But that doesn’t seem to have figured in Education Minister Hekia Parata’s decision to cut off life support for at least a dozen communities, and there are fears it will further undermine and destabilise their already fragile recovery. Not everyone is unhappy” some welcome the changes as heralding a promised new age of modern learning environments. EA visited some of the affected schools in the aftermath of the minister’s announcement.

Death by a thousand cuts
The bombshells dropped on Christchurch schools in May couldn’t have come at a worse time. It’s nearly three years since the first earthquake” a crucial period, according to disaster recovery experts, when people often experience the worst emotional and mental after effects of trauma.

Despite vociferous opposition by many and a faint, belated call by the council to save the city’s schools – on and relentlessly on the “education renewal” juggernaut rumbles, with 13 schools to close or merge in the latest decisions, including most of the city’s intermediates. Another three schools in New Brighton are likely to merge by next May, with a decision on the final configuration yet to be made. They didn’t give up without a fight. In spite of the huge demands of carrying on as normal in a disaster recovery zone, school communities poured a colossal amount of time, care and effort into innovative, well-researched submissions to keep their schools open. But it seems no one was really listening.

At the condemned schools there’s a feeling of pent up anger at decisions that take no account of history or geography and even less of social cohesion. Not only have people’s homes been badly affected by the quakes” now they’re losing their schools as well. And since many staff live in the community, the ramifications are huge. For teachers, the anger is simmering below the surface – they have to put on a brave face while paving the way for their successors. “Our role is to transition the children forward and show them the opportunities that the new school will have for them.”

Burwood School 1872-2013

It’s a golden autumn day when EA visits. Across the road the river flows calm and purposeful, mirroring the atmosphere inside the school gates. “This is a dearly loved hub” for many of our children our school was the one stable, consistent and safe place in their lives.”

Principal Susan Jennison is incensed by the inequity of what’s happening in Christchurch, especially to the eastern suburbs. “There are so many good things happening in the east,” she says. “They are good, good people.” Built in 1872, it used to be known as New Brighton School. At the end of 2013, after 141 years – Burwood School will no longer exist.

Susan points to two giant concrete tanks ironically labelled “Clearwater”. Sewage tanks, they were deposited after the quakes and can’t be used, removed or beautified. “We’re not allowed to paint them, so we planted sweet peas in front of them.” They’re just there, like the derelict houses across the river. Like the school hall, broken into three times in the two and a half years it’s been awaiting demolition. Susan says apart from the hall, the library is the only building that can’t be used” one building was deemed so useful the ministry carted it off.

Bunnings built a bridge to replace the yawning gap left when the building was appropriated. They planted a garden in its place; another black spot transformed into a bright spot.

What happens next?

Burwood and Windsor schools are to merge on one site at Windsor, although the minister proposes they work on two sites until the Windsor site is prepared to take the extra numbers. The children will be parcelled out to one or the other school in the meantime but the uncertainty means some parents have already decided to take their children elsewhere.

The school was shocked by the indecent speed of the changes and the immediate future is full of unknowns. It was assumed the new principal would be appointed and staffing analysis done before the school closed, but as it stands it’s difficult for teachers to know if they should apply for other positions. And those who want to apply for a study grant can’t until they know they have a job to go back to.

Susan has already accepted another principal’s position and she hopes other staff will keep their jobs, with numbers constant at both schools for past year.

I see red

It’s ironic that only people in areas largely unaffected by the quakes had enough energy, time and resources to keep closures at bay. “Our community would have fought much harder if they hadn’t had other issues on their plates” they are embattled already.”

Decisions were based on land, buildings or demographics” and Susan says Burwood had all three, in the ministry’s opinion. “We and Avonside Girls are the most affected of any schools in Christchurch by the red zone – half of our enrolment zone is now red.” The ministry also cited buildings that were too costly to repair and a roll hugely affected by the quakes. But Susan says most of the buildings are undamaged and the land is sound, apart from some at the front that’s deemed “dubious”. She’s been told the land at the back is fine for building.

And although the roll is far below the 354 at school in March 2011, it has stabilised, she says – the deadline’s passed for people to leave the red zone. And anyway, she questions how decisions about school rolls can be made when the community is still in flux. “Our roll increased all the way through last year” and we’re still holding 231 today” with 27 new entrants booked to come over the rest of the year.”

Community support for the school was unanimous: “We certainly gave it our best shot” we came up with a very innovative and appropriate proposal that our community was excited by, but the minister didn’t agree with us.” To rub salt in the wound, the ministry said it was “an interesting proposal” that “could work at the merged school”.

Susan is concerned about the change in the school’s focus – why it’s been decided they should now face north when they have traditionally faced towards Shirley, to the south. Although geographically close to Windsor school” there’s only 11/2 km between the two front doors – they have completely different catchment areas. She says the school is also home to Burwood Playcentre. “Once the school goes, what’s left in Burwood?”

Lyttleton West School 1887-2013

The school perches on what must be one of the country’s steepest streets outside Dunedin. It has a perfect view of the harbour, and is bathed in sunshine in the morning, though in winter it’s in deep shade by 3pm.

But Lyttelton West’s days are numbered” it will officially merge with Lyttelton Main on 5 May next year, though in practice the children will continue to attend the existing site. The “Main” children will also go to neighbouring St Joseph’s while a new school is being built.

The ministry says the town can’t sustain two primary schools, but principal Diana Feary – a staunch ex-Cantabrian who’s come back to put a shoulder to the wheel – says 10 new families started this year, some from overseas. “We’re not losing children.” And she says having the two schools operating on three sites, albeit with one principal, is not saving money.

But physically there are sound reasons for the merger” Lyttelton Main was due for replacement buildings anyway, and the condition of the ground under Lyttelton West” loess soil full of tunnelling” meant it couldn’t be built on without a lot of remediation.

So there’s some degree of acceptance, and the long history of rivalry between West and Main is not likely to cause problems. “Lyttelton is a contained community. People choose to live here because they like the lifestyle and that’s an advantage in terms of a merger.”

But the process is tricky” Diana says there could have been a lot more buy in had people been empowered. Although the Ministry used the world “consultation”, submissions were largely ignored. “I know it could have been better, people have been told what to do. That’s hard in Christchurch when people don’t have a lot of say, they haven’t had any chance to have a say” we’ve been done to.”

The merger was seen as a good opportunity for shared principalship” Diana and her counterpart at Lyttelton Main saw the chance to work together as very exciting. Diana is in favour of the promised modern learning environments, which will give a change in focus to how schools teach. She says there’ll be opportunities to build “state of the art” schools. “But there remain really rocky, tricky bits to negotiate” we’re not sure what it’s going to look like.”

And the children can’t imagine what it will be like, they’re worried they’ll lose their friends and their teachers. And even more worried about yet another change and the unknown, all the staff can do is tell them it’s exciting and it’s going to be great. She’s in the “certainty” camp, believing it’s going to happen so it may as well happen sooner so there is less anxiety. “We’re tired and we’re stressed and we’ve just got to get on with it.”

Linwood Intermediate 1959-2013

The two-storey building backs onto a large playing field fringed by large trees. There’s a sense of quiet orderliness but also an embattled feeling, which comes as no surprise.

Since the quakes the roll has dropped from 200 to 135, there’s support from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross” this is one of the poorest areas in the city and one of the worst hit in terms of earthquake damage. The school itself has some pre-existing leaky building issues and the quakes left a few cracks, but no serious damage although there’d be a cost to get the school up to the new building code requirements.

Linwood Intermediate’s webpage says the school is preparing students for the future” but since the decision on the Aranui cluster, it has no future, which principal Lee Walker says is nothing short of tragic. He believes intermediates have a special role to play these days. With the earlier onset of puberty – children often reach those giddy heights and plunging depths at 11 or 12.

Lee says research into brain chemistry during puberty shows adolescents are ruled by their emotions and driven by pragmatic, short term goals” they can go from atrocious to angelic in one day, and they need to see how school work is relevant to their lives. He says some struggle with transitions and it’s the relationships children form that help them through. That’s often more difficult in a big school, especially when children have a different teacher for every subject: “logically” if we see one person all the time it’s easier”.

In fact the community had pushed for Linwood to be a middle school, for Years 7-10. The board of trustees found the ideal size for a school was 210 pupils – the size of a village, so everyone knows everyone else.

What’s proposed for Aranui is a mega school” a Year 1-13 school that could have a roll of up to 2000. But that’s yet to be built – in the meantime three local secondary schools are expected to prepare themselves to take the intermediates’ displaced Year 7 and 8 children from next year, and despite the minister’s assurances, secondary schools are not geared up to teach Years 7 and 8.

The excellent east

Lee says there’s no evidence the east side is failing” since the earthquake the schools have all had good Education Review Office (ERO) reports. But the general consensus in the city is that school closures have never been about how to get good education for Christchurch. Since a component of government funding goes to the receiving school, the government’s not even saving a lot of money by closing schools.

And Lee questions the way the figures have been used – much of the $1 billion the government says it’s spending on Christchurch education is normal spending anyway, not a special “renewal” investment. If the decision had taken into account what’s best for the students, it would have looked at how to improve their educational outcomes, he says. “Nowhere in this conversation about rationalisation has there been a discussion about how to increase student achievement.”

Lee himself will be looking for a job in Term 3 and 4 when staff have been looked after. He sounds like the captain of sinking ship” yes, he agrees, “the last one out turns off the lights”.

Wainoni School 1963-2016

It’s an old school school” huge grounds, lots of playground space, trees and grass and a huge climbing frame, a community garden, there’s plenty of room for running and climbing. Part of the Aranui cluster, Wainoni is likely to close at the end of 2016. The school currently has a roll of 100, up from 69 but well below the roll of 124 before February 22, 2011.

It seems a shame and a waste” such a large outside area with a community garden and a lot of mature trees. But principal Audrie McKenzie is for the merger, which she sees as a wonderful opportunity.
“It was never going to be here,” she says, and Wainoni is pragmatic – it’s a small school with a big piece of land. “If the ministry does decide to sell it off, it’s a nice piece of land.”

In its submission at the end of December, the school was unanimously in favour. Audrie says the new school will still be a local school, and children will be able to walk there in five minutes. The pluses include access to more resources and staff, and the opportunity for children not to have big transitions between primary and secondary school. “A lot of our kids don’t cope well with change, so a lot of them drop out (at high school).” She says the community campus will mean a whanau approach. Rather than being one enormous campus, she envisages “pods” of classrooms” smaller working groups within a big school, including an early childhood centre. And Audrie suggests students who feel they don’t belong in a big secondary school might feel more at home if they already know their French or physics teacher for example. It won’t be so daunting. “We see some real strengths in that”

Although at 50 years old, Wainoni’s buildings are not ancient, the new school will be more modern, which she says brings exciting possibilities such as variable spaces” not the industrial model of desks and chairs. “We’ve gone beyond a box as a classroom, there need to be spaces where kids can be in different groupings.” It will also streamline administration” with one board of trustees, one idea or vision about how the school should work together. The ministry will create an EBOT? and the community is keen to be part of the process. Audrie sees it as a good opportunity for collaboration, for everyone to work together, replicating what happens in the community. “The key thing for us is making sure our kids are well resourced both with people and buildings.” She says a merger is preferable to closure, because current staff will have the first opportunity to get jobs at the new school, which means keeping those relationships with the children. “Hanging on to the relationships” that’s the key.” They hope to take all the good things they have at Wainoni with them “and we’ll all move together so it will be OK.”