Pride and plea­sure at Tan­garoa Col­lege in Otara.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents -

The Tan­garoa Col­lege first XV stood in a hud­dle on the field, singing a Samoan hymn, deep bari­tones rolling around in the still, win­try sun­light. If there were any tenors in that team they weren’t let­ting on. This was staunch; also, very beau­ti­ful. Then they formed into a line to stare down their op­po­nents, from Botany Downs Sec­ondary Col­lege, who had been wait­ing re­spect­fully and re­sponded with a fe­ro­cious haka.

They were like first XVs all over Auck­land, these two teams: big brawny brown boys, with a cou­ple of scrawny boys, also brown, in the halves. The dif­fer­ence here, com­pared with your more high-pro­file Gram­mar-King’s game, say, was that all the Tan­garoa spec­ta­tors and most of the Botany spec­ta­tors lin­ing the pitch were brown as well.

Tan­garoa is a decile 1 school in Otara, where the roll is 75 per cent Pasi­fika and 20 per cent Maori, with a few Palagi and Asian stu­dents squeezed in for the lols.

The roll is 50:50 boys and girls, and the gen­der achieve­ment rates are sur­pris­ingly com­pa­ra­ble. If the girls tend to do bet­ter, it’s only by a lit­tle. In 2015, the pass rate for Year 13 girls sit­ting NCEA level 3 was only 0.5 per cent ahead of the boys, and at Year 11, in NCEA level 1, the boys ac­tu­ally shaded the girls by 0.2 per cent. Such re­sults are very rare in any school at any decile level.

And it’s not be­cause the girls did badly. On this set of stats from last year, girls and boys both out­per­formed the stu­dents of most other low-decile schools in Auck­land. The only ones to do bet­ter were Ma­nurewa Col­lege and a cou­ple of Catholic schools.

Tan­garoa Col­lege is a suc­cess story. They’re proud of what they do there, and you don’t have to spend long, with teach­ers or stu­dents, to see that. How­ever, there is one statis­tic that has com­pro­mised the suc­cess. Last year, as in pre­vi­ous years, the num­bers of boys and girls were roughly equal at ev­ery level — un­til Year 13. While most girls stayed for that fifth and fi­nal year, half the boys left.

Ev­ery­one in ed­u­ca­tion agrees it’s not good to lose stu­dents be­fore the end of the full five years of sec­ondary school­ing. It may help a school look bet­ter in some of the stats, but it doesn’t help the stu­dents. For most, the longer they stay, the bet­ter they will do when they leave.

At this school, they know that. They haven’t liked los­ing those boys and they’ve put a bunch of things in place to stem the flow. It seems to be work­ing: in 2016, says prin­ci­pal Ngaire Ash­more, many more of the boys have stayed. What’s go­ing on at Tan­garoa?

Head boy Tony Fa’am­at­u­ainu is in the school’s Con­struc­tion Academy, a new Year 13 unit that of­fers, in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Manukau In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, cour­ses geared to ca­reers in the con­struc­tion in­dus­tries. If he’d pre­ferred, he could have cho­sen the Ser­vices Academy, which op­er­ates across Years 12 and 13 for stu­dents want­ing to join the armed forces or the po­lice. Or if well­ness, say, or PE were more his thing, he might have pre­ferred the Health Science Academy.

Acad­e­mies are a cor­ner­stone of Tan­garoa’s pro­gramme to keep boys in school for longer. They’re vo­ca­tional and tran­si­tional, bring­ing some of the out­side world into the school and fo­cus­ing stu­dents’ learn­ing around the things they are per­haps most en­gaged with any­way.

It doesn’t stop there. Tan­garoa is part of the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land’s Starpath Project, a ma­jor re­search ef­fort aimed at boost­ing ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion among peo­ple who don’t usu­ally go that far.

Like most schools, they’re big on “for­ma­tive as­sess­ment”: mea­sur­ing each stu­dent’s achieve­ment in or­der to form the next set of goals for that stu­dent.

This is dif­fer­ent from “sum­ma­tive” as­sess­ment, the sort of thing most endof-year ex­ams do, where achieve­ment at one level con­fers ac­cess to the

group, Maori have done less well than oth­ers, and it wants to fix that.

It’s hard, though. Ash­more says ev­ery year they turn over about a third of their Year 9 stu­dents. Those are kids fol­low­ing itin­er­ant par­ents from one home to the next, up­rooted from schools and friend­ships and ev­ery­thing else in their lives. Schools can’t fix that.

And yet they have to try. Tan­garoa works with the fam­i­lies. That mad pro­gres­sion of six-minute par­ent­teacher in­ter­views lots of schools still use? Doesn’t hap­pen here. They meet ear­lier and have longer mid-year meet­ings. They talk more with par­ents and whanau, in per­son and on­line, in

“We have to do well in class or we don’t play... School’s not just about sport. Mrs Ash­more made us see that.”

the school and in the home.

They know this is crit­i­cal. Stu­dents need a home life that sup­ports them be­ing in “the learn­ing mode”. But if the fam­ily at home is tran­sient, or large and com­plex, or has health or em­ploy­ment is­sues, or all of the above, it’s harder for kids to stay in that mode. If adults in the home didn’t have a good ex­pe­ri­ence of school and don’t see the need to be sup­port­ive, it’s harder again.

Hard­est of all is when the adults’ own ex­pe­ri­ence of not do­ing well means they be­lieve their kids won’t — and can’t — do well ei­ther. Be­cause the kids learn to be­lieve it, too. “In their own minds,” says Ash­more, “stu­dents see them­selves as be­ing not as good. Not all of them, but some of them. Too many of them.”

Catholic schools know this. For bet­ter or worse, the fam­ily teaches the child. State schools are learn­ing it.

Ash­more also talks about the im­por­tance of broad­en­ing the stu­dents’ world. All prin­ci­pals do. So while the girls at Dio might be set­ting their sights on that drama trip to New York and Lon­don, on one of the days I vis­ited Tan­garoa, some of the stu­dents were get­ting ready for an outdoor ed­u­ca­tion trip into the Kaimai Ranges. Yes, it was winter. On another, the choir was re­hears­ing for the Big Sing con­test in the Auck­land Town Hall.

Big Sing is a re­mark­able event. Singing, like rugby, is one of those things where wealth doesn’t de­ter­mine achieve­ment. On the three days of the Auck­land re­gional fi­nals in June, the Town Hall thronged with stu­dents from dozens of schools, large and small, state and pri­vate. Dio, King’s and St Cuth’s were there in strength, and so were schools north of the bridge, and so was South Auck­land. In one af­ter­noon ses­sion this year, an al­most en­tirely Pakeha choir from Long Bay was fol­lowed by an al­most en­tirely Asian boys choir from Ma­cleans and then the al­most en­tirely Pasi­fika choir from Tan­garoa. Big Sing is Auck­land.

Tan­garoa takes it se­ri­ously. You have to au­di­tion to get into the choir, and they re­hearse hard. At Big Sing, they do three songs: some­thing from a classical Western tra­di­tion, a New Zealand or Pasi­fika song, and an “other styles” op­tion. Tan­garoa’s choices were “Hine e Hine”, a Maori clas­sic it’s quite easy to do well but, be­cause it’s so well known, al­most im­pos­si­ble to make dis­tinc­tively great; a Xhosa folk song from south­ern Africa which has fiendishly dif­fi­cult rhythms as well as the usual multi-part har­monies; and a 19th-cen­tury lieder by Josef Rhein­berger — a song that re­quires a haunt­ing pu­rity of tone. No pres­sure then.

In the re­hearsal room af­ter school on the last day be­fore the comp, Grant Lang­don stood be­fore them in hoodie and shorts and told them they were good but not good enough. He’s the Year 13 dean as well as head of mu­sic and per­form­ing arts, and in his friendly, fo­cused way, he said, “Ev­ery time you sing, you have to be bet­ter than the last time. You’ve got 80 per cent. I want 20 per cent more.”

They’re not grossly un­der­re­sourced: the two mu­sic rooms “prob­a­bly have about $60,000 of equip­ment each”, said Lang­don. The choir mostly sang a capella, but to find their notes they used the elec­tric baby grand stand­ing in the cor­ner.

He doesn’t run the choir: that job falls to first-year teacher Moira Aneru, who

is a singer and com­poser her­self. Like Lang­don, she’s found a way to seem re­laxed and re­main de­ter­mined.

The kids fooled around. They started to sing, Aneru stopped them, they started again and it was fine. It was like that for well over an hour. These kids can sing like an­gels, the boys and the girls, but stand­ing still and keep­ing quiet, that’s harder.

Partly, they were hun­gry. The num­ber-one joke: they were al­ways hun­gry. Partly, they were ex­cited. Partly, they just liked be­ing with each other, hav­ing fun, do­ing this thing, mak­ing it good. I tried to re­mem­ber when I’d last been in a room with such keen, smil­ing peo­ple.

And with such quick wit. “The teach­ers want you to per­form for them in the staffroom on Fri­day be­fore school,” said Lang­don. “Will they feed us?” came the whiplash re­sponse.

And in that room with its posters and moulded plas­tic chairs and in­de­struc­tible car­pet, when all the jokes were set aside, they pro­duced breath­tak­ing love­li­ness, over and over. And then went back to jokes. And then went back to beauty.

In the com­pe­ti­tion the next day, in their spe­cially pro­vided new choir uni­forms, they stood ner­vous, proud and still on the big stage, and filled the hall with that beauty.

At high-decile schools, what they tell you all the time is that it’s such a joy to teach kids who want to learn. Lang­don and Aneru have kids who want to learn, too, but it’s not a given. They’ve made it re­ward­ing, for them and the kids, by a kind of al­chem­i­cal psy­chol­ogy: they go with the flow and push against it, too.

Acad­e­mies, bet­ter as­sess­ment meth­ods, a home-and-school fo­cus, aim­ing as high as high can be, per­form­ing and re­in­forc­ing val­ues through ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar school life as well as the class­room, and in­still­ing con­fi­dence… boys at Tan­garoa are stay­ing and achiev­ing.

Most of those things were also on dis­play in the rugby game against Botany. The Tan­garoa team, which in­cludes some of the Big Sing choir, is young, with a cou­ple of 15-year-olds and only five Year 13s. They’re re­build­ing af­ter be­ing rel­e­gated from the 1A divi­sion last year. The plan is to cre­ate a team that’s strong enough to win pro­mo­tion and then stay up.

You can see it in the style of rugby they play, which is all about the team. That Satur­day, the for­wards con­ceded al­most no turnovers; the backs kept pass­ing and the passes stuck; ev­ery­one tack­led and tack­led. They had fun, and Botany did, too: the game was played in a spirit of de­lighted en­thu­si­asm, which didn’t de­tract at all from each side’s deep de­sire to win.

Tan­garoa at­tacked with de­ter­mined pa­tience, and with just a few min­utes left, down 12-10, they were twice held up over the line. The crowd was all gasps and OMGs. The team didn’t crack. Fi­nally, another long pass­ing move­ment sent the left wing crash­ing over.

Tony Fa’am­at­u­ainu is in the first XV, although he was in­jured and run­ning the touch­line that day. He said be­ing part of a good team wasn’t a goal in it­self. “We have to do well in class or we don’t play.” Each week? “Yes, each week.” He grinned and looked me in the eye.

Did he like the pol­icy? “Yeah. It’s good. School’s not just about sport. Mrs Ash­more made us see that.”

Suc­cess on the pad­dock is di­rectly linked to suc­cess in the school­room. Tan­garoa hasn’t lost a game this sea­son. They’re on track.

And yet, for a school like this, suc­cess will al­ways be pre­car­i­ous. The wealthy schools, state as well as pri­vate, have sports scouts and money for sport­ing schol­ar­ships, not to men­tion aca­demic ones. When they woo away the best and bright­est — the stu­dents, the play­ers and even the coaches — it’s por­trayed as good news for those who go. But it’s ex­tra tough on those left be­hind.

There’s one other thing about Tan­garoa that would be ob­vi­ous to any vis­i­tor. It’s clean and re­ally tidy. Hardly any lit­ter. Gar­dens tended. Build­ings mainly in the sim­ple, el­e­gantly modernist brick-and-weath­er­board style of the 1970s, with a lot of pre­fabs: all of them cleanly painted. Noth­ing is bro­ken; there’s no graf­fiti. Each build­ing has a big sign on it, not so much be­cause the stu­dents may get lost, but be­cause of what it sig­ni­fies: pur­pose.



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