Principal Chris Williams can’t stop raving about Kootuitui ki Papakura one year on from the initiatve being launched and says he’s witnessed changes in his school that the doubters said would not be possible.
The Middlemore Foundation for Health Innovation launched the three-year pilot programme to improve the health and education levels of 1,700 students at schools in Papakura with Westpac backing the initiative as the foundation partner.
The pilot's goals are to reduce truancy rates, improve NCEA pass rates and detect and prevent illnesses for better overall child health. It does this through digital devices in classrooms, nursing clinics in schools and home outreach.The programme is being independently evaluated by Victoria University and currently involves six schools and 1,700 students in Papakura, one of New Zealand’s poorer communities.
Chris Williams has worked at Papakura’s Park Estate School for the past five-and-a-half years and says the health part of the programme has delivered extraordinary things for the decile 1 school.
“We are helping more children and it is a very simple equation. They are healthier, therefore they are at school more often, and they are learning more.”
He says the part nurses play can’t be overstated.
“They don’t sit in an office, they are engaged in the community. They are out there earning people’s trust, following up to make sure medication is taken, and they are empowering people to take responsibility.”
He recalls arriving at the school in his first year and seeing a young pupil with weeping school sores, volunteering to take the child home, only to find the carer had no idea the medicine had to be taken until it was finished.
“What I saw stuck with me. Good people, but that house was not fit for human habitation.
“It was shocking but today our nurses would be working with the whanau because they have already broken down barriers. The community know these are not people who are going to do something to them, they are going to do something for them.”
He is fiercely proud of his school and the revolution that has begun. When he arrived achievement rates were about 34, 38 and 48 per cent for reading, maths and writing.
“And even then we knew it was nonsense because it would be very unusual to have that many kids achieving in writing, when so few could read.”
This year the rates have rocketed, something he puts down to Kootuitui ki Papakura and its education strand.
“We are at and above the national standard for reading at about 70%, our highest ever, and at 61 percent for writing, and 79 percent for maths. That’s pretty impressive stuff in a decile 1 school.”
He calls it a success story, and one he acknowledges would not have happened without the support of many people, but particularly sponsors.
“The kids were struggling, now they are fed, they are healthier, they are more engaged at school, and that’s mainly down to wonderful work within the school community - not just teachers, but whanau too – and especially those people who made a choice, who said ’I believe these kids need the same opportunities others have’.”
Chris says it's a joy to see the children engaged in computer learning, his students benefiting enormously from one on one attention and immersion in the digital landscape. “These are kids, they sponge anything up.
This has only been the first year, and we have had our teething troubles sure, but the children are engaged, on task and more independent than ever. You can see the difference, and I am totally optimistic we are going to see results get even better.”
That optimism is part of the reason Chris has accepted a new challenge at Kingsford Primary in Mangere this year.
“Teaching, despite what a lot of people think, is incredibly hard. When you teach young people who have all the advantages it’s rewarding, but when you witness decile 1 kids achieve, and realise their potential is unlimited, that’s phenomenal.”
But there remains a degree of frustration.
“When you see organisations like the Middlemore Foundation having to get out there and get the money you do find yourself asking why. Kootuitui is a collection of many, many good people who can see the problem in front of them, and who have said, ‘that’s not right, and I’m going to do something about it’.”
He has high hopes, but a healthy dose of realism about the housing strand of the programme.
“Rents are ridiculous, new homes are popping up everywhere, some of them supposedly affordable at prices I know I couldn’t afford, while minutes walk from the school’s front gates are homes in terrible states.
“Nothing is more certain than that if we keep doing the same things over and over again, we are going to get the same results. We are seeing wonderful things happen in health, and things that many said were impossible for these children in education.
“So why would we not keep trying to make a difference in their home lives too? This is about opportunity, more than that, it’s about believing in these children, and what I have seen at Park Estate, in just a few years, and only one under Kootuitui, shows if you do believe in them, and you show them that you do, they won’t let you down.”