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Front row seats put South Auckland students six months ahead

South Auckland Middle School

It’s a school where everyone has a front row seat and their learning is likely to be six months ahead of their state school counterparts.

Despite many students coming from large families and overcrowded conditions, children who have often struggled at school are succeeding through new educational opportunities at the South Auckland Middle School.

Opened at the beginning of 2014, the partnership (charter) school gives up to 180 children in years 7-10 the same curriculum and opportunities at the private Mt Hobson Middle School, which opened 15 years ago.

Both schools are run by the Villa Education Trust.

As part of the partnership, South Auckland Middle School, in Manurewa, is required to target high priority learners, mostly Maori and Pasifika children. Maori and Pasifika account for more than 90 per cent of its roll.

Parents apply on behalf of their children who go into a ballot.

Word of the school’s success has spread, resulting in a waiting list of more than 100.

The trust’s founder and academic director is Alwyn Poole who has a masters degree in education. He has been involved in teaching and education since he completed his first degree.

Building on previous success

Following the success of Mt Hobson Middle School, he was prompted to establish the South Auckland Middle School because he believed many issues that affected children’s learning were being put in the too hard basket.

Students learn through the Villa Education Trust’s unique integrated project-based curriculum, in classes of no more than 15.

All of the school’s teachers are registered and qualified.

Days are split with a strong focus on academic learning in the mornings and art, music, physical education, drama and community involvement in the afternoons.

The teaching model ensures all students develop extensive knowledge, research skills and motivation to enable them to succeed in the senior secondary school years and beyond.

The school also aims to build personal character through Christian values.

South Auckland Middle School

There is a real whanau feel at South Auckland Middle School. Students work closely with one another and staff and build positive relationships that help them feel safe and happy at school, the school’s academic manager, Rebecca Dow says.

The school is waiting to learn the outcome of the Labour-led Government’s plans that could see the end of partnership schools.

Mr Poole says they have been involved in only one meeting this year and hope Education Minister Chris Hipkins “Will ensure that there is a set of changes put in place that allows us to grow and continue to thrive.”​

South Auckland Middle School academic manager, Rebecca Dow, says the school aims to provide resources, pastoral care and teaching and learning that is equivalent to a private school.

We believe in the value of each child. Every child regardless of social-economic status or location deserves an education that will open up future opportunities for them. We aim to break down the barriers that get in the way of these opportunities.”

“Our success is partly due to taking on the existing curriculum [at Mt Hobson].”

South Auckland Middle School seeks to ensure its students have equal opportunity.

The school is fully equipped with ICT facilities – desktops, laptops, data projectors, printers and cameras.

The school also provides its students with all their stationery, uniform and trips away for free.

They are able to do that because all the management team also teach and the school shares its administration with West Auckland (also a Villa Education Trust partnership school) and Mt Hobson Middle Schools.

Teaching independent learning

A point of difference for the three schools is teaching the independent learning skills that students will be expected to use during their senior years at secondary school.

Students at the three schools are housed in mini-villas of 60, each with an academic manager.

Alwyn has done much research on the best number of students to put together and settled on the figure of 60.

Each villa has four classes of 15 students.

Students who are related are kept within the same villa, giving a greater sense of security when they start.

Teachers get to know the backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses of each student – where they have come from and where they are heading.

“A sense of being known,” is what Rebecca calls it.

Each day South Auckland Middle School students have time to work independently on their project work. The school provides all the technology and a well-resourced learning environment – and the students take charge of their learning. During these sessions, they practise time management, organisational skills, computer-literacy and inquiry skills. All skills that they will need to succeed in higher levels of education as well as the workforce.

South Auckland challenges

Many students face the challenges of large families, overcrowding, parents working long hours and tight finances.

“It is normal for their families to have four to eight children,” Rebecca says

The South Auckland area also has a lot of transient students and significant absenteeism.

We show value through getting to know them and creating strength-based plans for them.”

In the past, many students have sat in a back row to hide the fact they were struggling at school.

In most villa classrooms desks are arranged in a horseshoe with the teacher in front in the middle.

This means everyone is sitting in the front row.

South Auckland Middle School

Year 8 students in social studies sit at a horseshoe desk arrangement that means everyone has a front row seat.

The curriculum at South Auckland Middle School is based on the eight essential learning areas (ELAs) identified in the New Zealand curriculum, which also specifies five groupings of key competencies – thinking, using language, symbols and texts, managing self, relating to others, and participating and contributing.

A feature of the Villa Education Trust schools is project-based learning.

A project-based curriculum treats the investigation of a topic as the basis for learning. The students complete eight projects each year, with the topics encompassing the full ELA requirements for that level.

After spending four years at South Auckland Middle School, the Year 10 graduates transition to a wide variety of high schools.

They are faced with different challenges in their new schools, but because they have had four years of practising independent learning skills at South Auckland Middle School, they often go on to do incredibly well,” Rebecca says.

She says the school tracks its former students. It aims for them to transition well into secondary school with university the long-term goal.

“We want them to get used to different learning environments.”

She’s found Year 10s (fourth formers) take their studies so seriously that when they move to Year 11 (fifth form) at a secondary school they find other students distracting.

The school also makes a point of introducing their students to the great classical books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm, knowing they will have a confidence when they study the books in Years 11 or 12.

Rebecca says they expect children in their system to be half a year ahead of their state counterparts.

Alwyn Poole says the school works on “progressions.”

The Year 7 – 8s over the last year have been progressing over 1.5 years for each year with us according to E-Asttle standardised testing,” he says.

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