21 Jun 2016

'Rats to riches' for school that had 7 pupils

7:44 am on 21 June 2016

A small Northland school that was facing closure is now so popular it has had to cap its roll after adopting the International Baccalaureate programme for primary children.

Pupils peeling vegetables for the Matariki hangi.

Pupils peeling vegetables for the Matariki hangi. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Te Tii School, now named Bay of Islands International Academy, is one of four state primary schools accredited to teach the Swiss programme and its roll has risen from seven to 103 in three years.

Principal Sean McDermott said Kerikeri parents now bus their children to Te Tii - instead of the other way around - and by last year there was a waiting list.

"We had a few students move out of the area at the end of term one, so we open up availability to those on the waiting list, those that are still interested are eligible to come. We inform the community that there are spaces available and those that are interested are able to join us."

Mr McDermott said the Baccalaureate's education system for younger children put a strong emphasis on inquiry, values, and pastoral care.

Te Tii Board chair Donald Chandler (left) and principal Sean McDermott.

Te Tii Board chair Donald Chandler (left) and principal Sean McDermott. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

He said the school hoped to extend the programme so students could stay on for their secondary years.

Former New Yorker Donald Chandler moved to Kerikeri after selling his software company 11 years ago. He was encouraged by a local woman who cleaned for the family to join the school board and was instrumental in driving the changes there.

"I sometimes tongue-in-cheek say this is sort of a rats to riches story - because there were literally rats running around the school and really what it needed was a good tidy up, outside and in," he said.

"We announced a very, very bold programme and strategy which was essentially going to leapfrog the idea of improving incrementally and just say we're going right to the top in short order.

"So we chose the international baccalaureate programme, which is kind of a gold standard internationally I would say, and said that's what we're going to do."

"And many people kind of looked at me like I was crazy, but that's okay."

He said making the changes needed money the school did not have - but he convinced overseas friends to give money to the school as part of their benefit to New Zealand that would allow them to purchase property here.

Billy Wynyard and Toha Kemp.

Billy Wynyard and Toha Kemp. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Two pupils, Toha Kemp and Billy Wynyard, have been at Te Tii all through their primary years and they say they'll be sad to leave and the best thing about the school is the people.

They said that the school is now a lot better, with new classrooms and devices like Ipads.

The changing roll at Te Tii has moved it from Decile 1 to Decile 3 and cost it some funding. But its leaders are undismayed: their dream now is to develop a secondary programme - and attract international students.

Te Tii received its full accreditation to teach the Baccalaureate Primary Years programme late last year.