SAMS) in Manurewa, a partnership school based on the Mt Hobson model. Next year, they will open the West Auckland Middle School in Glendene.

On the wall of a classroom full of Maori and Polynesian students at SAMS, a poster reads: "Don't be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try."

Of the 110 students, 93 per cent come from the Government's "priority learners" group. Eighty one per cent of the students are Maori or Pacific Islander. And after eight months, Poole says the school is already making a clear difference: "Our children are absolutely thriving."

Tamati Falwasser, 13, is being raised by his grandmother, who is also responsible for 10 other grandchildren whose parents failed them. It was her idea that he go to SAMS.

He was a self acknowledged troublemaker at his old school. Tamati says he was once choked by a teacher. He was in a place he describes as the "dark side".

At SAMS his teachers have reached him and motivated him. They know his needs and personality. His grades have lifted. "They are more like role models to me. I am not afraid of them any more," he says.

The Education Review Office this month gave flattering reviews of SAMS and Vanguard, applauding the small class sizes and the students' desire to learn.

But education experts say charter schools, when dropped into areas where rolls are already undersubscribed, will damage these struggling state schools. Professor John O'Neill, director of Massey University's Institute of Education, says they take the best students from existing schools.

O'Neill believes families that enrol their children in charter schools are more equipped to make active choices about their children's education.

Students like Tamati come from a disadvantaged background, but a family which is more motivated and aspirational than the average. "You are taking good role models from those remaining schools," O'Neill says. "Evidence from overseas would suggest there is some disadvantage to the community as a whole."

But Poole points to schools in South Auckland that are already failing, receiving millions of dollars each year and recording NCEA failure rates above 50 per cent. "It's never questioned and they keep receiving the same funding every year," he says. "To me those are the scandalous issues in New Zealand education that need a stern examination."

The Left says charter schools are part of an ideological drive to disestablish public education in New Zealand. Charter schools are a trojan horse for privatisation, believes Peter O'Connor, associate professor of education at Auckland University.

"We are seeing across the board with this new government a move to market-led privatisation,' says O'Connor. "The same agenda is moving right across government. Education is the testing ground for this with charter schools and increased funding for private schools."

Seymour says the schools provide the opportunity to act to those who best understand what's needed to raise standards. "If the mainstream model is not working for some groups you need to diversify the model," Seymour argues. "There are ground-up solutions, there are people who know more about their local communities than the Ministry of Education."

The Rise Up Academy, the second partnership school to open this year, was born in principal Sita Selupe's garage in Papatoetoe. Running extra classes for struggling students while on maternity leave, ‘Aunty Sita's Homeschool' soon became a feature of the community.

"We believe that when you enrol your child, we enrol your whanau," says Selupe.

And after eight years in the garage, she is now in charge of 50 students from years one to six. "You have to have experience coming through that community and fully engage with them. It's not just about education, it is about community development."

Seymour may be lowkey about privatisation, but he's clear about the desire to rip power away from the teaching unions.

Charter schools can negotiate salaries with teachers, and some are paying them above the union-agreed rate. Seymour believes the unions fear they will lose their collective bargaining power: "They are fighting for survival. I can understand why they are so bitter."

The unions have fought hard, calling for members to boycott the Villa Education Trust and a charter school in Whangarei and vocally criticising the failure of a charter school in the Far North.

Te Kura Hourua, in remote Whangaruru, has battled from the day it opened its doors. It struggled to find and hold on to staff, attendance was poor, there were reports of children showing up on drugs, bullying and vandalism. Almost immediately a governor was appointed to oversee its management. The New Zealand Educational Institute union labelled the school a shambolic waste of money. President Judith Nowotarski attacked it as "a totally dysfunctional experiment when all around the country publicly run schools are being starved of adequate funding".

Critics say the Whangaruru failure is no surprise, considering the problems charter schools have faced in the United States. However, in its 2013 report on the 6000 US charter schools, Stanford University found dramatically improved results, where achievement was either ahead or at the same level of public schools. It also showed key benefits for black students, students in poverty, and English language learners.

Speaking from Tampa, Florida, where he is visiting charter schools that have seen success with special needs students, Poole says Kiwis need to open their minds to learning from alternative education models instead of writing them off because of a funding model.

"I believe it is in the best interests of everyone who genuinely cares about the education of New Zealand children to get behind innovations to see what can make a difference to the inter-generational failures," he says.

The Government has signed contracts for four new charter schools in 2015.

Willie Jackson's Manukau Urban Maori Authority will open a bilingual year one and two charter school for 50 students based at the Nga Whare Waatea marae in Mangere.

Only 58.6 per cent of Maori pupils leave school with NCEA Level Two, compared to 80 per cent of Pakeha. When you have a system that produces those results you have a problem, Jackson says. "There is a prejudice against some of our kids whether they care to admit it or not," he says. "They don't feel accepted. The mainstream system has to accept some of the blame."

Jackson, a former Labour MP and trade union organiser, says he's sick of "political nonsense" around charter schools and won't denounce the idea just because it originated on the Right. "Our focus is about turning around our kids' lives."

SEYMOUR'S BIG IDEA

When you see the ACT party's leader, sole MP and white knight of Epsom, David Seymour, he's almost always wearing his company-coloured blue and yellow check shirt.

The surprise is, he only owns one. After doorknocking nearly every home in Epsom in his uniform, it must have been laundered a few times.

Like his "slightly strange breakfast" (sourdough toast with jam, smoked salmon on the side), Seymour is an odd man. But he's likeably self-deprecating, and ready to mock himself for his awkward campaign video (Seymour saying ‘Hi!' in multiple locations, and mispronouncing ‘Rem-wera') which went viral.

Despite claiming to be a "Thomas the Tank Engine fan from way back," he is opposed to Auckland's City Rail Link and instead advocates car-sharing apps and self-driving cars. He's against greater population density, in favour of "more Epsom"-style suburbs. But his passion is education. He orders two lattes, and likes to use them as metaphors. "If you get a bad latte you can get another latte. If you get a bad education, it is not insurmountable but it is a major challenge for people's lives.

"What we have for tax policy is important in the short term, but what we have for education policy... that affects the (next) 60 years or more." He worked with his predecessor in Epsom, John Banks, to design the partnership schools policy, and their growth is his priority.

He doesn't profess to be an education expert. But that's why New Zealand needs charter schools, he says. "That is the whole point, we want to actually say, everybody knows more about their community than anyone in Wellington does. And so we want to allow them to bring their knowledge to the table."

Seymour is already back on the streets canvassing his loyal constituents. For many, the major concern is preserving their multi-million dollar neighbourhoods in the face of Auckland's growth.

"People bought a place here because they want to live on a tree-lined street with single family villas," he says. "And it severely affects the school zones." Seymour claims his doorknocking discovered much of his electorate is concerned with growing inequality. But perhaps they are also comfortable with things just the way they are.

Sunday Star Times