Under the Bridge

By Kirsty Johnston

Camera: Mike Scott, Michael Craig, Nick Reed

February 7, 2017

At the edge of the city and the margins of society, a school and its students are fighting back. Under The Bridge is the story of a year inside their world.

Documentary: 30mins

She reads through the message one last time, forefinger hovering over the “post” button.

Lying beside her on the bed, her younger sister nods in agreement, ready.

The 17-year-old exhales, and taps the screen. She watches as the loading bar scrolls briefly, and then, the status update goes live.

“All u muppets posting about fighting at school n all that srlsy need to reevaluate why you even go to school! I don’t think any of u realise how much ur actions affect not only our schools rep but ur character. We already see enough violence in our streets and probably at home, so why do u get off by promoting more of it?! None of this crap will be tolerated at our school anymore.”

It is the second week of the 2016 school year, and stiflingly hot. At Papakura High School, on the southern fringes of Auckland’s supercity, a sense of malaise accompanies the sticky summer heat. By now most of the students have heard the gossip or read the papers, or watched in vain as younger siblings are enrolled somewhere else.

“There is fear,” says Papakura High’s head girl, Wendy Savieti. She wrote the Facebook post on a borrowed iPad as a message to the junior students, pleading for calm after a series of brawls. “It is rumoured that our school is going to be shut down. I don’t know why, I think our school is great. I know we have fights and I see those fights get exposed, but that’s all. I don’t see any other reason why.”

The rumours have been circulating since the previous year, after the Ministry of Education announced a planned rebuild of Papakura High would be put on hold.

It was the latest blow for a school that was already deep in a spiral of decline, dogged by a “rough” reputation and a low decile, poor achievement and terrible staff morale. Earlier in 2015, the principal had quit, and a statutory manager had been appointed to help the flailing board.

By then some families had already pulled their children out of Papakura High, or bypassed it altogether for places with fewer “troubled” kids. For them, the school’s demise meant little, but for kids like Wendy, it felt like the end of the world.

“You can tell me this is school but it’s a home for me,” she says. “I love this place. I want people to believe that our school is amazing. I want it to carry on.”

Wendy always knew she would go to “Kura”. She grew up just around the corner with her parents and two younger siblings, on Bates St. They live in a three-bedroom rental with an immaculate lawn and not quite enough space inside, meaning Wendy and her 13-year-old sister Samantha share a room - and a bed. Another brother stays a few houses away with her grandmother, where he has lived since he was a baby.

Their street is untouched by the rampant gentrification sweeping the rest of the city, so that it still has the feel of small-town New Zealand in the 1970s - single-storey houses, distressed picket fences, wide footpaths and children playing on the road. Like the rest of the neighbourhood, it also bears the hallmarks of poverty - graffiti on fences, shoes strung over power lines, houses with overgrown lawns and boarded-up windows.

Papakura East is one of the poorest suburbs in the country, with Auckland’s highest rate of welfare dependency, and where the average household income hovers just above $46,000. It also has a reputation for drugs and crime and the police are never far away. But to Wendy, that doesn’t matter. To her, the neighbourhood is homely and warm, a place where people look out for each other.

“There are bad things that happen in here but that’s the reality of any place,” she says.

Wendy is half Tongan, half Cook Island, with a mass of dark hair, high cheekbones and a tiny gold stud in her nose. Strong-willed and charismatic, she is a natural leader, and determined to make a difference in the world. For now, that means changing perceptions about Papakura High and the students who go there, before the community abandons it for good.

“I’m fully invested in our school,” she says. “And that’s okay with me, my goals can come later. This is something I need to do now.”

Papakura High began its descent into difficulty about 10 years ago. From a healthy peak of 1300 students, the school roll slid to 1000, then dropped further, to 800.

Across the country, other low-decile schools were suffering the same trend. Backed by the government’s open policy on school choice, parents no longer felt tied to their local schools and started to “choose up”. In Auckland, and Wellington, and Christchurch, they took their kids out of schools with lots of poor students, to high-profile colleges with better reputations. To get into the zones for the “top” schools, some families even moved houses and took on huge mortgages so their children would have the best education.

As a result, the high-decile schools grew and grew. In Auckland the biggest winners - Mt Albert Grammar, Macleans College, Western Springs - saw their rolls almost double in size. Meanwhile, the low-decile schools haemorrhaged numbers. At Edgewater College in the city’s east, the student muster halved in a decade. Kelston Girls lost 400 from its roll, Glenfield College 600.

But almost no other school felt the impact of the exodus as severely as Papakura High. By 2016, the roll dwindled below the 600 mark. Teachers were laid off and classrooms were closed. For the Year 13 cohort, down to 70 students, the school suddenly felt too big.

“When I first started. I would walk through the gates everyday and it was basically packed,” says Robert Downes, 17. “At lunchtimes ... it was packed and now … nothing. Basically ghosts. You could yell and you’d hear yourself echoing.”

Robert Downes
Robert Downes
Jayden Schell
Jayden Schell
Wendy Savieti
Wendy Savieti

This lunchtime in late summer most of the students are inside preparing for Polyfest, an annual cultural competition held mid-March. Robert stands at the head of the shady, oak-lined avenue that leads past the marae, to the cluster of 1950s wooden classrooms at the centre of the school. He is on gate duty, one of his jobs as a newly-anointed school leader.

Robert wears his prefect badge with pride, a token of his achievements so far, and a reminder to stay on track. Part Māori, part Samoan, Robert is a self-described “cuddly koala” with a wicked giggle, a prop’s build, and a clear singing voice. But he has a tough side too.

In his junior years, Robert was almost expelled for fighting. He even considered joining a gang, but decided a future on the street wasn’t for him, and was allowed to stay at school. He’s now fiercely loyal to Papakura and, like Wendy, can’t understand its negative reputation.

“It’s stink,” Robert says. “What did we do to deserve that? It’s just that perspective, hitting us hard.”

Despite Robert’s current successes, his early bad behaviour has put his parents off Papakura High. Next year his younger brother will instead go across the train tracks to Rosehill College, a decile 6 school with a more middle class roll on the other side of town. Robert is disappointed, and hopeful his parents have a change of heart.

“I would have stuck up for him, doing assessments, stealing his lunch,” he says. “But my parents have that image of if my brother comes here he will do the same, disobey rules. Fighting, and that.”

Rosehill is the main competition to Papakura High, and the two have a fierce rivalry. Papakura, used to be the larger school, but during the late 1990s Rosehill began to essentially “poach” students from Papakura’s roll, taking on talented kids from out-of-zone to boost numbers.

Consequently, Rosehill gained extra funding and new buildings, and a reputation as the “better” school. Papakura High, meanwhile, was left with a higher concentration of students from poor backgrounds, who brought with them added social and educational problems. While Rosehill is now so popular it only takes a limited number of students from outside its zone each year, Papakura, a decile 1, is seen by many as a “last resort”.

Jayden Schell, 17, had his heart set on Rosehill. As a noisy, nerdy Pakeha kid with a chunky build, Jayden was a magnet for bullies at primary school. Rosehill was going to be a new start. When enrolment time came, however, he found he was out of zone.

“I thought I would automatically get in,” he says. “But that’s not the case...I’m on the wrong side of the train tracks. It’s not really fair.”

Part of Jayden’s initial apprehension towards Papakura stemmed from his ethnicity. The middle class exodus from poor areas has not only left low-decile schools smaller, but almost totally free of Pakeha students. By 2015, only 2.3 per cent of students at decile 1 schools in Auckland were white, compared to 70 per cent at decile 10 schools.

While in some areas, such as Mangere, the statistics accurately reflect their community, in Papakura they do not. Europeans make up 60 per cent of the district but only 9 per cent of the school, with just 50 Pakeha pupils enrolled. Jayden, as part of the minority, felt out of his depth.

“It was scary some days. It’s kind of like I didn’t have a place there. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t have any friends,” he says.

The bullying, when it inevitably happened, lasted more than two years. It was occasionally for his skin colour, but also for his weight, and his tendency to play the class clown. As things have improved for him as he’s aged, Jayden has become more focused on trying to prevent the same thing happening to anyone else.

“I just want to be the person who can be like, ‘I’ve been through that. I can help you through it’,” he says.

“I want to be proud of where I went. That’s why I want to help. It’s time it took a turn for the best. Just because we’re low-decile doesn’t mean we’re a bad school.”

John Rohs
John Rohs

Polyfest dawns in late March, a melee of leis and woven flax and floral prints. The school’s new principal John Rohs arrives in sandals and a tupenu, a traditional wrap skirt worn on formal occasions in the Pacific Islands.

Rohs, a 60-year-old white man, causes the students to stop and stare. Who is this palangi dressed like their uncles for church on Sunday?

It is not the only time the teenagers have been surprised by the new recruit. At assemblies he uses Te Reo Māori, Samoan and Tongan, with help from teachers who are native speakers. He once bought KFC for a group of hungry boys after a game of volleyball. And at a leaders’ event before the year began, Rohs - pronounced Ross - waited quietly until the end before introducing himself to the kids.

“Everyone was like, ‘this guy's different’,” Jayden says. “He didn’t make himself prominent, didn’t push himself out there. He was humble. It was cool.”

Rohs has come from Aranui High, a co-educational decile 2 in the earthquake-ravaged eastern suburbs of Christchurch. He was recruited under a scheme that sees effective principals paid extra to take on struggling schools, and is tasked with turning Papakura around.

He arrived in January 2016, shortly after the Education Review Office made public its damning report outlining the school’s poor performance. The reviewers slammed the school for its abysmal achievement, high rates of dropout, disproportionate use of suspension, weak curriculum and poor leadership. Far from being deterred, Rohs was attracted by the challenge, wanting a last project before retirement.

“The thing I enjoy the most about low-decile schools is that I have the opportunity to really make a difference to lives of the young people here,” he says. “The other thing is that the young people have a really heartwarming sense of genuineness. What you see is what you get.”

Rohs is delighted by Polyfest, watching the Tongan group, the Samoan students, and then the kapa haka. Afterwards he heads around the back of the stage to congratulate the performers and waits in line to give each one a hongi, pleased to see their families are there - including Robert’s whānau, who have come to watch for the first time.

“Before I hopped on the stage I was crying,” Robert says. “I don’t know why, I was really emotional. I put all my anger on that stage. My dad doesn’t usually come but seeing my brother my sister and my uncle - and all the girls outside - it was a bonus.”

Robert Downes draws on his moko
On the morning of Polyfest, the students wake at dawn to prepare. Once his body paint is dry, Robert Downes draws on his moko, a Māori tattoo.
An influx of juniors in 2016 helped boost morale
With its dropping roll, the school has previously struggled to get numbers for its kapa haka group. An influx of juniors in 2016 helped boost morale.
Wendy Savieti was the leader of the Tongan group
Wendy Savieti was the leader of the Tongan group, known as the vahenga.
Mareta, Wendy’s mum, is of Cook Island heritage
Mareta, Wendy’s mum, is of Cook Island heritage but supported her children’s decision to take part in the Tongan performances.
Papakura High’s Tongan students perform the traditional ma’ulu’ulu
Papakura High’s Tongan students perform the traditional ma’ulu’ulu. The drummers are usually relatives who volunteer long hours for the competition.

By now, the prefects have formed their goals for the year: To change the perspective in the community; to lift the school spirit; and to set a standard. They are confident their new principal is the right person to help them.

“At first he kind of looks stuck up because he’s got a suit on,” Wendy says. “But most principals that start here start with being strict and new rules, and instead Mr Rohs has been trying to build relationships with us. We even had a dinner with our parents and him. It makes us feel cared for. It makes us feel important. No one has ever asked to meet our parents that way before.”

Rohs believes a big issue for the school is whānau engagement. After just a few weeks he’s already noticed that parents rarely appear on campus. He is determined to get families involved, to develop a positive culture so that students are more settled, and ready to work as soon as they get to school.

When the previous year’s pass rates are made public at the end of Term 1, it only fuels Rohs’ sense of urgency. The marks are some of of the lowest in the country, down significantly from 2014. Level 3 is the worst, with a success rate of just 8 per cent. Even the students are shocked.

“It’s pretty disappointing. I couldn’t imagine how the teachers felt,” Robert says. “Hopefully things will be better this year.”

Gaining a qualification can be life-changing for these kids. Research has shown leaving school without NCEA means a lower chance of well-paid work; and a higher likelihood of a stint on welfare, or a teenage pregnancy. It also increases the risk of doing time in jail. In Papakura East, 12 per cent of boys have a criminal record by the time they hit adulthood, more than twice that of the rest of the country.

But the students don’t need statistics to know how important it is to pass. They’ve watched over four years as their peers have left school without qualifications, for minimum wage jobs, to go on a benefit or to join gangs. Sometimes, in the main street, they see a boy from their year who dropped out in Year 12. He is homeless, sleeping rough, addicted to drugs.

Papakura lies on the shores of Pahurehure Inlet, in the southernmost reaches of Auckland’s sprawling supercity. To the east are the wealthy farming districts of Hunua and Clevedon, and Karaka, with its multi-million dollar waterfront mansions, is across the motorway to the west.

The name - papa; flat, kura; red - is a nod to the district’s rust-coloured earth, said to have been stained red by the blood of those who died during a fierce battle at the local pa. At first a strategic site for Māori, during the New Zealand wars Papakura became a military outpost, the government’s launch point for its invasion of Waikato.

When the fighting ceased, Papakura transformed to a farm service hub. The population was mostly European, with Papakura High’s first school photos showing rows of hardy farming children in matching blazers.

During the 1960s, a cluster of light industry - a biscuit factory, a formica plant - set up on the outskirts of town. The factory work combined with low-cost housing saw the beginnings of a demographic shift. As gentrification in central Auckland ramped up, low-income families were edged further and further south. At first, there was almost full employment, but after the economic reforms of the 1980s, more Māori and Pasifika found themselves out of work. Subsequent benefit cuts saw deprivation levels soar, with almost one third of children living in poverty by the end of 1992.

Papakura stratified. The more expensive homes were perched high in Redhill, or next to the estuary at Pahurehure. The poorest suburbs became those east of the train station, and in the north - home to the students who attend Papakura High. In those suburbs money is scarce, and life is tough. Many children don’t have desks at home, or internet access. Often, there is only one parent. Teenagers mature fast, burdened with looking after their younger siblings, or obligated to get an after-school job. Life has a way of interrupting study that is not shared by students from more affluent backgrounds.

Rachel Fagan, the year 13 dean, understands this better than most. She is patient when her students can’t pay for something, when they are late, when their homework is incomplete. But she also desperately wants to them to succeed. At the end of the first term, she holds a prefects meeting to ensure the students are on track, with the hope of picking up any potential issues as early as possible.

When she walks in, laden with sticky buns and orange juice, the school’s head girl, Moananoa Rountree, is admonishing Robert.

“You haven’t been in English all week.”

“Yes I have,” he says.

“Once,” says Moananoa.

“I was busy,” Robert says.

Fagan has known this group of students since they were shy, giggling juniors. They trust her, but even then it can be a struggle for particular kids to open up when they have a problem. She waits until the students have eaten, and then asks each one for an update on their progress.

Robert doesn’t volunteer an answer until everyone else has spoken, giving a long pause before he admits his attendance is way down.

“I just need to buck my ideas up to be honest. I’ve just been slacking off. No relevant reasons ... Just, you know, home stuff.”

When he was born, Robert’s father was in jail. His mum, struggling to juggle four older children, offered him to an uncle for adoption instead. The pair now live together in nearby Drury, where Robert’s younger step-siblings visit at the weekends. Robert is expected to help around the house and with the kids, but his full schedule sometimes causes friction.

“It’s just little arguments,” Robert says. “Who’s right and who’s wrong. Chores. Not being home often because I’ve got lots of commitments outside school.”

He’s also been staying up late to talk online. Despite denying he wants a girlfriend this year, Robert is constantly chatting to girls on Facebook, meaning he arrives at school either late or tired or not at all, and has missed handing in some assignments.

“I’ll try my hardest to pick up my attendance,” he promises Fagan. Robert wants to get a scholarship to study sports science at the Manukau Institute of Technology. It would make him the first in his family to attend university.

As summer fades the oak trees along the avenue from the school gates begin to lose their leaves. Sharp winds strip the branches bare, carpeting the road in layers of orange and red.

Winter sport begins. Robert, a talented forward, will play both rugby and league, with the teams struggling for numbers because of the school roll. Wendy Savieti is the girls’ rugby captain. This year she plans on making the Counties Manukau representative team for the first time.

“I want to do as many things as I can before I finish school, just to finish with a bang,” she says. “And rugby is kind of like that door for me to do all those things, it’s where I found my grounding, where I got to know heaps of people, where I was first recognised.”

Helping Papakura “get a name” for girls’ rugby is also a way Wendy thinks she can help boost the school’s reputation. It’s a goal that gains extra importance after she reads a disparaging newspaper story about Papakura’s sports department.

In the article, which celebrates the generosity of a wealthy girls’ college donating old sports gear to Papakura, the journalist reports the school didn’t have enough equipment to support its students. Wendy is so frustrated she writes yet another Facebook post expressing her outrage.

“I was really offended. Like it was saying we are not capable of producing outstanding sportsmen because we don’t have the right gears, which is so not true,” she says.

“I guess it’s embarrassing because everyone is eating it up. They see this article and they think, that’s the truth of it all. Like we were a sob story.”

While during the day, the school seems quieter than ever, after the final bell Papakura comes alive. The fields are suddenly busy, filled with trainings and games. Families come to watch, bringing young siblings and cousins with them. Students who don’t play sit on the sidelines talking and playing music through tinny, hand-held speakers.

Most of the year 9s now have shiny Chromebook laptops, thanks to the support of the Kotuitui Trust, a local education charity aimed at supporting digital learning. If their parents agree to pay, students can lease the computers for $3.50 a week over three years. For many it is the first time they’ve had their own computers and they tote them everywhere, alongside their giant bottles of fizzy drink and oversized schoolbags.

Rohs is happy with the changes, and pleased to see more parents attending school events, despite a frustrating turnout at the recent Board of Trustee elections. Only one Māori member was voted on - incumbent chairman Peter Goldsmith - despite the school’s majority Māori roll. No Pasifika members made the cut.

“It showed clearly that the process that’s used to undertake that exercise doesn’t really meet the needs of our Māori and Pasifika community,” Rohs says. “That result tells me there’s something wrong with the system and we need to change that.”

Papakura isn’t alone in this dilemma. Just 40 per cent of schools in New Zealand have fair Māori or Pasifika representation. In low-decile schools, it is just one governance issue among many, where boards are also likely to lack leadership and expertise. Often, parents on low incomes are also those who gained little from their own schooling, and struggle to connect with their children’s learning. Financial pressures may mean they are unable to prioritise attendance.

To increase representation, Rohs has co-opted a Māori parent, a Pasifika community leader and the school kaumatua to the board. Next year he plans to hold a fair with a bouncy castle and free hangi to encourage voting, but it is unclear whether even with a higher turnout the school will be able to convince the Government its future is in safe hands.

At the end of May, Wendy’s own future plans go astray. She is concussed in a particularly hard-hitting tackle during a rugby game, and taken to hospital. Although her head is fuzzy, she hears the doctor mandate a three-week ban, and her parents discussing whether she should end rugby for good. She wants to cry.

“My parents have never been too happy with me playing sports in the first place. They think I’m taking on too much. But I don’t see it that way,” Wendy says. She is determined to keep playing.

“I’m really good at talking my parents around. I’ve got until the three weeks are up to change their minds.”

Despite Auckland’s suburban sprawl, Papakura High has retained its many playing fields
Despite Auckland’s suburban sprawl, Papakura High has retained its many playing fields, meaning it is often a venue for large tournaments.
Robert and Wendy are firm friends, attending each other's rugby games
Robert and Wendy are firm friends, attending each other's rugby games regularly throughout the season.
The girls' rugby team gathers for a karakia after the game
The girls' rugby team gathers for a karakia after the game. The students will regularly pray at important events, despite rarely attending church.
Robert has high hopes of playing rugby or league for a club side
Robert has high hopes of playing rugby or league for a club side after he finishes high school.
The First XV were galvanised by the death of one of their former players, becoming a tight-knit group
The First XV were galvanised by the death of one of their former players, becoming a tight-knit group.

Stories about families sleeping in cars hit the national news in the middle of the year. Unable to afford rent, parents position their packed vehicles in quiet public places, most notably at Papakura’s Bruce Pulman park, where a shadowy car community convenes every night at dusk.

It is yet another grim side-effect of the insidious housing crisis plaguing the city. Since the year 13 students were born, Auckland property prices have increased from three times the median income to almost 10 times, with the average house value closing in on $1 million. Tenants are spending more on rent than ever, with the lowest earners paying an average of half their income on housing costs. Home ownership has plummeted, and is predicted to sink further, particularly in suburbs like Papakura where investors know they can make a profitable yield.

That winter, Papakura High social worker Josy Whittaker sees families packing up 20 people to a two-bedroom rental, or leasing garages that aren’t properly insulated or plumbed. The intense overcrowding brings Third World rates of infectious disease, particularly where families can only afford limited heating so crowd together to sleep in one, warm room.

The school does what it can to counter the effects of poverty on its kids. There is a free nurse and doctor, a social worker, a youth worker and a counsellor. Charity lunches are provided to anyone who wants one, averaging around 50 students a day. Shoes and jackets are kept on hand for teenagers who turn up without warm clothes. But because the programmes require self-selection, many of the neediest students are reluctant to come forward and risk the stigma associated with being poor.

“So some of them do feel shame,” Whittaker says. “Because everyone is going to know they’ve got no food at home.”

Additionally, some of the students don’t like the clothing because its heavy branding means everyone will know they’ve taken charity. Rohs disagrees with this. In the middle of winter he spends a day wearing one of the jackets himself, to prove there’s nothing wrong with it.

From most principals, it would be patronising, but Rohs knows what it’s like to be poor. His immigrant father died while he was a teenager and the family went on welfare. The way he feels about the students is shaped by this and the stories he heard about his parents’ deprivation under fascist rule in Austria.

“By the time I was a teenager, money was very, very scarce,” he says. “But we had a culture back then where there was a profound sense of gratitude in what we received as a family in terms of meeting our needs. We just learnt that was life and you have to accept it.”

At the same time, he is enraged that what he sees every day in the school happens in a wealthy country, not the middle of a world war.

“From the stories I hear of our families and some of their living conditions, what I’m seeing is a frightening disparity in our society and I don’t think the Government really understands just how serious that is,” he says.

Records show New Zealand now has the widest income gap between rich and poor since the 1980s. But as inequality has grown, so has society’s acceptance of it, with surveys showing public support for the rich paying more tax has fallen over time.

Rohs believes segregation is partly to blame for the hardening of opinions.

“Those who grow up in privilege find it hard to grasp what our world looks like. Our kids grow up with a world-view that is so narrow and so limited that it’s quite scary,” he says.

“Education has got to compensate for that … and it’s not that I need to give them a sandwich, it’s about giving our kids the opportunity to actually experience what a rich life is all about.”

The school tries to give its students as many opportunities as possible. But despite the extra decile funding Papakura receives from the Government, it is never enough to go around, particularly as the school subsidises some uniforms and trips for its most needy kids. And while other schools can rely on expensive international student fees, parent donations and fundraising to plug the gaps, just 8 per cent of Papakura’s $100 student fees were paid last year. The total sum of its local fundraising was $3630. It enrolled no fee-paying students from overseas.

Papakura's Member of Parliament Judith Collins opened the school’s new Pasifika Centre
Papakura's Member of Parliament Judith Collins opened the school’s new Pasifika Centre. She later posed for pictures with the head prefects and John Rohs.

Each member of the 1st XV wears a strip of tape around his wrist. The bands are labelled with the name “Sione” and a heart. Sione, a talented sportsman, committed suicide in 2014. Today his former team-mates will play in his honour, and after the game will travel to the unveiling of his headstone together.

The team are chatting on the stands in the gym, damp after their warm-up, when the coach walks through the swinging double doors with a troubled look on his face. The game isn’t at 10am, he says, the regional administrator got the time wrong. Papakura will not play until 12.

“Oh what, we’re going to miss Sione’s service,” Robert says.

“I know it’s annoying,” the coach says.

“Yeah that’s annoying as f***,” Robert says. The others murmur in agreement, some asking if they should just leave. None do.

Life at Papakura is characterised by this sort of chaos. Someone is always late, something is always forgotten. Plans are made and cancelled. Promises are broken. The students largely take it in their stride, but today Robbie cannot hide his disappointment.

The coach promises: “I will make sure they apologise.”

Within an hour Robert has got himself together again. He has been taking leadership courses with a local charity, The Rising Foundation, which also teaches resilience and life-skills, and it seems to be paying off. In the team huddle he first leads a prayer, and then gives the boys a rousing talk.

“Today you’re playing for school, playing for family, playing for your brother. Do it for Noni.”

The boys play with dedication through driving rain to win 20-14. At the end of the game the opposing team captain pays a special tribute to the Papakura side, acknowledging the depth of their loss.

Suicide is a constant spectre in communities like Papakura. Rohs is struck by the students’ lack of self-esteem, in and out of the classroom.

“It was the first thing I said when I arrived. The most important thing for Papakura High School is for our young people to develop the self-belief that they can achieve.”

Ideally, Rohs says he would like to get enough funding to support several special-interest academies - in carving, performing arts, military training, or sport - to help the students gain NCEA credits and confidence doing something they enjoy. Many of the students enter high school with such low literacy levels it can be a long time before they begin to experience success, which in turn affects their attitude towards learning.

Papakura has so far applied for a military services academy. With $100,000 a school can host 20 places, which means 20 more students staying at school. The application has not yet been successful, but Rohs says the school will try again.

It will also continue working with The Rising Foundation, who have a social worker on site. Unfortunately, however, the foundation only has limited funding. Entries are limited to the most at-risk children, plus a handful of others with leadership potential.

For now, those who fall in the gaps are left to find saviour somewhere else.

As an experiment, Papakura High decides to open its doors for extra tuition during school holidays. On the first day, a handful of young people arrive promptly at 9am.

Deputy principal Kelly Petersen is not surprised. “The kids love being at school,” she says. “The ones who are here might be some of the ratbags as well but they love being here.”

A former teacher at Aorere College, another low-decile high school nearby, Petersen is the new head of pastoral care. She is professional, and whip smart, and happy to do whatever is needed to make a point, once rewarding a boy who broke up a fight with a pizza, ignoring the pleading from his friends who chose instead to film the incident on their phones.

“We are trying to change their way of thinking,” she says. “What they’re exposed to in their daily lives or home or community, they feel is normal. They think it’s normal to fight for what you want or to talk to a person in a not very nice way. But actually we know and they know that it’s not normal social behaviour,” she says.

Petersen wants the school to be welcoming, believing much of the students’ behaviour stems from feeling like they don’t belong. From experience, she knows if the school can help the kids feel safe, they have a higher chance at success, whatever that may be.

“If a kid can leave the school at the end of year 12 but they’re confident, or they can speak well, and they’ve got a job or they’ve got into a course, for some of them that’s success,” she says.

“For some kids to come to school every bloody day is a success. I wouldn’t be able to get through what [they] get through and put on a happy face.”

For Jayden Schell, success and belonging come at once in August, in a heady rush of events that seem a constant surprise to him, after so many years of self-doubt.

Firstly, he turns 18, and is allowed to host some friends and family at the local Cosmopolitan Club. The morning of the party, there is a knock at his bedroom door. He ignores it, engrossed in a computer game.

“What are you doing?” a voice booms. Jayden looks around. It is his dad, who has flown in from Australia to surprise him, and for once Jayden, normally the loud one, is totally speechless.

“It was shocking to see my dad in this environment,” he says. “He’s never been here. It was awesome. We had lunch, went to the supermarket, he made a fool of himself as always but that’s my dad, that’s where I get it from.”

Jayden spent all of his early years in Australia with his father before moving back to Papakura to live with his mum Kareena. In a speech at Jayden’s party, she admits it wasn’t an easy start.

“I was always wondering how you were doing, did you miss me? Did you remember that I loved you?” she says. “But you have grown into a fine young man.”

Jayden hugs his mum, and briefly thanks everyone for coming. Among the attendees are a bunch of boys he now counts as his best friends.

“Last year I envied that they had that friendship, they already had a group,” he says. “So I tried to get in there and started talking, talking, talking. And then we became friends all of a sudden. It’s cool. They accept me.”

Papakura High’s drama class travelled to Te Kauwhata to perform for the primary children
Papakura High’s drama class travelled to Te Kauwhata to perform for the primary children there. Jayden shone as the ringleader.
Metoyer Manuel, Jayden’s ball date, was a friend from his part-time job at a building supply store
Metoyer Manuel, Jayden’s ball date, was a friend from his part-time job at a building supply store.
Jayden’s mum Kareena held a small pre-ball event at her house
Jayden’s mum Kareena held a small pre-ball event at her house, before the students went by bus to the ball in Mangere.
Both Jayden and his father have the tendency to play the clown
Both Jayden and his father have the tendency to play the clown.

Jayden also works up the courage to invite a friend to the ball, a girl he knows through his job at Mitre 10.

But perhaps best of all, Jayden gets the lead role in the class pantomime, as a circus ringleader. When the students perform the final show at a primary school he is so engaging the kids mob him afterwards, chasing him through the hall.

Drama is Jayden’s favourite subject, the one class he looked forward to during the long years when he felt so out-of-place.

“Drama was kind of like therapy in a way. In drama, that’s a place where you can be yourself,” he says. Despite the rough start, Jayden says he’s happy he ended up at Papakura.

“I wouldn’t have figured out I had a passion for art and film and drama if I didn’t come here. If I went to Rosehill I wouldn’t have turned out how I am now. I like the way I am now.”

John Rohs has begun to obsess about Papakura High School. It is the last thing he thinks of at night, and the first thing when he wakes up. Sometimes, it even permeates his dreams.

The third term has seen a flurry of events. As well as the school ball, a Tongan cultural evening; a catered lunch for local business owners; the opening of the school’s Pasifika Centre; and unprecedented parent attendance at its Matariki celebrations for the Māori New Year.

Rohs is busy working on another new project, when future mayor of Auckland, Phil Goff, drops a bomb. A live radio debate on diversity has somehow turned to South Auckland schools. Goff explains he has first-hand knowledge of their limitations, his children went to a decile 1, Papakura High.

"I don't think it does its duty by the children that go there,” Goff says. "I think we are not getting the quality we need in some of those schools.”

Rohs is infuriated. When he’s cross he gets very quiet, and there is a long pause after he hears the broadcast.

John Rohs arrives at school early and leaves late
John Rohs arrives at school early and leaves late, travelling both ways by train in an attempt to settle into Auckland life.

“I can’t comment on Phil Goff’s children’s experience of being in this school. He is free as a parent to have whatever opinion he wants to. I respect his right to have that opinion,” he says.

“I can’t argue with the fact we’ve had unfavourable ERO reports. My issue is that out of all the schools in Auckland to talk about he chose Papakura High School.”

Despite best efforts, rumours of the school closure are still circulating, and Goff’s comments come at a particularly inopportune time - when parents are thinking about enrolment for next year.

“It’s vexing because we are working really hard to turn it around,” Rohs says.

The negativity is also a distraction from his next plan: reforming Papakura High School’s structure.

Rohs has decided to realign the school more closely with kaupapa Māori. The traditional “house” system will be replaced by a whānau-based model. Leadership roles will have Māori names, as will buildings, and greetings will be in Te Reo. Students will have a larger role in decision-making at the school. Rohs will move his office from its dark hole at the back of the school to a new reception area, where he will be more visible and accessible to parents and kids.

“The cultural context is critical for me,” Rohs says. “Too many young Māori leave school with no qualifications. And it can’t be that young Māori are not intelligent, it can’t be they are not equal in terms of their brain power as non-Māori, it has to be factors within the education system that contribute to that sense of failure.”

New Zealand’s historically monocultural approach has left Māori alienated, he says. Ensuring whānau can engage at school without having to repress their own culture will help the students feel more positive about learning, meaning better achievement and less disruption.

“If Māori are succeeding in school then everyone is going to be succeeding at school,” he says.

He plans to make the change at the end of 2017, with new leadership roles to be appointed before the end of the year.

Wendy Savieti is at work when she sees the Counties Manukau women’s rugby team playing on national TV. She is waitressing part-time in the evenings now, her first job, a minimum-wage role at a sports bar in Takanini. It is a busy day, but as soon as she sees the game on screen she knows she has to get out of there, before the customers see her cry.

“I had to cool off. I was sad. I just thought … that I should have been there,” she says. “That I could have been there and instead I decided to be [at work].”

Wendy only played one more game after her concussion, eventually going against her parents wishes to join in the girls’ final. She scored two tries and came off the field elated, to be met by a Counties Manukau scout, who invited her to trial for the team.

“It was exhilarating,” she says. “After the concussion I wasn’t sure if it was going to come about... I thought it was too late, but he said to come along.”

When the dates for the trials were announced, however, Wendy realised they clashed with work. It was a dilemma - she was saving the money she earned to help pay for a family trip to Tonga next year, for her grandfather’s unveiling. He died last year. His picture in the family living room is still decorated with a purple lei, out of affection.

Many of Wendy’s relatives on her father’s side still live in Tonga, and the family regularly sends them money. For Wendy, this is not an issue, even though sometimes it means a financial struggle.

“We’re not the richest family in the world but my dad has always provided for us and I know things are really bad back in the islands. Compared to them I feel pretty privileged,” she says.

Wendy’s dad, Ian, works shifts at a distributor’s nearby. Her mum, Mareta, who left school aged 13 and had Wendy when she was 16, looks after the children and their home. Neither of the parents asked their daughter to get a job.

“I just feel like it’s the right thing to do. I always try to put family first, before the needs of myself,” she says. It will be her first trip to Tonga, and she wants the unveiling to be special. “I want to make sure our entire family is part of that and we aren’t missing out.”

Putting rugby aside, while painful, has left Wendy more time to focus on school. She has now appeared at dozens of Papakura events, always dressed immaculately in her black skirt and forest-green blazer, always ready to give a speech or to help out when needed.

Equally, her academic work is well under control. By the time exams roll around she has already got enough credits to pass NCEA Level 3, the only one in her year who is so well-prepared. Wendy wants to win a scholarship to university, with the ultimate goal of getting a well-paying job and no longer feeling like a burden to her parents.

“I always ask my dad what he wants for us and it’s like, he wants us to have good jobs. I think that’s the best thing I could give my dad, for us to be financially stable,” she says. “ I just want him to not feel stressed, not to worry about us. That’s my motivation.”

Exams arrive at Papakura, bringing the most stressful time of year. Rohs refuses to let the seniors go on study leave unless all of their assessments are finished, so the teachers are kept busier than usual marking essays or projects well into November. Ministry of Education achievement monitors in the school add extra pressure. The line to the career counsellor’s door is never-ending, with students frantically applying for scholarships right down to deadline.

By December, the staff are exhausted. Studies have found those who work in low-decile schools suffer more burnout compared to those who work with privileged students. Their work is draining, and requires the teachers to go above and beyond repeatedly, sometimes with little gain. For year 13 dean Rachel Fagan, it is exasperating watching students leave two or three credits off gaining University Entrance and she does her best to chase them down, sometimes making home visits out of desperation.

Robert Downes is one of those on on her watchlist. Despite making it to the final round of applicants for a scholarship to study sports science, he hasn’t finished his required workload and Fagan is concerned he won’t make the grades to join the course. Robert has a girlfriend now, but she’s not the problem. He’s suffering under a weight of expectation and feels overwhelmed.

“It’s pretty hard. Because it’s like you’re multitasking but more than multitasking. There’s heaps of stuff on your shoulders,” he says. “My dad just keeps telling me, ‘don’t do what I did, don’t drop out’.”

Jayden, too, is having issues. From a high in the middle of the year, he is somewhat subdued, and clearly under stress. As well as trying to finish his portfolios for photography, painting and design, there is tension at home, some of it stemming from his decision to move out next year. “My mum was really upset. She doesn’t want me to leave the house but I’m going to do it,” he says. “I’m going to go, get my own independence and learn what it’s like to be an adult.”

Meanwhile, Rohs has been engaged in a much bigger battle, over the future of the school. Ministry of Education officials wanted to use mid-year roll projections to cut staffing numbers for 2017, under which the school would lose seven of its 40 teachers. The impact would have been devastating, despite Government assurances Papakura wouldn’t close.

“They can say that, but if you’re going to lose teachers it doesn’t take long before a school is in shutdown mode,” Rohs says. “It was going to shut down a whole lot of programmes in the school at a time we want to increase the programmes in our school.”

Rohs fought back, hard. He argued there were indications the roll would grow next year, and pleaded with the ministry to give the school a break from the constant redundancies that had seen staff further demoralised each year. Fortunately, the ministry listened, and agreed to keep the staff reduction at bay.

The news comes just before prizegiving, giving Rohs a boost before his final speech of the year.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how the next few years at school unfold,” he says.

“The potential in Papakura is enormous. It’s the kind of place you can form a love for.”

Prizegiving is short and noisy, punctuated by impromptu haka. The Pasifika parents bring armfuls of candy leis, draping them around the necks of their children in rare gestures of public pride.

Jayden is awarded top of drama, a trophy he gleefully shows to his mum before she gives him a tearful hug. He will be going to university after working for a year to save money. Wendy gets several prizes, including a $1000 gift and a trophy for coming top of all the Pasifika students. Her mum films the whole ceremony, her dad watching from the back with two little nieces who run up and down the aisle.

Despite his European background, Rohs speaks competent Te Reo Maori
Despite his European background, Rohs speaks competent Te Reo Māori, and is learning bits of Samoan and Tongan as he goes along.
Wendy Savieti was the first in her cohort to finish all her work for NCEA
Wendy Savieti was the first in her cohort to finish all her work for NCEA. She will go to university next year.
Robert applied for a Maori sports scholarship
Robert applied for a Māori sports scholarship, to be announced at prizegiving.
Jayden won the Stagecraft Cup, for excellence in drama
Jayden won the Stagecraft Cup, for excellence in drama.
Robert Downes
“Every time I got called up Wendy would be there and we would say we were proud of each other,” Robert says.

Robert is nervous, and trying to hide it, but his knee keeps jiggling and he is sweating. All he is thinking of is his dad, and how he will react if he gets the MIT scholarship. He gets several awards for dedication to the school before the prize is finally announced as his.

He ambles on stage, smiling, and gives Rohs a hongi. He has done it. Both he and Wendy will be the first in their families to go to university.

“Everyone kept looking at us, on stage. I was trying to stay humble,” Robert says. “I sort of broke the chain in my family. But they’re the reason I am where I am now. It’s a huge achievement.”

Wendy feels a mixture of sadness and disbelief. “It feels surreal. I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she says. “In my family we weren’t expected to go as far in school, and that goes to say for a lot of families in Papakura as well. You’re expected to mature faster so all you’re taught is being a mum or going to get a job. It isn’t an expectation of us to go all the way.”

She has decided to study a Bachelor of Arts at AUT, but has to wait to hear about whether it will be scholarship-funded or whether she will be required to get a student loan.

A few days later, Rohs is in his new office surveying the placement of his furniture. He’s hung his favourite photos on the wall - including a canvas of the Papakura school leaders. A bunch of boxes are in one corner, ready for the care packages he plans to put together for needy families before Christmas. “On my income it’s the least I can do,” he says. “It’s not a big deal.”

Rohs looks tired, but is energised by an encounter with a boy that morning, where the teenager proudly introduced the principal to his father for the first time. It’s still the students that Rohs enjoys the most about the job, the interactions that keep him focused. Though it’s the end of the year he’s fizzing with ideas for 2017, dreaming of creating a Māori immersion unit, and looking forward to working in his light new space. He’s in a reflective mood.

“If I think about what change might have occurred, I focus on the fact that I felt that the most important thing I needed to do this year was to give people a sense of hope,” he says. “And I feel like I have done that.”

“It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to dig very deep in my resources. Of course there’s been moments when I’ve really had to ask myself was I crazy coming up here. I can truly and honestly say I’ve never had a moment of regret. Not one.”

He looks out along the row of oaks where, in five minutes, a bell will ring and hundreds of students will spill from their classrooms and stream out through the gates. The afternoon sun shines through the leaves and catches the stained glass windows of the marae. As far as he can see, the future for Papakura High School is bright.