Throughout the challenges of the pandemic, principal of Kerikeri High School, Elizabeth Forgie has been a champion for ‘what we can do?’ rather than ‘what we can’t do?’.
The school calendar of events was scrutinised with much creative thinking and an attitude of creating possibilities. Individual events were adapted to ensure that students were still able to experience as close to the typical activities that the school uses to reinforce the dispositions that are underpinned by the school’s Four Cornerstones and WAKA, We are Learners: Whaia te Matauranga; Act with Respect: Manaaki te tangata; Keep Yourself Safe: Tiaki tangata; Always proud: Kia manawanui. It was encouraging that many local providers and businesses worked closely with the school to make worthwhile events continue to happen for the students.
A hallmark of Elizabeth’s leadership during this time has been to operate a shared leadership model with her Associate Principal. She says that being overt with staff about the dual principal arrangement conveyed, “the school is safe, everyone is safe, because we are making sure that both of us can do the whole job, all of the time.”
Elizabeth says she completely changed her approach to communication with her community, needing to make sure that email messages were very prompt and conveyed the public health information. She found that as soon as the Prime Minister, Minister of Education and other health officials made an announcement, people would want to know ‘what is the school doing?’. Communications had to include explanations of the current health regulations, requirements for contacts and any testing instructions. It became clear that many people in the community put the school in the centre and appreciated receiving the most up to date health information, with the school receiving feedback such as, “If it wasn’t for the school, we wouldn’t know what was going on.”
During the height of Omicron within the community, there was up to 30% of the staff absent. With a commitment to keep the school open, Elizabeth very much appreciated having the authority and being trusted to decide how to navigate the effects of absences in the best way for their community. Rostering students home was used when needed for Years 10, 11 and 12, with Years 7, 8, 9 & 13 remaining on campus as much as possible.
Supporting the Year 13 students was a priority focus for the school, given that this is the third year of dealing with significant interruption to their learning and high-stakes qualification years. “The Year 13 students are fragile…and are hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” says Elizabeth, explaining why they weren’t rostered home.
Elizabeth sings loudly the praises of all her staff. “It was hard for them with the covers needed, but with their goodwill, they have been so amazing.”
“Now that learning is occurring back on campus, the vast majority of students are happy paddlers, but it’s the 10% of students that are finding it very difficult to transition back to school,” says Elizabeth. “It was really confronting; it’s like their lives were already difficult and now they have become impossible.”
Additional funding provided for the support and welfare of these students has been well used being applied to a wide range of activity programmes, additional teacher aides and counselling staff. Providing trips to the local gym or mountain biking, and being kitted out with the necessary equipment and clothing, has been part of the special programmes to “reconnect students with people and place”. As a consequence of this concerted effort, overall student attendance is now above 90% and improving every day.
Elizabeth’s approach in dealing with the pandemic, has been to focus on meeting the needs of the students – whatever they have been. It is obvious that alongside Elizabeth and the dual principal, her dedicated and adept team have risen and met the challenge of answering “what can we do?”.
About the school
Kerikeri High School
Y7-13 Co-educational State Secondary