To be fair it has to be free

Categories: Wellington.

Something rather special is happening in a primary school in the eastern suburbs of Wellington. Kahurangi School in Miramar, rated decile two with 135 pupils from many ethnicities, is trying to live the dream of free education.

The parents, staff and board under the guidance of the driven and determined school principal Kyran Smith have decided not to charge parents anything for their children to attend the school.

Not a cent in donations, voluntary contributions, payment for class outings. None of the school fees that state schools aren’t supposed to charge, although most do.

“We don’t offer anything less in the school because we don’t seek extra funding from parents. Instead we change our needs. We look for savings, and we operate within our operational grant (from the Ministry of Education),” says Kyran.

“We have chosen to be a free school, but we are careful about who we share that with.

“We want to remove any barriers to involving families, and money, or the lack of it, is a barrier, but we don’t seek to generalise our approach to other schools.

The school seeks partnerships. The most important one is with the parents, who are expected to contribute time and skills instead of money.

“We have volunteers to assist with the reading programme; coaches for the mini-ball and netball games. Families come with us on school trips. Parents come to meetings and special assemblies a lot.

“Many of them have huge work commitments. In this community they work long hours for low wages, but they can offer themselves during the school day, and work in the evening.

Kyran says there are many skills in the school community. “We have a mum who applies for grants for us. Another parent is a trained tree planter. As relationships have developed, we have found more and more skills in the parents’ group.

She agrees that making the school “free” is a political statement.

“We are asked to break down barriers, and improve partnerships. Those things make a true difference to the learning experience of the students.

Politics aside, being free shows we want to remove any barrier.

“As a child, I often had an envelope from the school pinned to my clothing.

“I never took the notes home from school that asked for money for something, because my family just couldn’t afford whatever it was. I played just one sport a year – netball.

The school has European, Maori, Polynesian, Asian, migrant and refugee children attending, but “we don’t discuss it. It is not who we are.”

Kahurangi is just a street away from a rather more elite private boys’ school, Scots College.

A class of year five Scots’ boys raised $800 for Kahurangi selling lollies and home baking to their fellow pupils.

Kyran says the relationship is reciprocaL “They use our fields for sport, so (it’s) not wholly focussed on raising money,”

The school also gets help from the Port Nicholson Rotary Club which has bought electric pencil sharpeners and supplies pictorial dictionaries and other books.

Extending use of the school library to the community is under discussion with the Wellington City CounciL In the new school building the modest library was deliberately located in the foyer of the school opposite the public counter of the school office.

Kahurangi was formed by merging the Strathmore and Miramar South schools. Initially it operated on the Miramar School site while the Strathmore school buildings got a three million dollar make over; the school moved to Strathmore in term two this year.

Kyran Smith got the top job in the merged school She’d been Deputy Principal at Miramar South School for eight years and Assistant Principal and Senior Teacher before that.

“I chanced on teaching. I worked as an untrained pre-school teacher and found that I was quite good at it. I enjoyed it, so I went and got trained.

“This community is perfect for me. I am driven, social-justice-oriented, and I very much desire equity.

Inequality makes me angry. I want every child to be equally deserving.

“There ought not to be levels of education according to what the parents can afford. We are a school that doesn’t assume there are gaps (of income and social status) among our families. We are committed to evening out the playing field.”

An analogy about physical height makes her point about income disparities in education.

“Short kids need stepladders to get up to higher levels, but taller kids shouldn’t be forced to use the stepladders.

“My ideal for the school is that no one feels isolated. Everyone should feel able to join in. Everyone wants to feel connected with others.”

Her beliefs reflect her own past.

“I was fostered as child. I didn’t have the easiest life. I come from hardship.

“Relationships were key for me. With no parents close by, my support came from the many. I had people that I admired. I feel fortunate that I didn’t take anything for granted. Life is not easy for some.

“I am passionate about not saying that this school is disadvantaged – that’s just a statistical rating, it’s not based on the (quality of the) people.

“We are not helpless – or poor. I was in a decile eight or nine school and I felt isolated. I hope and I strive to make sure that it’s not like that here. This school is perfect for me.”