Rototuna Senior High School: Redefining NCEA

Rototuna Senior High School – thoroughly modern from its sleek design to its fresh approach to NCEA

There’s nothing like a trip to Rototuna High Schools to make you feel grateful for Google Maps. The schools (there’s a junior high and a senior high) are somewhat off the beaten track, and in fact appear to have been accidentally dropped into a marsh rather than inside a suburb. Once inside the school, it’s even more interesting. The schools are thoroughly modern, from the grey water tanks in the roof to its determinedly student-centred approach.

Rototuna is in Hamilton’s north, a rapidly growing suburb built on the bed of an ancient lake. While the school complex is a seven-minute drive from Rototuna central, its surrounding land is being gobbled up by new housing so quickly that already plans are afoot to extend the roll.

Rototuna Junior High School opened in January 2016, with a foundation roll of 634. Eighteen months on, the roll sits at 960 – and is projected to rise to 1,200 by 2020.

As staff and students settled in to the junior school, construction began on the adjoining senior high school. Natasha Hemara took up the role of senior school principal in April 2016, a task involving collaboration with the build team, recruitment of 20 staff and preparing the school’s vision and curriculum for opening in January 2017.

“It was a wonderful experience to watch the building grow from the earth. I’d look at it every day to see what had been added,” says Ms Hemara. “I was very connected to the build team and they were very responsive to my ideas.”

Natasha Hemara is the founding principal of Rototuna Senior High School

In fact, Ms Hemara’s first meeting at Rototuna was to discuss where ports and cabling would be installed. “I hadn’t even seen the plans!” she recalls (though that did not dissuade her from altering them).

“In the junior school, power points were under the desks and table legs got in the way so in here we had them installed higher up. And we changed the order for cupboards to ones with wheels so they could be moved easily.”

When it was time for data projectors to be installed, Ms Hemara had to work out the path of sunlight for each learning space because there are no curtains or blinds in this school.

The entire space feels seamless; glass doors glide between open and closed, colour schemes are earthy, and the usual high school clatter is swallowed by acoustic wall coverings and ceiling tiles. The temperature is comfortable and the air is fresh with none of the stale hamburger-type smells usually associated with schools.

Facilities shared with the junior school include performing arts studios, a gym, music suites, a recording studio and a learning resource centre to name just a few. I think I’ve got high school envy.

The campus has attained a five-star green building rating with environmental technology such as rainwater harvest and smart controls for lighting and heating. Parking spaces are limited and cycling encouraged; an estimated 60 per cent of students cycle or scoot to school.

Ms Hemara’s last role was deputy director at Southern Cross Campus in South Auckland, where her focus was supporting teachers to transition to MLE pedagogy. She has also worked to provide support for teachers through Team Solutions (University of Auckland), been acting associate principal at Lynfield College in Auckland, and has been heavily involved in the national health and physical education community.

Her first few months at Rototuna involved a lot of meetings. “Meetings, decisions and lots of sitting there nodding as if I knew what I was doing. Then I’d spend each night reading and researching.”

During the day, she’d be getting acquainted with the community. “I’m here to serve this community but you can’t do that if you don’t know who they are.”

Meetings with local iwi were critical. A strong connection with Ngati Wairere underpins the vision and values of the school, and local history has influenced the naming and design of areas within the school and the curriculum. “It’s important for us to know the kaupapa, whenua, how we came to be. You don’t have to be Māori to respect that.

“Learning about Waikato has been huge. When the DPs (Megan Barry from Waitakere College and Sally Hart from Hobsonville Point Secondary School) and staff came on board, we did a bus tour of places of geographical importance in Waikato to help us connect with locals.”

They also focused on getting to know every year 10 student. “The most important thing was that we be connected to the junior high school because we need to provide a seamless transition to senior high.”

NCEA credits are limited to 80 across two years to encourage deeper learning

Together the leadership team came up with a vision for the school, to recapture the essence of education. “From our collective experience, we knew what was not working in schools. We were frustrated with education and how the shift in schools has become very ingrained into historical and structural ways of doing things. What’s dictated to kids is not necessarily what’s best for them, but rather how the school runs.

“We wanted to throw out what wasn’t working and recapture what education could be. Form time, for example – that’s a structure to read the roll and disseminate information in a lot of schools. My view is that all time in school should be learning time, and if it’s admin I would question why it is there. During our form times, the students self-manage, they read the notices then we have circle time so we can stay connected with each other and work with each other. Rigorous academic counselling also occurs in this time to support students with their decision making around progress and next steps.”

The curriculum is delivered in keeping with the advisory model in which two subjects are taught at once, none in isolation. Students recently completed a maths and PE module, Soar like a Mockingjay, inspired by dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games. “Students were ‘tributes’ and did the PE around understanding their bodies then the maths to analyse data. They practised archery then used statistics to work out how far they could shoot an arrow.”

NCEA level one achievement is not a major focus, but rather a two-year pathway towards level two. “We are redefining NCEA and how it looks; we don’t do the stock standard model, and we are working closely with NZQA to consider using portfolio evidence. This is about finding a balance, about staff and student well-being. Why make them do more assessment than is necessary?”

Walls are peppered with inspirational messages

Credits are limited to 80 over the two years, considerably fewer than many schools, “because we want deeper learning, not just a superficial view. Why would you focus on quantity at the expense of quality?

“We have listened to businesses and industry who are saying they don’t care about qualifications, it’s about the dispositions: are they resilient, can they alter and adapt responsively, can they build mutually respectful relationships?”

Instead of prefects, there are leadership teams such as well-being, culture, sport, community and arts. “Everyone has the potential to be a leader and our job is to support that. Why only support a few when you can grow many leaders? Leadership can take on many different forms.”

Developing leadership is also supported in the curriculum through impact projects in which students engage with authentic partners to provide service to the community. One impact project that is happening is ‘Te Rapa Are Us’ where senior high students have identified a need to support and integrate the Hamilton North students (special needs’ satellite school on site) more into the Rotouna High Schools’ campus. Students have created a range of activities with which they support the satellite students to make them feel more included in the campus community. “To me this is real life learning, having the time and support to develop skills that are not normally taught in schools such as kindness and respect, in a meaningful way.  

“It is not just about how many qualifications our students get. We want happy students who know what their potential place is in the world. If every kid who leaves is the best that they can be and knows where they are going, then we’ve done our job.”

Rototuna Senior High School is a decile 10 co-educational school for students in years 11, 12 and 13. It opened on February 2, 2017, and has a current roll of 101 year 11 students.

Images by year 11 student Connor Jensen and teacher Anna Pratt

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