Community key to raising standards
Stoke School tackles deprivation head-onSTACEY KNOTT
In the fourth part of a series looking at struggling households, Stacey Knott checks out school initiatives in one of Nelson's most deprived areas.
Stoke School principal Pete Mitchener is a firm believer in the saying "it takes a community to raise a child."
His school sits within the Isel Park area, given a rating of 8 (out of 10) on the deprivation index which makes it one of the most highly deprived in the city - slightly down from its 9 rating in 2006.
Based on last year's census figures, almost a third (31 per cent) of those 15 and over have no qualifications, compared to 19 per cent in nearby Enner Glynn.
Mitchener cites research that finds that school achievement is 80 per cent based on factors outside of the school environment.
That makes a community approach a key to helping raise academic performance.
Armed with that philosophy, Mitchener recently took a term off to visit schools around New Zealand, looking at how they integrate with social agencies.
His plan for Stoke is to turn it into a hub school, like Victory School has done with its links to the Victory Community Centre.
He says hubs are the best way to support the development of a child and their family within a state school system. If a child is healthy and happy, they would achieve more at school, be less disruptive to their peers, and everyone would win.
Mitchener emphasises his is a diverse school, with children and families from all walks of life. He wants to see the school used to increase social mobility.
He says the community approach to helping raise children is important in all societies, but "particularly in lower decile areas where support can be missing."
In his decile four school community there are concerns about children's health as well as after school and holiday time care. If the school became a hub that worked with other agencies, including churches, health providers and other education providers such issues could be directly addressed.
Mitchener says school should be an equal playing field, but if a child comes from a background of hardship, it affects their progress.
"So if the child is having a rocky or unstable time at home and things are missing outside, that affects up to 80 per cent of their ability to achieve at school during the day.
"So, for the children living in poverty there's so much going on in their head it's hard to expect them to achieve at school."
Prior to Stoke School, Mitchener had taught at Appleby School, Nayland Primary School, Victory Primary School and Broadgreen Intermediate. In every school he has taught in, Mitchener says there have been families that need nurturing. There are common indicators he notices in pupils that stem from a lack of appropriate housing, food, care and other issues such as cleanliness, and appropriate clothing.
The best approach is to create an atmosphere where those children are helped, without making them stand out.
"There's always a sense of shame [about needing help] but having the right people in our environment who care for them and nurture them helps that. In our office we had a family the other day who were obviously showing a bit of need so there's the ability to get some food and support if needs be."
He says a lack of employment is generally to blame for struggling families.
"I think parents genuinely try to find work but it's hard when you have children as well to get off to work and be back home for them again after three. I think with some families there are some volatile relationships which can be stressful for the whole family."
Mitchener is working to advance the hub project, but says the school already emphasises the community approach to help families and ultimately raise achievement.
An example is its breakfast club, it is for children who have breakfast at home, and those who do not.
Every morning, students and their families are invited into the school hall, where they sit at a long table and eat together.
There's toast with spreads, hot Milos, Weet-Bix and baked beans.
Families with kids at other schools are also welcome to stop off before starting their days.
The time is used to chat with teachers, parents or for the children to catch up with each other.
"I would say the majority of those children have food at home but it's the fact they are getting the community feeling," Mitchener says.
Adriana Weepu and her son Rychis-Dawn Tipa Wilson, 6 are at the breakfast club every morning.
Weepu has been involved with the club for four-and-a-half years, and takes a turn helping out with serving. She especially likes its inclusiveness.
"It's the most amazing thing, it doesn't pinpoint certain families. It's for the whole community, not just those based at Stoke School."
She says the scheme should be introduced all over New Zealand.
"The kids love it, coming here and seeing everyone, it's really nice to see them in the morning socialising, it's full of kids talking. It helps the community and it helps the families. It doesn't make you feel belittled. Times are hard and people do struggle."
She says the initiative reflects well on the school and it's principal. "He really cares about our kids, we all one big whanau, we look after each other."
The breakfast club is supported by a range of businesses as well as national charity KidsCan.
Mitchener says KidsCan's philosophy sits well with the school.
"They have been a great support to our school and they want to support the whole community, not just what's seen to be children in poverty."
The school was given windbreakers by KidsCan, and instead of singling those out in need, the whole school received the coats.
"They [KidsCan] recognise a huge barrier for children is being identified as the child who is living in poverty."
Mitchener says the breakfast club is about building community.
"It's the community working together, it's around developing the school, and if their child is part of that, then connecting with other people who can support them along the way must be a bonus."
He wants to see more social agencies working in schools.
"There's some families and parents who can't see how building social agencies in a school can improve academic achievements. It's not one at the expense of the other. I think there is a misconception that if you are a social agency school you are putting health ahead of academic achievements."
He says they go hand-in-hand - with the support of health and social agencies, academic levels would be raised for all children.
"If everyone in that environment is happy and engaged and learning then the whole class is going to be buzzing."
BY THE NUMBERS
Percentage without qualifications (15 and over)
Tahunanui 27 per cent
Tahuna Hills 14 per cent
Enner Glynn 19 per cent
Isel Park 31 per cent
Bronte 10 per cent
Toi Toi 29 per cent
Clifton 16 per cent
Source: 2013 Census -
- The Nelson Mail
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