Indica Tohu-Locke has big dreams, as most 12-year-olds do. She'd like to dance in flash mobs around the world, but retaining her reo and playing her part in revitalising the Maori language in Taranaki are also high on her pre- teen to-do list.
Now she will be able to chase her dreams with support and encouragement from Te Pihipihinga Kakano Mai I Rangiatea school community in New Plymouth, which has fought for the past three years to establish the region's first composite wharekura (secondary school).
Indica will be joined by three other 12-year-olds, Raukura Ranginiwa, Karere Brown and Te Waiora Wanoa-Sundgren in the inaugural year 8 class from term one next year.
Until now, pupils at Te Pihipihinga, which is next to Spotswood College, finished their primary learning and left with heavy hearts to either continue studying in te reo Maori out of the province, or to attend mainstream schools in Taranaki.
Being able to stay has relieved the anxiety felt by the four pupils and their whanau.
Indica feared being bullied at a bigger school, Karere says he didn't want to miss out on school trips and kapa haka, and they all say they wanted to stay with their families and support the teina (juniors), which only highlights the sense of community at the small school.
There was also the issue of studying in English, which the students speak but are not accustomed to learning in.
"If I go to an English school I'd probably lose my reo, and I'd have to come back to learn it," Indica says.
In the bigger picture, the school community believes it's crucial to bring children through the kura who can go onto leadership roles in iwi and on marae, particularly in Taranaki where a history of land confiscations and the displacement of Maori communities has had a devastating effect on the prominence of te reo Maori.
The school previously offered secondary education between 2000 and 2008, in a system described as "kura teina", which meant it sought help and resources from another wharekura out of the region. But the travelling took its toll on students and teachers, enthusiasm for the project faded and in 2008 it came to an end, when the school had zero pupils enrolled for year eight.
"It was a very difficult decision to make, very emotional," says current principal Min O'Carroll, who was also in charge at the time.
O'Carroll has been at the kura kaupapa for seven years. She says it has been a dream of hers since the start to establish the wharekura as an independent institution, but her initial inexperience as a principal meant it was difficult to get the go ahead.
Now, after years of preparation, funding requests for IT upgrading and E-Learning facilities, and support from the community, Education Minister Hekia Parata has given her approval.
"It was a big day for us. The application has been in since April so to wait and wait and wait and not know anything . . . We knew it was going to the minister on the Monday (December 2), we knew she was going to view it on the Monday morning, so to get the email on Tuesday morning was just 'wow'," says Keri Wanoa, parent and member of the board of trustees.
The plan now is to introduce an additional year level every year, and although four students is a small starting point, Wanoa says it could also be an advantage.
"They end up with more personalised plans. We've already had discussions with the kids about what it is they would like to focus on, and they're all really different areas. With four it makes it easier to cater to that."
The four students' dreams vary from going off to university to studying law or sports science, to pursuing a career in music.
O'Carroll says the curriculum will comply with the Ministry of Education's requirements but will also be based on "what the whanau wants for their tamariki", which will include ngatoi (arts) and oral history as part of social studies lessons.
The kura has advertised for a teacher who will be the students' main point-of-call, but it will also get teachers in to cover specialised subjects.
The school believes it will be able to continue to teach students life lessons they were not likely to get at mainstream institutions.
"It's really hard to articulate . . . it's a Maori world view," Wanoa says.
"Mainstream tends to focus on the cognitive skills and they don't necessarily look at the whole person and the non-cognitive skills that are just so important to have a successful child. The kura kaupapa does that through Te Aho Matua principles."
The effect of the principles - which are legislated and include learning based on Maori cultural and spiritual values and beliefs - can be backed up by NCEA statistics.
"Statistically Maori medium wharekura students are doing significantly better than Maori in mainstream. In addition, Maori medium success rates are comparable, if not better, to all students in high decile mainstream schools," Renee Wright, from Te Runanga Nui (the national council) o nga Kura Kaupapa Maori o Aotearoa, says.
The school has gone from strength to strength over the past year or so. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in November 2012 with a weekend of festivities, and the kapa haka group travelled to Tauranga last month to compete in a national competition - which O'Carroll says brought the students closer together.
However, one of their biggest successes has been receiving an outstanding report from the Education Review Office, which the community is very humble about.
"They are committed to the revitalisation and sustainability of the language and tikanga of Taranaki and see the kura's role in this," review officer Makere Smith says.
"Their vision is to replenish the paepae (speaker's seats) of Taranaki marae with high quality speakers of te reo o Taranaki, steeped in the knowledge, history and customs of their tipuna (ancestors). Whnau have high expectations and aspire for excellence for their children."
Next year the school will face a new set of challenges, which O'Carroll and the community will take head on.
These include developing new buildings, securing supplementary funding, and linking with other schools to help create sports opportunities for its four student trailblazers.
The school projects the secondary roll to grow to 22 by 2016, and could soon be taking on students from other kura kaupapa in the region.
"A whole new realm of work begins for us now, to secure a teacher and develop an innovative curriculum for these first four rangatahi - and the many who will follow," O'Carroll says.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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