Aranui High School recently celebrated a special achievement among their Pasifika students: a 100 per cent pass rate in NCEA Level 1 and Level 2. Principal John Rohs explains how the effort to create cultural connections has brought the Aranui community together, and is fostering results, of both the measurable and more abstract kind.
L – R: Pasifika liaison worker Sia Batchelor, past Aranui students Jules, Antonio and Lesieli Filimoehala, and principal John Rohs
John Rohs has been principal at Aranui High since 2006, and Pasifika liaison worker Sia Batchelor has been working there since 2005. At that time, Aranui was a school with financial challenges and one the Pasifika community had reportedly mixed feelings about.
Many in the community are now saying that John’s open style of leadership – and the dedication of staff – have turned this negative perception around; the Pasifika community now wholeheartedly embraces the school. How did the Aranui team connect so successfully with the community, and how has that onnection influenced the achievement of Pasifika students?
“In June of my first year, I did something new; I invited the whole Pasifika community to school,” says John. The following year, John gave a speech to the Pasifika School Community Parent Liaison (PSCPL) group entirely in Samoan. Fuetanoa Kose Seinafo of the Ministry of Education’s Christchurch office says, “Everyone was in awe and clapping because John had shown his commitment to embracing them; their identity, language and culture.”
“This was a clear signal that Aranui High was serious about Pasifika achievement and the role of families in it,” says John. “A key driver of achievement is that Pasifika parents have high expectations of Aranui High; that their kids will get to the top here.” Sia agrees and says they are all capable.
John mentions the school’s head boy, Sea Muaimalae, an articulate young man who talks about Aranui High School as a family. Sea used to live in New Brighton but because of the earthquakes, now lives in Burnside and has to travel from there to Aranui. This is a significant distance to travel and makes the school day a lot longer. John adds that it also puts pressure on the family in terms of cost and in terms of choosing a school for the younger siblings.
John believes the impact of the earthquakes has been devastating for the Pasifika community. Prior to 2011, many families lived side-by-side in clusters: grandparents may have lived next door, and uncles and aunts often lived across the street or close by. As well as destroying buildings and roads on the east side of town, the earthquakes have damaged the infrastructure of Pasifika families, says John. This is significant, because the perceived importance of Aranui High in maintaining bonds among the Pasifika community means that parents now want their children to attend.
John says there are a number of Tongan families in the Aranui-New Brighton area now and their children attend Aranui High, so the school has become a significant part of the Tongan community. This year, there are two Tongan prefects: Pascale Kata and Solomone Leka.
Responsibility breeds maturity
One way of building a stronger sense of community within Aranui High was to reorganise the school last year into different whares/whānau groups. A particularly positive outcome from this shift has been that older students are developing greater leadership skills because they now have specific responsibilities for a group of students.
“When new kids enrol, we can place them in the tutor group with the prefects and they take care of them,” says John. “If Tongan kids come to Aranui High after having issues at other schools, they are immediately embraced by their Tongan prefect; it’s inherent in Pasifika families that older siblings look after younger siblings and this is just an extension of that – so a kid can feel safe and cared for straight away.”
As part of the ongoing renewal efforts taking place in Christchurch following the earthquakes, many will be aware that great change is about to impact the Aranui education community. It was announced in 2013 that four schools – Aranui High, Aranui School, Avondale School and Wainoni School – will merge to become Aranui Community Campus, catering for Years 1 – 13, at the site of the current Aranui High School. John believes that an inherent focus on community means that Pasifika families will take this significant shift in their stride.
“I think it will be an easier transition than for non-Pasifika families. That said, the process needs to be a careful one and Aranui High is working with Aranui Primary and other schools in the area to make sure it’s not suddenly a big, scary environment for any of the kids.”
In terms of taking their next steps after leaving Aranui High, John says there aren’t really any common themes in the choices of the school’s Pasifika students.
It’s a mixed bag, says John, but very few Pasifika students leave Christchurch to go to university. Instead they go to the University of Canterbury or the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT). Head boy Sea says students have excellent transitional support from Aranui High School through the Outreach Programme, and that CPIT and the university both do a great job supporting their students. St Mary’s Anglican Church also raises money that’s put toward scholarships for Aranui High students.
However, John says there is a need for more robust follow-through in providing careers advice, to make sure that students are taking the right subjects at Year 13.
Jules (Sulieti) Filimoehala, a past Aranui High head girl, has her own thoughts on what makes Aranui a great environment for Pasifika achievement. Jules is now studying criminal justice at the University of Canterbury.
”It’s the connection with teachers – they are like family; it’s not just a student/teacher relationship but they’re more like our second parents. I was supported with my other commitments, not just my academic ones. Teachers care about you and you know you can always go to them for anything,” she says.
Jules says that she learnt real leadership skills at Aranui High, which included becoming good at public speaking. She believes this is an advantage that’s part of the community spirit at the school, that others may not gain so easily.
Jules’ siblings Antonio and Lesieli also have personal views on the Aranui High School environment. Antonio is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Social Work and Lesieli a Bachelor of Education to become a physical education teacher.
“It was the teachers,” says Antonio. “They gave us awesome support.” He says that their parents maintained a level of discipline with them that they needed and this also helped reinforce the importance of education. “It made me realise education is the key.”
Another significant factor for Antonio was being the first Tongan at Aranui High. He said Mr Rohs embraced him and his culture; his siblings had a similarly conducive experience. “Jules was even lucky enough to go to Samoa while at Aranui High and I have been to Tonga,” he says.
Lesieli is sports mad, so this was the ‘hook’ that made her want to come to Aranui High. She also says that she feels that she came to Aranui High with underdeveloped values, but left with a solid sense of respect for others, which will inform her teaching career. She hopes to instil the same values in her students.
Of course, influences outside of school, such as family and church, are essential to the development of learners. The Filimoehala siblings agree about the importance of the support they get outside school.
“Your first teaching and learning is at home and what you learn at home, you bring to school,” says Antonio.
“Our parents are our number one supporters. Dad tells everyone how proud he is of us – sometimes we’re like, hey Dad, tone it down a bit! Mum is very humble.”
All three siblings agree that good leadership at school is essential, and that it was significant for them that Mr Rohs believed in Pasifika.
“More than that though, he also acknowledged us as Tongan. He didn’t lump us in with other Pasifika students – he respected our Tongan culture and made us feel proud of who we are.”
“He always turned up to our meetings at lunch times. He recognised our potential and encouraged us to realise it. He also gets to know the students – at lunch times, for example – and would sometimes come over just to talk.
“Mum and Dad even praise him at home – they say he’s a Palagi version of a Tongan.”
This is also a recurring theme because Tamati Faletanoa’i, who belonged to one of the key Pasifika families in Christchurch, announced at a Pasifika prize-giving event: “Our principal is Samoan.” This is the biggest compliment John could be paid.
John also attends as many Pasifika events in the community as he can.
John says that when he recently visited the Filimoehala parents at home, they presented him with a woven mat. This was a proud moment for him and he treasures the mat, though it’s so large he hasn’t yet found a place for it!
Finally, the students point out the importance of having a Pasifika Dean at school.
Lesieli says, “Hire them straight away! A Pasifika Dean knows what’s expected of you at home, as well as at school, so it makes you behave more!”
Jules says they also understand your value system inherently, so there is no confusion or wasting time explaining things – they already know.
The relationship John and Sia have with this community will not end when their tenures at Aranui High conclude. This is a family and like all families, they are different individually yet share a common bond.
There will be mixed emotions at the closure of Aranui High, but the spirit and strength of this community will fill the corridors of the Aranui Community Campus for many years to come.