A sea change at Waitara on her watch

TARYN UTIGER
Last updated 23:08 26/12/2013
Jenny Gellen
ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ
MOVING ON: Waitara High School has gone through a dramatic transformation during principal Jenny Gellen’s time at the school.

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Jenny Gellen is no longer told that Waitara High School "breeds criminals".

It's been seven years since she began striding down the corridor as the school's first principal in heels.

And while her designer shoes and hot pink Trelise Cooper blazer may seem out of place in a decile two school, it only takes a moment to realise her pride in her appearance has influenced her environment.

Students now wear the uniform with confidence. Their shirts are clean and crisp and they are smiling in a once brutal playground.

It seems as though this confident leader has turned the school around almost through osmosis.

But those in the know don't hold her on a pedestal simply because of some good clothing and matching lipstick - she's earned their respect.

When the PE and social studies teacher became head of the 350-student school it was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

A dark cloud hung over Waitara High and people openly told her the school was a rite of passage for wannabe criminals. "I don't hear that anymore," she says. "I hear people saying the school has changed, for the better."

And it has. The results speak for themselves.

When she took over the reins only 23 per cent of students were leaving with a qualification.

Now, in her last full year as principal, around 75 per cent of students will leave with NCEA level two.

"I was aiming for 80 per cent, so there's still work to be done, but that's good; the new principal will have something to strive for," she said.

The town's senior sargeant, Matt Prendergast, said the fearless leader had given the students more than good grades.

All high schools have problems from time to time but Mrs Gellen had definitely helped the school to turn a corner, he believed.

"She's steered a good ship up there and she will be missed. She's done well for the school," he said.

When she leaves at the end of term one next year she will be departing on a high note, but one reached after many years of hard work.

By 2006 the culture of pessimism and negativity was ingrained in the school and nobody was proud to say they came from Waitara High.

"There was a lot of defensiveness. People waited for something to go wrong and then reacted. We had so many positive things coming out of this school but people didn't know about them.

"I had to start the change within first and get the kids to believe in themselves and the staff to believe in themselves."

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She'd have you believe she ruled with an iron fist in those early days; putting non regulation uniform items in rubbish bags and rounding up students who were missing detention.

However, underneath the striking eyeshadow is a woman who cares perhaps more than she's prepared to let on.

When quizzed for the best thing about her role she talks passionately about breaking the cycle of non-achievement. But when she's asked about the hardest part, she purses her lips.

The sometimes stern face of a woman who has spent years turning a school around looks down for a moment, breaking eye contact for the first time in the interview.

There's silence while she slowly fidgets with her hot pink fingernails.

When she raises her head she's uncomfortable, but clearly she's softened.

She tries to talk about the staff and the students of Waitara High who have died in her time as principal.

Tears pool in her eyes.

"You get so close to people and then they're gone. Death, that's been the hardest. Saying goodbye when you don't want to."

Quickly she moves the interview to the next question, saying she's not usually emotional.

"And my desk isn't normally this messy either."

Her throwaway quip frames the rest of the interview, revealing why there was laughter in the school office when we arrived.

She knows it will be hard to say goodbye to that office and to the staff in it, but she won't be farewelling Taranaki.

Although she was born in Blenheim, and raised in Christchurch and Nelson, she and her family are now at home under the mountain.

She has no plans for a future job yet but will continue as the newly appointed chairperson of Sport Taranaki, a trustee of Big Brothers Big Sisters and a trustee of the TSB Community Trust.

"I was raised to give your time and skills to the community for the betterment of others.

"The reward for that is when you see the change happen," she said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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