18 May 2015

Total Immersion - A tiny rural school goes global

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 18 May 2015

Lining up for kai

We have big dreams and huge aspirations for our children. Our children will always rise, in spite of their circumstances. Why can't we become the new navigators and leaders of the world?

– Principal Pembroke (Peraniko) Bird, Te Kura Motuhake o Tawhiuau, Murupara.

Drive down the main street of Murupara and you know you're in rural Aotearoa. As horses graze on the front lawns of the houses down the street to the school, it feels like I've gone back in time. A nostalgic time when neighbours rallied together for the common good of the community and a time when children probably had to ride those horses to school. 

Murupara township is around 45 minutes drive  (55 km) east of Rotorua, situated in an isolated part of the Bay of Plenty region between the Kaingaroa Forest and Te Urewera National Park. It's described as "the beautiful gateway to the Te Urewera Rainforest."

The 100% Pure New Zealand website describes Murupara like this:

Before it was a timber town, Murupara was a staging post on the road between Rotorua and Napier. In the early 1900s, planting of the huge Kaingaroa Forest began. At 2,900 square kilometres, Kaingaroa is the largest plantation forest in the southern hemisphere. Murupara has a predominately Maori population. With four marae in the area, it’s a good place to learn about the Maori way of life.

About a dozen of us are gathered outside the entrance to Te Kura Motuhake o Tawhiuau waiting to be welcomed by powhiri into this tiny rural school with a roll call of 150 students. I'm being introduced to the group of Mandarin Language Assistants hailing from regions across China by Xiaoqing Yang, Deputy Director, Confucius Institute, Victoria University.

Among our group of visitors is Akiko Harada, Japanese National Adviser from the International Languages Exchanges and Pathways (ILEP).

Whaea Hine Anderson is in charge of leading our visiting group. The karanga is performed and reciprocated and before we know it we're inside the school hall, facing all the students as they perform a rousing haka. The students range in age from tiny five year old new entrants to tall senior Year 13 teenagers. Embraced by their whanau and community, it's their special day, their time to shine.

Students perform a haka

Principal Pembroke Peraniko Bird cuts an impressive figure in his suit and fedora as he orates the whaikorero relating to Ngāti Manawa, the local iwi (tribe), kin to Ngāti Whare and Ngāi Tū.

Our visiting group respond with the classic Chinese folk song Mo Li Hua (the Jasmin Flower) and then the school perform kapa haka, followed by more waiata and then popular Mandarin and Japanese action songs, taught to the students by resident teachers of Asian languages, Midori Tanaka (Japanese teacher) and Kweiyi Dannenbring (Chinese teacher).

The students have been practicing hard and perform beautifully in their mother tongue as well as in Mandarin and Japanese.

We're a small school with big dreams.

Te Kura Kaupapa Motuhake O Tawhiuau  is hosting its official Cultural Day. Murupara's socio-economic area designation might be decile one but that's made the school even more determined to have great aspirations for their students, in this case it’s to become multilingual global citizens and leaders.

What sets this tiny school apart from others across our country is the fact that te reo Maori, Mandarin, Japanese as well as English are mandatory within their school curriculum. The four languages are being taught throughout, from new entrant right up to seniors, in preparation for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) - Level 3 and they're pioneering this approach to being multilingual. Principal Pem Bird explains:

It might have been categorised as decile one area in terms of socio-economic realities but we're decile 10 with our aspirations.

"The decile rating means nothing to us. We're about breaking cycles here. There's no reason to be caught up in that other cycle of low aspirations and [cultural] insularity. We're about taking our whanau with us."

You could describe Principal Pem Bird as visionary. He holds great hopes for his students, all of them. "Our tamariki are precious to us, they are our future. So long as we strive towards a solution "for us."The thing about this school is that we're all connected by whakapapa, by geneology, right."

So you're equiping your children with tools for life?

"If you have high expectations, the children will follow."

Principal Bird says the challenges the school faces is to make sure the parents hopes and dreams for their children are not dashed. "The town of Murupara has a catchment of around 1700 people," he tells me, "It's an area that has low economic income, mainly from farming and seasonal work connected with forestry and agriculture."

We talk about the fact that around five years ago Murupara faced two teenage fatalities, tragedies of gang warfare.  Like any place in the country that has had issues with gangs, the community are impacted. But Murupara's tight-knit community of around 1700 felt the impact deeply.

That's why the community leaders and parents have worked together, to foster self-confidence and self-belief in their youth, to re-establish pride in their community and pride in being Maori.

And it takes some visionary efforts to lead the way for their youth. Principal Bird tells me that achieving through education is the key. He believes in starting this multilingual and mutlicultural education with their youngest, the next generation.

"Children from disadvantaged communities can achieve as well as the best schools around New Zealand. It gives lie to that statement "If you're poor and you're Maori you can't achieve" - the status quo will never doing anything for my people. Why can't we create new models [in education] that best reflect our culture and people?"

Principal Bird tells me that the whole point in making Mandarin and Japanese part of their curriculum - starting with mandatory lessons from new entrant to senior levels - is to provide their children with the ability to confidently seek opportunities in all fields of employment and in the tourism industry within countries around Asia.

By 2016 our children will be achieving NCEA level 3 as well as the best standards of children from affluent communities.

Is Murupara community undervalued and underestimated?

"Perhaps people don't realise the value that children bring as Maori. This is what our curriculum is, encouraging our children to be global citizens, you support that and you're fine."

The school staff have carefully prepared their cultural day programme. Traditional Chinese and Japanese games and activities happen in groups around the school grounds; Ikebana flower arranging, Jianzi - a game that looks like Chinese hacky-sack and much more.

Inside the classrooms Mandarin and Japanese lessons are taking place, show-casing the students abilities.

"These children are like sponges." the resident Chinese teacher Kweiyi Dannenbring tells me, "They pick up Mandarin so fast and along with it, Chinese culture." Kweiyi has taught at for almost two years. She feels her tuition is valued and supported by the Principal and all the school staff in really meaningful ways.

Midori Tanaka (the Japanese teacher) has taught at this school for five years. She has seen this school grow exponentially in cultural terms. 

Both Midori and Kweiyi love teaching at this school because of it's intimate size; the teacher to student ratio is one to 15 and it means quality time, compared to their experience teaching classrooms of 40 or more students back in Japan or China.

For serial?! We've nearly made 1200 dumplings?

Team effortOne of the senior students helping prepare in the school kitchen is amazed with how prolific the dumpling making sessions have been. The tattooed school caretaker greets me warmly with a huge gap-toothed grin. He and a dozen locals have turned up to help prepare 1200 Chinese dumplings, 1200 sushi and several huge pots of traditional Chinese chicken and black fungus soup for the guests and the students. I'm very impressed - the soup is just the way my Cantonese mother makes it (I'm sure she'd be impressed too).

We are interrupted by the karakia for lunch, everyone including the children voice this in unison and then we're all lining up for a smorgasbord of delicious homemade kai.

Principal Bird and I get in line behind pint-sized children as the teaching staff and parents help serve. We're given fresh trout sashimi, caught by the school caretaker from the local streams. It's delicious and all the kids are tucking into this homemade, homegrown and organic fare with relish.

It's hard not to feel moved at the end of the day when the poroporoake takes place. The children clamber  over each other to be photographed and then it's time for their final waiata. Principal Bird gives his farewell speech and reminds us we are welcome to come again:

Thank you for making us feel like rangatira, thank you for making us feel like chiefs.

Watch this space, never underestimate the power of community spirit. Murupara's youth may be high achievers leading delegations to China and Japan next.