Two-pupil school shuts doors after 57 years

MARTY SHARPE
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2012

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Today is an especially sombre Black Friday for a remote piece of Hawke's Bay.

The doors close for the last time on the tiny Oueroa School, east of Waipukurau, after its roll dropped to just two. It forced the community into the tough decision to pull the curtains on nearly 60 years of history and playground memories.

Principal Sharon Middleton, who lives in Waipukurau, would use the school minivan to pick up Reaynah Garrett, 5, and Jordan Eagle, 10, also from Waipukurau, and make the 20-minute drive to school each morning.

On the way they would pass carloads of parents and their "country kids" going to schools in town. It was a daily reminder of one of many reasons for the small school's voluntary closure, Mrs Middleton said.

"It's due to a whole range of things. Economics has a part, with families moving out of the area ... There aren't as many workers on the farms anymore, and those that are aren't having as many kids as they used to."

Also, road and vehicle improvements mean the drive to town was a fraction of what it was, she said.

The school started this year with a roll of nine. When it became clear some of the school's buildings were earthquake-prone and parents concluded that the Education Ministry was probably going to see the school as unviable, they started moving their children to other schools. Some went to rural schools, most went to schools in towns.

"There was also the will among parents to have their kids mix with more peers, which makes sense. The irony is that the town parents were sending their kids here because there were fewer pupils so they would get more attention. They certainly got that," Mrs Middleton said.

But with just two pupils, the three of them found they could teach and learn all they could manage within a few hours of each day. It was clear to Mrs Middleton and the board of trustees that it would be best for all if the school closed.

Reaynah and Jordan had their last day at school on May 18. The ministry closes the school today, but Mrs Middleton and a relief teacher will remain employed until the end of the third term to "tidy things up".

After that the property will go through a disposal process in which it could be offered to a previous owner or landbanked for Waitangi Treaty claims, or sold.

Mrs Middleton became principal four years ago when the roll was 14. The school started this year with nine pupils, with just one child in year eight.

The school opened in 1955. Its roll peaked in the 1960s with 32 pupils, then again in the late 1990s with 35 pupils after they started offering minibus travel from town in 1990. "The people out here are very proud of their school,"' Mrs Middletons said.

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"We're having a final barbecue on Sunday with all the old photographs. A lot of families have been through this school.

"We close on Black Friday. It's a black day for Oueroa School."

Reaynah's mother, Sonja Garrett, said her daughter had received a great education at Oueroa. She now attended another rural school at nearby Omakere.

"Oueroa was her first school. I sent her there because the roll was small and I knew she would get that important one on one," said Ms Garrett, an early-childhood educator.

Jordan said he missed the school and Mrs Middleton.

"Small schools are cool. There's not much noise and you get to learn a lot," he said.

But it was nice having more kids to play games with at Omakere School.

AND THEN THERE WERE SO FEW

There are 108 year 1-6 and year 1-8 state schools or kura kaupapa, with 20 or fewer pupils, including 35 with fewer than 10 pupils, as of June.

The smallest of these are:

Kirikau School, Taumarunui: roll 3

Te kura kaupapa o Waipiro, Gisborne: roll 3

Waipaoa Station School, Gisborne: roll 3

Jacobs River School, Westland: roll 4

Woodbank School, Kaikoura: roll 4

Waimahaka School, Invercargill: roll 4

Kakatahi School, Whanganui: roll 4

Taoroa School, Rangitikei: roll 4

Le Bons School, Banks Peninsula: roll 4

Tokirima School, Taumarunui: roll 5

Ngamatea School, Whanganui: roll 6

Aoraki Mt Cook School: roll 6

An Education Ministry spokesman said there was no minimum roll number at which closure was considered, although a very small roll might affect the viability of a school.

- The Dominion Post

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