Splendid Isolation

Ask Te Hapua principal Rawiri Wihapi what the worst thing about isolation is and he says “power cuts”. Ask him what the best thing is and he says, “Just look…

Te Hapua principal Rawiri Wihapi

Te Hapua principal Rawiri Wihapi

Ask Te Hapua principal Rawiri Wihapi what the worst thing about isolation is and he says “power cuts”. Ask him what the best thing is and he says, “Just look out there.”

Te Kura o Te Hapua is the country’s northernmost school. It sits tucked along the shores of Parengarenga Harbour, 103 kilometres from Kaitaia, and just 30 kilometres down the road from Cape Reinga.

Established 108 years ago, its founders, clearly taken with the beauty of the harbour, built the school on a hill with panoramic views out to the white silica sand dunes at the harbour entrance, known as Te Kokota.

The small number of houses which make up Te Hapua township are sprinkled below. There is a rugby field, a kohanga, a health centre, a Ratana church and a marae, but no shops. The locals are Ngāti Kuri and generally make their living from fishing, forestry or oyster farming. Some work on the national roading project, sealing State Highway One south from the cape.

Picture 005Te Hapua is a decile one school with 43 students in years 1-10. Its roll is 100% Māori. Te reo and tikanga Māori are integral. The staff consists of one teaching principal, four teachers, two teacher aides and an administrator. It is the most isolated school in the North Island with an isolation index of 4.98. Only a handful of schools on the South Island’s West Coast rate higher.

Isolation indexes are calculated using a formula involving a school’s distance from centres with populations of 5000, 20,000 and 100,000 people.

Schools in isolated areas receive additional operational funding to recognise the extra costs of accessing goods and services due to their relative isolation based on the index.

Teaching and working in an isolated community brings a unique set of challenges, but as Rawiri Wihapi proudly says Te Hapua School is meeting the challenges of geography with modern technology.

Rather unexpectedly, considering its location, the school is fully wired up with high speed broadband. There are at least eight computers in each of the two main classrooms, one class for junior students and one for senior.

However, its technological showcase is the e-learning satellite centre for the year 9-10 students. They take part in lessons at Kaitaia College via the internet or intranet service, with video conferencing of maths and science and some English programmes once or twice a week.

The big plus in all this, explains Rawiri, is that it saves them early morning starts, late finishes and four hours of bus travel each day.

“E-learning is for the whole community in that it is improving achievement and attendance. It means these students are actually coming to school, staying at school, and finishing Year 10 before having to go further afield.”

Picture 002But the mix of cutting edge technology and isolation isn’t always a happy one. “Our server went down two weeks ago which means we’ve had no internet. Our technical support contractor is in Tauranga, and it’s really hard to get someone up here to look at it and get it sorted,” Rawiri says. “It’s not as bad as a power cut though. When that happens we have to close the school down completely because no power for us means no water and no functioning toilets. Power cuts are a big deal.”

Teaching in a remote community like Te Hapua can also mean professional isolation.

Junior school teacher Ngarau Heta was no stranger to small rural schools, arriving in Te Hapua six years ago from northern Hawke’s Bay, but was surprised to find herself “feeling quite isolated and longing to talk to other teachers”. “What we do now up here is that a few of the teachers in our cluster get together once a month and share ideas, and have a general chin-wag. For me, it means I don’t feel so out on a limb.”

Rawiri, who came to Te Hapua from a large urban school in West Auckland, agrees that distance and extra travelling time does make access to professional development and support more difficult. He taps into the local principals’ cluster, often by video conferencing and through FarNet” an online collaborative teacher community which also provides bilingual resource material covering all curriculum learning areas. “But at the end of the day if I really need support in a hurry, the phone is close by and I can use it,” he says.

Variety of curriculum and the range of extra curricular activities can be limited by isolation, according to Ngarau Heta. She says things like music and art are taught as part of the curriculum, but children who want or need more, have to travel which can be an obstacle. “Some of the children want to do gymnastics but I’m too scared to take things like that, particularly as they get older because it gets too physical and I don’t have the skills.”

However isolation does deliver other forms of educational richness for the children of Te Hapua, drawn from their community and their surroundings. Ngāti Kuri tikanga is part of the curriculum and the students utilise community and environmental resources to add learning value.

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They learn about oyster farming, fishing and flax weaving with support from whānau. Ngāti Kuri kaumātua, such as Pineaha Murray, who was a student at Te Hapua in the late 1940s, visit regularly to share local history. He proudly tells the story of how his grandmother donated the old school bell which came off the sailing ship Forrest Hall, which ran aground on Ninety Mile Beach in 1909. The bell has pride of place at the school entrance and is used to mark the start and end of the day, as well as lunch and morning tea breaks.

As an isolated and decile one school, Te Hapua receives extra government support for programmes such as breakfast in schools and fruit in schools. Muriwhenua companies and businesses are also asked to support the school in whatever way they can because fundraising in such a small and economically challenged community is difficult. Rawiri Wihapi believes it’s the responsibility of local iwi to invest in their whakapapa as that is where their legacy lies and the school is an important focal point.

Staffing can be another big issue for isolated schools, but Te Hapua has been lucky. The staff has remained stable for years, attracted by cheap rents and close ties with the community.

And as Rawiri says why wouldn’t you want to stay, “Just look out there.”