Fam­i­lies shut out as school zones spread

To en­sure kids go to their lo­cal school, or to give par­ents the choice? As a Govt re­view nears com­ple­tion, Adele Red­mond and Laine Moger re­veal the num­ber of schools with zon­ing has hit a record.

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS - Ad­di­tional re­port­ing Felic­ity Reid

At Te Pa­papa School, the pupils are ex­cited about the Cul­tural Fes­ti­val the next day. The de­vi­a­tion in rou­tine, cou­pled with the rain, has turned most of the chil­dren slightly crazy from ex­cite­ment, prin­ci­pal Robyn Curry notes af­fec­tion­ately.

Teacher Lance Pope man­ages to tame a small group of pupils for a read­ing group. He sits cross­legged in front of his stu­dents, who call him ‘‘Matua’’.

This is a rare school in New Zealand’s big­ger cities: it has more class­room space than it has stu­dents. Over sev­eral years, this neigh­bour­hood be­tween One­hunga and Pen­rose has gen­tri­fied. And the new fam­i­lies have cho­sen to en­rol their chil­dren at schools wrongly per­ceived to be bet­ter when judged on decile rat­ings and English-asa-sec­ond-lan­guage rates.

It so an­gered Curry that, a few years ago, she pointed out to a lo­cal news­pa­per that all the white fam­i­lies were by­pass­ing the school. All but one child on the roll was Ma¯ ori or Pasi­fika – and that one child was the son of a teacher.

Nearby schools are all over­crowded, or close to it. Te Pa­papa would have been the only lo­cal school with­out an en­rol­ment zone, to man­age its ca­pac­ity. So, even though Te Pa­papa has room to spare, the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion di­rected it to set up a zone.

It was a sug­ges­tion, Curry ad­mits, that con­fused her. The law is clear: zones are first and fore­most about en­sur­ing there’s space for lo­cal stu­dents. Te Pa­papa has just over 270 pupils; ef­fec­tively, two class­rooms are empty. So why set up a zone?

Per­haps, she says, there is a mis­taken per­cep­tion among par­ents that if a school has a zone, it is be­cause it’s bet­ter and in de­mand.

En­rol­ment zone bound­aries are lines on a map, de­cid­ing who is in and who is out. They can di­vide com­mu­ni­ties and cre­ate dis­tor­tions. A prop­erty in the Auck­land Gram­mar School zone can sell for hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars more than an­other a few doors down the road.

Be­ing in­side a zone means au­to­matic right of en­try to your lo­cal school. Those liv­ing out­side can en­ter a bal­lot for any left­over places on the roll.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, fam­i­lies find them­selves on the wrong side of the di­vide when a school changes its zone bound­aries, or sets one up for the first time. It’s a pos­si­bil­ity more fam­i­lies may face as New Zealand’s schools pur­sue zon­ing at a record rate.

The num­ber of school zones has in­creased by about 1.2 per­cent­age points each year since 2014. As of Oc­to­ber, 39 per cent of state and statein­te­grated schools were zoned, com­pared to 33 per cent, just four years ago. Last year 45 im­ple­mented them for the first time. And 68 schools are in the process of set­ting up zones.

So why cre­ate ex­clu­sion­ary com­mu­ni­ties? The an­swers are, in fact, mul­ti­ple. A zone guar­an­tees lo­cal kids ac­cess to their lo­cal school; it lim­its the po­ten­tial for mid­dle-class kids to head off to an­other school across town, thereby re­duc­ing the school’s di­ver­sity.

Zones dra­mat­i­cally re­duce the num­bers of fam­i­lies driv­ing their kids from one side of the city to an­other, clog­ging the roads. And ar­guably, rather than di­vid­ing com­mu­ni­ties, they strengthen com­mu­ni­ties, cen­tred around their lo­cal school.

Min­istry deputy sec­re­tary Ka­t­rina Casey says zones help spread stu­dents out across a net­work of schools and en­sure ef­fi­cient use of ca­pac­ity.

It’s nec­es­sary to plan for long-term pop­u­la­tion changes, some­times 25 years into the fu­ture, so schools are some­times asked to con­sider zon­ing even if new de­vel­op­ments are years away.

Ac­com­mo­dat­ing lo­cal chil­dren while also pro­vid­ing choice is a dif­fi­cult bal­ance. ‘‘Zon­ing is re­ally the only way we have to do this but we would wel­come other ideas.’’

Christchurch’s Linwood Av­enue School il­lus­trates why zones are needed. Two years ago, when prin­ci­pal Blair Drav­it­ski first slipped his feet un­der the desk, there were 308 pupils. Now there are 422.

As one of the last pri­mary schools in its area to start draw­ing up an en­rol­ment scheme, it has been boxed in by other schools’ catch­ments. That has cre­ated a ‘‘de­fault’’ zone.

Drav­it­ski doesn’t see the cre­ation of a zone as a draw­back. ‘‘We want to make sure for chil­dren in the im­me­di­ate area of the school, that the choice to come to Linwood Av­enue is an easy one.’’

East Christchurch schools are fac­ing huge roll growth as fam­i­lies re­set­tle in the area post-quake, or move in for the re­build. Six schools in the area started de­vel­op­ing zones last year. As much as zon­ing is of con­cern to the com­mu­nity (Drav­it­ski says it’s one of the first ques­tions prospec­tive fam­i­lies have) it’s also nec­es­sary.

He says zon­ing the school will help it man­age its roll and pro­vide more cer­tainty around staffing.

And there’s no other way to stop over­crowd­ing, with­out jeop­ar­dis­ing the op­por­tu­nity for lo­cal kids to at­tend their lo­cal school. Throw out zon­ing, and you have a free-for-all com­pe­ti­tion for the smartest, sporti­est, wealth­i­est pupils.

‘‘I’ve been in those com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ments and it’s ex­haust­ing,’’ Drav­it­ski says. Some­times Linwood Av­enue is bet­ter suited to some chil­dren; some­times nearby Brom­ley is bet­ter suited to oth­ers. ‘‘I think it just comes down to com­pro­mise.’’

In a city that is in­creas­ingly de­fined by an in­fra­struc­ture that can’t keep up with the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, the dis­cov­ery of two Auck­land schools with half-empty class­rooms is un­ex­pected.

There’s decile two Te Pa­papa School, which can’t at­tract the lo­cal kids. And then there’s decile 10 Stan­ley Bay School, in wealthy Devon­port, where young fam­i­lies sim­ply can’t af­ford to buy a home.

Stan­ley Bay School has a zone – but it’s mean­ing­less. There are so few chil­dren that it can take en­rol­ments from any­where.

Out­side the school at 3pm, par­ents blame soar­ing house prices for the de­cline from 273 chil­dren in 2015 to 237 last year. But they all like the school’s ‘‘bou­tique’’ feel.

Har­riet Ri­ley, who lives just out­side the zone, says it’s im­por­tant to her that her chil­dren at­tend a lo­cal school so they have a sense of com­mu­nity.

Mag­gie van der Maas is op­posed to school zon­ing: ‘‘All par­ents should have a fair chance of send­ing their chil­dren to the school they want and which is more ap­pro­pri­ate for their child,’’ she says.

At Te Pa­papa, Robyn Curry says the role of a zone is a vexed ques­tion. ‘‘Te Pa­papa knows it’s a great school, but we don’t have a zone – so does that make us less of a school?’’

All par­ents should have a fair chance of send­ing their chil­dren to the school they want. Mag­gie van der Maas, par­ent

ALDEN WIL­LIAMS/STUFF

Te Pa­papa School pupil Ko­heleti Mafi, 11, dur­ing haka prac­tice. The school has been di­rected to set up a zone de­spite its spare ca­pac­ity.

DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Blair Drav­it­ski, prin­ci­pal of Linwood Av­enue School in Christchurch, where the roll has soared.

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