A different school of thought

Emma Hunter with students at Bronte House.
Braden Fastier/Stuff

Emma Hunter with students at Bronte House.

At risk teens are having their lives turned round from an unremarkable weatherboard villa in Nelson. Stu Hunt talks to teacher Emma Hunter who is using her vision to make a real difference.

When Emma Hunter started at Nelson College for Girls the school's deans grabbed her and asked for her help.

She says there were kids they did not know what to do with as they were not at school.

Hunter had just joined the staff as a special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco) but she had a research background in school attendance.

She says the first hurdle was finding those kids.

"When they were here I grabbed them when I could and had a quick conversation. It was just about building relationships and trust," Hunter says.

"Eventually they started seeing me as not that person that was going to have them up for not being at school but rather someone they could have a yarn with."

Safety, self-esteem and belonging are three core pillars of Bronte House.
Braden Fastier/Stuff

Safety, self-esteem and belonging are three core pillars of Bronte House.

From there she was able to start unpacking some of the reasons they weren't coming to school.

"I identified reasons such as they were hungry, they didn't have the right uniform and if you don't have the right uniform when you walk through the school gate you stand out straight away.

"Some teachers would confront them straight away and they would turn around and walk straight back out the gate."

She said once she was able to do little things like make sure they had the right uniform and give them a bit of food it made all the difference.

Hunter had taken on the Nelson College for Girls role after a year finishing her masters degree in educational leadership.

Her research was around school attendance and she originally planned to continue with that on returning to her Senco role at intermediate.

But when a Senco position came up at the college she jumped at it.

Emma Hunter works with Micaela Smith.
Braden Fastier/Stuff

Emma Hunter works with Micaela Smith.

"It matched with my research but it was hugely at the coalface, it was the real deal it wasn't from theory, it wasn't from a book."

She said she soon realised there were a lot of kids who needed a huge amount of support and who weren't attending school.

So she started by getting whanau to sit round the table.

Some of the parents hadn't been to school for years and were terrified of school, she said they would come in and be shaking.

The journey began from there and she took on two young Maori girls in year 10.

Hunter then involved outside agencies and had full learning assessments done on the kids.

"Because they hadn't been at school there were massive cognitive gaps and the more school they missed the more they would get behind all with the background of trauma, neglect and abuse that hadn't been identified."

Building relationships between staff and the students has been key to the success of Bronte House.
Braden Fastier/Stuff

Building relationships between staff and the students has been key to the success of Bronte House.

Similarly things like dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism weren't being picked up but even with a late diagnoses Hunter says they were able to start dealing with that.

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But Hunter found more and more kids kept coming to her and she needed to do something.

So she come up with a plan.

She knew there was a house on school grounds that wasn't being used so she put a proposal to the board with her vision and goals underpinning all of the school's goals.

And the board accepted it.

The one hurdle was that the house was in trust and had a very specific purpose around integrated learning.

But the owner came over from Australia and Hunter was able to pitch the idea to her.

"She welled up and hugged me and said 'this is all I ever wanted for the house.'

"She is now an amazing advocate for us." 

Hunter's vision word for word was "to develop an inclusive community centred futures focused and culturally responsive learning centre where young women can develop lifelong social, practical and academic skills in our ever changing world".

Boiled down she says that meant going right back to basics, just getting kids to school, eating healthy, improving hygiene.

The approach is based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs - safety, self-esteem and belonging.

"In the mainstream area of the school teachers expect the girls to be at the top of that pyramid and be able to learn and have all those foundations in place.

"But you can't learn without all of the foundations in place. We recognise all that so we unpack for the girls where they're at and what's happening each day.

"It's not about creating brain surgeons, it's about creating young people who can be positive participating citizens who can contribute in our society and I think that's really key.

"These young women are going to be our future workers and our future mothers, we need to provide a platform that supports sustainable pathways for them."

Hunter says one of the main ​goals is to retain the students in mainstream education in alternative setting in school grounds with sense of belonging. 

"We don't want them on the streets offending, we want them in school with the opportunity to carry on with their mainstream education.

"Another added value of the model that Bronte House presents is that we provide mainstream senior classes and also support a number of girls a diverse range of health, social and learning needs from across the whole school.

"This means our at-risk girls are not isolated from the rest of the school, and it creates valuable opportunities for our senior students to act as mentors and role models for the girls at Bronte House," she says.

"We want to empower our girls with the strategies to re-engage with mainstream education, this can only be achieved through providing this critical link with the main school".

It wasn't easy and because the students haven't trusted adults for such a long time they put Hunter and her staff to the test.

"But eventually once trust is built the learning starts happening and the engagement back in some mainstream classes will start happening."

She says a couple of students' attendance has gone from 20 per cent to 80 per cent. They've gone from no uniform to uniform every day.

"It doesn't seem like much because that's just something that people should do but for these young people it's significant.

"From coming in and the first thing that falls out of their mouths is 10 swear words to coming in and saying; 'Good morning Miss, how was your night/weekend?

"Or leaving saying; 'Have a good weekend. They used to just leave the school and do the fingers."

"Those are the tangible things."

Nelson Police's head of youth services Sergeant Charlie Parfitt says that Hunter and the students from Bronte House have developed a positive relationship with police which has been beneficial to them and the students.

He says that despite a steady reduction in youth offending nationally over recent years there continues to be a slow increase in anti-social behaviour and serious offending by some young females. 

"The research is clear that young people who fall out of the education system are far more likely to be anti-social or offend. Almost without exception the young people who frequently come to police attention have underlying problems that influence their negative behaviour.

"Bronte House provides a very supportive and positive environment for many of these young people that is focused on keeping them in the education system."  

Parfitt says there are no simple solutions to youth offending and it takes a wide ranges of services to support young people who are at risk. 

"We are very fortunate in Nelson to have people like Emma Hunter and her team at Bronte House who provide wrap-around support that aligns closely with the NZ Police focus on crime prevention".

Hunter says she's excited about the change in attitude in the community with the reliance they have on community level responding in order to support and help their students.

She says the support they get from the likes of Ministry of Education, Resource teachers: Learning and Behaviour, the police, Oranga Tamariki, the DHB, volunteers and sponsors is amazing.

But family support takes time.

Hunter says with year nines they're starting to engage, year 10 is daily contact and by year 11 "its just a natural thing". 

For her the biggest thing is belonging.

"They've never belonged anywhere before and if the parents feel they belong and they can support the students on their learning pathway.

"It's not a full academic pathway but education looks like many things even basic life skills. Like filling in a form."

Hunter says she has heard of other alternative education models but nothing like this that provides uniform and food for the students.

"New Zealand has a growing class division, and we need to respond to that from educational perspective and support our young people to help break the cycle.

"But the more we scratch below the surface the more we recognise there is a need. 

For the future Hunter says if The Bronte House concept was done properly and taken seriously on a government level then it could make a tangible difference for the future of NZ.

The next step now is breathing, taking step back getting the model and resourcing right.

"It's important that we are not just a dumping ground. It can't be if teachers are having a hard time they just send kids my way.

"It needs a referral system, clearly identified needs, with the most skilled teachers, the most skilled teacher aides. These are our most vulnerable learners and they deserve the best.

"Because it's new we're all going wow this is working but how do we make it sustainable? Sustainability is key."

She says it's not the Emma Hunter show, it's a team effort created with support from many people.

Hunter wants to drive the model but her real vision is building capacity among teachers, social workers, educators and community groups so it can be spread throughout the country.

And reach down to primary school level.

"I'm a firm believer in early intervention. Sometimes it's too late, you can't save everyone but if sometimes if schools had intervened earlier then the wheels possibly wouldn't have fallen off as badly as they can do by the time a student gets to secondary school."





 - Stuff


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