Picture yourself arriving at Sommerville School in Tamaki, one of Auckland’s poorest suburbs. You are formally welcomed by a dozen students, each representing a different school. These boys and girls, all aged 12, are collectively the “Manaiakalani ambassadors”. They will mihi (welcome) you formally in Te Reo (Maori, New Zealand’s first language) and proceed to inform and charm you over 20 minutes via an interactive presentation about their competency in digital learning.
Their message is crystal clear. Each of these young people is digitally fluent and has become so by following the same pedagogical approach of their peers in their neighbouring schools. Called “Learn Create Share,” the instructional strategy is adopted across 13 schools serving learners from 5 to 18 years old.
You are meeting the learners in the Manaiakalani education program. Started in 2007, the program now serves 3,500 students, over 80 percent of whom come from Maori and Pasifika families. This is one of the most impoverished communities in New Zealand, where the average adult income is NZ$19,000 (US $13,500) per year.
But over the past decade, the improvements in student achievement have been nothing short of remarkable.
Even more compelling, however, are the students’ presentation of their stories. They talk about their learning and their families in a way that leaves even the most cynical of observers astonished at the children’s capacity to describe and demonstrate their digital lives. What’s been crucial has been the role of the families. Even families with low or no credit ratings have managed to invest a one-off deposit of NZ$40, and NZ$3.50 weekly, for three years via micro finance to lease a Chromebook for their child. More than 80 percent of the families make the payments every week.
A Painful, Yet Necessary Transition
In New Zealand, we have a Maori concept for taking active personal and collective control over your own future. It is called rangatiratanga. Its origin is most eloquently expressed in our founding constitution, the Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi), signed in 1840 by the Maori, as a sovereign people, and the British Crown. While the Maori agreed to British rule, they retained control over everything material to their existence.
Yet as often occurs, Maori values were ignored; land was lost and the Maori capacity to control their own futures rapidly diminished. For a period at the beginning of the 20th century, colonization threatened to extinguish the Maori entirely as a race. The impact was profound.
In Tamaki, where Point England school is situated, this story is taking on a new 21st century narrative. After decades of despair and educational malaise, the families that are part of the Manaiakalani program are asserting their rangatiratanga and becoming active players once again in their children’s futures. Teachers and researchers are measuring student engagement in learning outcomes, not absences from school. Children are coming to school engaged in their learning as never before.
None of this new reality could have happened without this community facing some painful transitions. For forty years after the second world war this had been a stable community of returned soldiers and new migrants, mostly from the Pacific. Work was plentiful and people prospered. With the radical economic restructuring that occurred in the early 1980s the factories closed and the jobs went away. What followed was nearly two subsequent decades of unemployment with low expectations and demoralized families. What had become a first port of call for new migrants from the Pacific—to get jobs and send money back home to their families—became a place where people measured success by being able to leave to go live somewhere else.
Education results plummeted along with employment. Finally in 2001, the school leadership and the parents jointly engaged in a painful analysis that lead to a profound conclusion: If we don’t change, the results won’t change.
Classroom practices needed a radical and science-based overhaul. Family attitudes and behavior needed a commitment beyond anything previously achieved. Parents needed to be both investors and learning partners in their children’s education. Teachers and families agreed: no more leaving their children’s future up to the school alone.
It was a bumpy process. Nothing is easy when life is a daily survival journey. But the trajectory in those first years remained consistently positive as in-classroom practice began to change. Gradually community confidence lifted as data showed improving results across the subject areas.
As the community set off on this journey a single truth became obvious: It was not enough to improve a single school. All schools needed to improve together. Seven schools formed the original Manaiakalani Cluster in 2007. Now there are 13, with one more joining in 2017. These parents and leaders of the schools in the community embarked on a path to increase collaboration and reduce competition in pursuit of a better outcome for all students, regardless which school they attended.
In 2011 the Manaiakalani Education Trust was formed to raise money to support new teaching practices and to move the pedagogy from analog to digital across the cluster of schools and in every classroom specific to the Manaiakalani education program. The Trust also raised an equity fund to help parents pay for the devices. This fund represented about 20 percent of the cost of all the digital devices. The fund provided confidence to the financing company in case parents defaulted on their payments. But at no stage have parent defaults in the first five years of this programme come close to exceeding 20 percent. To date the Trust has raised over NZ$10.6 million (US $7.6 million) to support this shift. The highest single aggregate contribution—literally one in every five dollars—comes from the parents.
This commitment has led to a remarkable shift in performance. In 1995 no student at Tamaki College passed four subjects in School Certificate (SC), at the time the base measurement of literacy and numeracy for the country. In 2005, less than 30 percent passed NCEA 2, the more recent equivalent to School Certificate. In 2015, of all students who remained at school until the age of 18, 93 percent achieved NCEA 2.
Furthermore, the number of students staying at school until age 18 is the highest ever. Of 29 students who began the year seeking to go to university, 25 achieved the standard for automatic acceptance. These are highest ever achievements in the school history.
Across the primary schools in the Manaiakalani program, the evidence is clear in writing, mathematics and reading results: If a student can stay in the school cluster for three years or more, their learning will accelerate twice as fast as the national norm for New Zealand. This acceleration is critical because many learners in the program, who typically start at age 5, begin as equivalent level of a typical three year old. Our goal is clear: we want to hold onto our students long enough to accelerate them into a normal performance curve for the population as a whole by the time they reach secondary school.
The follow-on impact at secondary school has already been profound as better performing learners arrive at their doorstep, with better opportunities than ever for further acceleration from a higher baseline.
Our Manaiakalani ambassadors are charming proof of the inherent capability of Maori and Pasifika children to excel, given the right kind of teaching and the support of smart investment. In five years’ time, we will have had a whole cohort of students begin and end their formal schooling in the Manaiakalani method. We expect to be celebrating their success at the levels equivalent to all of the other citizens at school in New Zealand.