'We are well on our way'
Oceanview Heights School has had its issues throughout the years and is one of the lowest-decile schools in South Canterbury, but significant changes are taking place.
Education reporter Rosa Studholme reports.
There's an air of optimism breezing through the corridors of Oceanview Heights School.
A "fluctuating roll", as identified by the Education Review Office (ERO) in 2008, is growing steadily, reaching 89 this term. ERO is back to triennial visits, after carrying out supplementary reviews, and the whanau feeling of the school is warming.
When a hangi was held recently at the school, 300 people showed up, highlighting the family atmosphere.
Children take principal Jenny Langley's hand and spontaneously cuddle her. It seems the school has reached a period of stability.
But Langley, who came to the school two years ago with an impressive CV and 30 years in the education sector, refuses to take recognition.
"I'm just doing my job.
"A lot of what happens here started before my time. It just happens that there were things that I could see that we could add to and grow.
"I'm just doing my job."
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A proud Timaruvian, Langley's career has taken her around the country, from Te Anau to Wellington.
She first entered the education sector teaching in and around South Canterbury and Dunedin.
After a period of parental leave, she took a role as a lecturer at the then Dunedin Teachers' College.
Her next move was to ERO in Wellington, where she remained for three years, before taking a role as literacy adviser with the Wellington College of Education.
Deciding to return to the classroom - "I always had a hankering to run a school" - she was appointed deputy principal and then principal of Pukeatua Primary School, a decile-2 primary school in Wainuiomata.
"Then we moved home," she says of her family's return to Timaru.
"This [Oceanview Heights] is a great wee school. I love it."
She says she is building on the work of past principals.
"And I reach out to the community, and they respond.
"There's still a long way to go yet and many challenges ahead, but that's also the joy of the job."
She arrived at the school when it was facing major challenges.
In 2009, ERO reported the school had four principals in four years. There were "significant" staff changes in 2007 and 2008, which had affected governance, management and developments in teaching and learning. There was little support for teachers managing students with extreme behaviours, analysis of student achievement and a process to review programmes and practices.
But by 2009, things were starting to improve.
"Students' classroom and playground behaviour had improved. Their positive behaviour and success is recognised and celebrated.
"[There are] high levels of student engagement in their learning."
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Despite her extensive career, "without doubt, teaching at low-decile schools is the most interesting and challenging jobs I've had", Langley says.
Oceanview Heights is the second decile-2 school she has led.
"I was interested in the job when it came up because it fitted the background that I've had."
She says low-decile schools "without doubt" share challenges, and Oceanview Heights is no different.
She is quick to point out that not all the school's families are low income, but many are.
"It's fair to say that some of our children come into our school with needs related to their ‘readiness to learn'."
She describes readiness to learn as the range of experiences children have had in their preschool years.
"It's actually quite difficult for some families to afford the experiences that you would think most Kiwi children get."
She has discovered a supportive wider community in Timaru.
An example is Gay Bartlett and her team, who cook a hot lunch for the students every Wednesday. The programme is supported by the community.
The Mountainview Village Crafties knit beanies and scarves and warm slippers for the students.
The school is supported by 12 separate agencies, as well as several different areas of the community, "from service clubs to individuals to commercial organisations".
The parent community is also "tremendously supportive".
There are about 50 families in the school community who Langley says "go out of their way" to support the school.
"The school is the face of the community. It's where the parents come and get together and the full support of the community, and to me that's very, very important."
The funding decile-1 and 2 schools received was not always sufficient for the programmes needed, she says.
"It's at that point that we have to reach out to the community and seek their assistance."
She points to the school vegetable garden, made possible by donations, as an example. Another donation allowed the school to buy a slow cooker to make soups with the vegetables in winter.
"The school vegetable garden is a very important part of school life. It's just an example of how the community supports the school.
"People are very generous and we have various volunteers that come and help us out with reading for children and helping us out with our Wednesday hot lunch.
"It's a very positive thing for the community."
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Langley firmly believes that for students to succeed, the school curriculum needs to fit the individual situation.
"For example, every Friday afternoon, a group of eight boys and a teacher and a parent or two leave the school at 1pm and spend the afternoon biking. They bike all over the place.
"The New Zealand curriculum allows and encourages schools to design programmes that meet the immediate needs of the children.
"We look for vitality in the curriculum and use the local resources to provide that."
Taking advantage of programmes available to the school is also important.
"We have been lucky to be part of what's called an accelerated learning programme, funded by the Ministry of Education, which over the last two years has allowed us to do some intensive reading instruction with children who are at risk of failing."
There are several schools in the area that have been part of the same programme, she says. It involves 15 weeks of intensive instruction with an expert teacher before the child returns to the classroom.
"These children make significant gains and, more importantly, they maintain them when they get back into the [general] programme.
"Some of our children are not quite ready for school learning. By the time we get through to year 3 or year 4, they're starting to make progress and, by the time they leave here, we think their progress is good. They're ready for high school . . . most of them."
The school also uses the Duffy Books in Homes scheme.
The progress is being seen not only in literacy, but right across the curriculum areas, she says.
"We're no different from many, many schools. Many schools are very successful taking these children through to success, just as we are."
Langley says programmes are the lifeline of the school.
"Without the programmes, it's very difficult to create and run a whanau-based school."
Langley is supportive of the Government's "intensive wrap-around service" for children with "highly complex" behavioural, social or education needs.
Children are recommended to the service by special education staff. A facilitator develops an individualised plan which includes input from people directly associated with the child.
"I see it in a positive light.
"Children across the city will benefit from it if it works in the way it's intended to, with multiple agencies co-operating and communicating."
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Improvements and efforts in learning at the school have not gone unnoticed by ERO.
The report in February this year said: "Oceanview Heights School is focused on raising the achievement of students, particularly those who are not yet achieving national standards.
"A report to the board [of trustees] in November shows that most students have made considerable progress in basic literacy skills."
The office will now visit every three years.
"I'm blessed with a wonderful staff and a hardworking staff," Langley says.
"Because we are a small school, it's relatively easy for us to work together for the same end.
"I don't believe that big is necessarily better, particularly for low decile schools. It's about the ability to genuinely create a whanau-based school.
"We try to make this by being like a family. We are just one big family.
"I know it sounds trite, but people who come to visit the school comment on the positive family feel that it has."
Speaking of the recent hangi, a broad smile appears.
"We had a wonderful hangi. It absolutely epitomised everything we've been talking about.
"We had 300 people in the hall eating a hangi that one of the parents put down.
"Everyone together in the hall for that was a wonderful experience."
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While the school focuses on its academic programme, it takes its commitment to students a step further.
About 20 attend a homework centre every afternoon from Monday to Thursday.
"It provides children with a space that's supervised to complete their homework and to have a settled time after school."
Breakfast club each morning is made possible through generous donations from sponsors, and is part of the ‘readiness to learn' plan.
"Often children will come in for a milo and a chat.
"It's a very social occasion and allows children to get ready for the classroom."
Along with Wednesday lunches, the school has also taken advantage of the Fruit in Schools programme provided by the Ministry of Health, and has snacks available from the KidsCan charity.
Some might question the blurring line between the school and home responsibilities, and Langley admits finding the balance is "very difficult to achieve".
"But I take each case on an individual basis and I always look at the child's needs first.
"[School is] somewhere they can be children, where they can have no other worries, where our children can be children to the very best of their abilities.
"People do care and want to help. It's just a matter of finding a balance between the core role of the school and the core role of the community.
"I think that the community support here in Timaru is very much alive and healthy."
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When it comes to raising money for the school, Langley says there is "no shame at all".
"At the moment we are running a raffle, with grocery vouchers donated by a local supermarket.
"We have to fundraise outside our immediate community to support the programmes that we need to run. That's an ongoing challenge.
"It's a constant balancing act in terms of what you can afford and what you can't."
Increasing costs of transport and bus hire is "problematic".
"We have to think carefully about what our programmes will look like."
Funding teacher aids is an "ongoing battle", she says, although the Ministry of Education provides some funding.
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Langley is quietly pleased with how the school is progressing. "We are well on our way and we judge that by the comments we get from visitors and by how the school feels towards us, and the children's comments."
The roll is quietly growing. "For us a small increase is important. We welcome any little increase.
"We are all part of one and the same community. The kids here are great. They're happy and vibrant, and we love them."
- The Timaru Herald