Three years down the track how is New Zealand’s first Charter School doing?

PHOTO-South Auckland Middle School facebook page

Three years on from when the first Charter School was opened it is now much, much harder for a Charter school to get off the ground. It is not just the continued opposition to the model from the left but the funding for the model has been reduced by the government to the point where some organisations keen to open a Charter school have been withdrawing their applications once they discover the reduced funding alongside other issues.

The Government’s charter school model has been branded “an unworkable mirage” by former MP John Tamihere, after he pulled the plug on a proposed bilingual West Auckland school.

The Te Whnau O Waipareira Trust, headed by Tamihere, was on the verge of announcing a new partnership school with the Ministry of Education, with 100 children already signed up to enrol.

The trust was ready to invest $250,000 into the kura which would have opened next year in Henderson.

-NZ Herald

I visited New Zealand’s first Charter school as part of my Charter school perception series and was very impressed with it. It is a?real?pity that the model has been changed as New Zealand needs more schools like South Auckland Middle School who have proved what can be done when the model is right.

…It has been almost three years since my visit to South Auckland Middle School, New Zealand?s very first charter school which opened in February 2014. Since then, Villa Education Trust opened a second partnership school, Middle School West Auckland in February 2015.

I?m eager to hear how both schools are performing. Of course, I?ve done my homework before the call, so I know from the public Education Review Office (ERO) reports and annual reports that the schools are both ticking along nicely.

But I was surprised to hear the extent to which the schools have been embraced by their communities. The trust has already requested, and been granted, the opportunity to extend its maximum roll from 120 to 180 at South Auckland Middle School. But even that isn?t cutting it. Poole says they?ve still got 100 students on the waitlist.

Poole says Middle School West Auckland has had a comparatively more difficult start than South Auckland Middle School. The initial principal failed to disclose some disciplinary proceedings he was involved with and resigned two weeks after the school opened. Then a teacher was killed in a car accident. However, the school is now in ?outstanding shape? according to Poole, with its roll heading rapidly towards its maximum of 240 students.?Its roll?currently stands at 190 with some levels having wait-lists.

I jump on the schools? Facebook pages and the community engagement is apparent. Posts about open days, school camps and local heroes are interspersed with clips of students discussing their learning and images of their work. Each is peppered with likes and comments. There are posts about research relating to learning, about tertiary study ? encouraging parents to take a broader view of their students? education.

I ask Poole whether South Auckland Middle School?s popularity is down to parents seeking alternatives from state schools that haven?t worked for their child, or down to its burgeoning good reputation.

?I think it?s a mixture of both,? he says. ?The early adopters felt strongly that the local schools weren?t working for them. But now we have people seeking us out due to our reputation. We have fifteen kids per class ? you know, it?s appealing.?

Not everyone is a fan, however…

…I ask Poole whether the union opposition still bothers him.

?There will always be some who are genuinely ideologically opposed ? and we just have to live with that. At the end of the day we are focused on keeping our head down and doing a great job.?

He says this would be the trust?s focus regardless of whether they were operating as charter schools or not.

?We?re not advocates of the model.?

This is an interesting statement which might reveal dissatisfaction with how the model has been tinkered with and changed by the government.

…Poole views the biggest challenge facing New Zealand charter schools as the lack of available funding for setting up and expanding schools, especially when compared with state schools.

The trust received around $1.3 million to set up South Auckland Middle School ? an amount that pales in comparison to that allocated for new state schools like Rototuna Junior High School, says Poole. A year later, in the second round of partnership schools, the trust received slightly less than that amount to set up Middle School West Auckland, a school double the size of South Auckland Middle School.

Rounds three and four have seen schools allocated around $400,000 for set-up. Poole says Villa Education Trust would love to open more schools, but it won?t entertain the idea with such low set-up funding allowances.

…While Poole is pleased and proud that his schools have been able to achieve these things, I glean that he is similarly frustrated by the lack of clarity from the Ministry of Education around the ability to expand the existing schools…

The human element is what frustrates Poole the most about the brakes being put on the expansion process.

?We have parents desperate to enrol their child, and we have to tell them, ?Sorry, you?re number 22 on the list?,? he says.

However, the Government has indicated there is unlikely to be any additional funding to the annual per-student amount the schools currently received.

The way Villa Education Trust operates its schools demonstrates that there certainly does appear to be sufficient funding to allow the schools to run effectively. Its ability to pay teachers more ? ?about five per cent above state schools? ? and keep class sizes as low as 15 students per class and afford school camps to Northland and Wellington are all indicative of sufficient operational funding. This is what frustrates the unions and is perhaps why there is a reluctance to increase capital funding for set-up and expansion.

ACT party leader and charter school advocate David Seymour told Radio New Zealand in August that it was up to each of the schools to decide how to use their funding in the best interests of their students. He said it was entirely appropriate for the schools to make savings on property so they could spend more on other education expenses.

The better teacher salaries appear to be attracting good teachers, however Poole believes the schools? conditions and approach to learning are what really appeals to staff ? the low student: teacher ratios and the project-based integrated curriculum approach.

?We have good working conditions, but hard working conditions too,? he says. ?We don?t have teacher-only days, there is no down time. We work right up to the last minute of term.?

Teachers have had their eyes opened to the many and varied backgrounds of their students. Poole says they relish the opportunity to broaden their students? horizons. A recent camp to Northland revealed that of 30 children, 22 had never crossed the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Of the 40 students to attend a trip to Hawaii, many had never been on an aeroplane.

?We?re producing some great kids,? says Poole. ?Our year 10 students are outstanding.?

He is eager to ensure their students have a smooth transition to high school…

He feels they?re making good progress in this area. The local high schools have been impressed with the calibre of their year 10 students, which has certainly helped.

In focusing on just two of the eight partnership schools, it is fair to say this is not a comprehensive overview of all New Zealand?s charter schools, or even the partnership schools model. An article on a different charter school would likely paint a very different picture. Like state schools and private schools, each school has its own strengths, challenges and goals.

The ideological opposition to charter schools will remain ? and indeed there are some valid concerns about their implications for public education in this country that we shouldn?t dismiss ? however, it is fair to conclude that South Auckland Middle School, regardless of its model or funding structure, is making a positive difference in the lives of many young people.