You may remember in late 2013, MyThinks was fortunate enough to profile not one, not two, not three, but four of the brand-new charter school operators who had been selected by the government to set up the first such schools in New Zealand. After success of many charter school operators in the United States, Britain and Sweden, this change to the educational landscape in this country was welcomed by many, many local hedge-fund speculators. This month MyThinks has spent some time catching up with some of the original operators and also talked to some of the new enterprises as they prepare to join the small but tight-nit community of charters running here in New Zealand.
These are their stories.
Our journey begins in the Far North. This beautiful part of the country, known for its rugged coastal beaches, its vast expanses of pristine native forests, and huge deposits of illegally mined swamp kauri, has received a lot of bad press over the years. Their new MP is Winston Peters. He’s from New Zealand First. These are just some of the facts I know about Northland.
I arrive 10am one misty Wednesday morning to speak to the principal. She is unavailable. I’m told by the head-girl/receptionist that she is currently surveying their new paddock. The young charge at the front desk says the Minister of Education pitched up with a cheque made out to cash so they were able to extend their holdings by purchasing a new paddock. I ask how this paddock purchase has improved her learning. Before she can answer the principal returns wearing gumboots and carrying a sack filled with the most pungent of clippings.
“Aaahhhh, Mr Thinks,” she says as she ushers me through to her office with a free hand, “so good of you to come. I’ve been excited to share with you all the fantastic learning opportunities we have here.”
She deposits the sack on the ground near the desk and instructs the receptionist/head-girl to relocate it to, what she calls, the “dehydration receptacle.”
We walk into her office and make ourselves comfortable. I start with a hard question.
“Now, you’ve received a bailout from the government and lost over half your students since opening. Should you still be open?”
She eyes me up and down for several minutes before picking up her smartphone and texting someone. We wait for several minutes of awkward silence before a 10 second clip of The Bolero alerts the principal to a reply. She reads it, nod and then answers the question.
“The minister has suggested we go out and look at our new paddock,” and she gets up and walks out. I assume I am to follow her so I also rise and leave.
Out at the paddock the principal happily extolls the vertue of their new paddock. Excitedly she waves her hands around pointing to various parts of the paddock, including the grass and some of the fencing.
“This paddock,” she announces, “is one of the greatest gifts to education this country has ever seen. It will improve learning outcomes for all our students.”
She is clearly passionate about this so I ask her how many of their current students are enjoying the learning opportunities at the Northland charter.
“We have over three students currently enrolled in the school fulltime,” she says proudly, “many enjoy the chance to receive learning in the classroom and on-the-job training as we’ve also hired most of them as staff.”
We move back inside and head to the school pie-cart for a sumptuous pastry-based luncheon. The Bolero suggests the principal is receiving another text. After she reads it I’m led out to my car by two burly security men who would clearly be leaders of the first fifteen if there were enough students to form a rugby team.
As I drive down the long driveway I think ahead to my visit some charters in South Auckland wondering to myself if they are going to be anywhere near as successful as this Northland operation.
MyThinks continues their tour of New Zealand charter schools tomorrow.