Ōtaki College principal Andy Fraser knows his community well and he knew that even though lockdown was going to be a challenge, he was confident that his school was going to be okay.
Prior to the arrival of the pandemic, the Ōtaki schools had worked collectively and in collaboration with the Te Reanga Ipurangi Ōtaki Education Trust to ensure that every Year 4 (and above) student had access to a digital device. In conjunction with the Manaiakalani Education Trust, there had also been work completed in creating a shared pedagogy based on the learn, create, and share philosophy, that puts students at the very centre of their learning. “There had also been significant investment in upskilling staff so they could develop a digital space for students to use at any point in time, to access their learning,” says Andy.
Therefore, when the school went into lockdown “it was comforting to know students were already well prepared with the use of a digital device, were able to use technology to connect with each other and could access their specific class learning”. Andy was also confident in the commitment of his staff to ensure the wellbeing of the students was a priority and that they understood the importance of good relationships with their students.
Despite the ongoing concerns for some students not engaging with their work, the challenges around assessing with rigour and low achievement levels, he describes the experience of being in lockdown as not too bad. However now that the pandemic is in the community, the situation is very different.
“There is a façade of normality that we have in our schools, but in behind that is the management of pretty much chaos,” says Andy. Contending with significant numbers of staff absent, a dwindling supply of relievers, questioning the readiness of staff for internal relief, the variable numbers of students who arrive at school each day, students who are working, etc, all add to the complexity that has to be managed every day.
With rising costs of rent and food for whānau, the burden falls on senior students who feel obliged to work long hours after school to help cover the increased costs of living. Andy is unhappy that there are reports of a few local employers who exert undue pressure on their young employees and put their business needs ahead of the individual student's learning needs.
Andy says that all these factors together are seriously affecting student attendance at school, but adds that returning to school is only the first stage for students to reengage with their education. “For many of them they need to be integrated back into the culture of the school,” he says. And therefore a wide range of activities are taking place that include: involvement in equine therapy work, students working in he māra kai, developing arboriculture skills, and working with animals as a context for supporting students through mindfulness.
“It is providing students with different opportunities and experiences, so that they can feel that they can reconnect and have a place to go, particularly when they are feeling anxious.”
In contrast, there are a group of students who have thrived when learning from home and therefore attend school to learn for some of their time and keep connected socially, and at other times working at home when it is beneficial to do so. The school is also finding ways to accommodate students who want to work in a job and at the same time keep connected to school and their secondary tertiary programme if it is part of their future learning.
Andy talks about having learnt “to be light on their feet”, in an effort to best serve their young people. “A one size fits all model is not going to work anymore,” he says. Into the future he sees that we need to place more trust in our young people. During times when it was difficult to cover senior classes with staff, students were given more freedom to direct their own learning time which worked very well. Staff were impressed with how well the students approached their learning, and “the students really respected being respected”.
The last two years have reinforced for Andy as the principal, that a crucial aspect of his job is to maintain strong, positive and meaningful relationships with staff, students and their whānau. Accompanying this is the need to care and provide hauora support for his people, something he puts ahead of everything else.
About the school
Year 7 to 13 co-educational State school