Offer the right support and Pasifika students will succeed, says mentor
Students taking part in a mentoring scheme for Maori and Pasifika students have achieved academic results far beyond the national norm and those involved say it comes down to building quality relationships and levelling the playing field.
The original group of “Dreamers” chosen by the charitable trust was made up of 53 predominantly Pacific Island students and a few Maori. Fifteen of them have since moved to Australia. Of the remaining 38 people, 31 remain in high school in their last year. Twelve of them are placed in enough subjects to be able to obtain University Entrance. There are another 10 that are on target to achieve NCEA level 3 this year.
This is in stark contrast to NZQA data from one of the local high schools, where only one out of five Pasifika students graduated with University Entrance in 2011.
Project coordinator Ant Backhouse does not accept the idea that students all have an equal chance to succeed. This attitude is a denial of the fact that systemic inequalities exist in education, he says.
“Largely what a Pacific Island or Maori student brings to the start of year nine is quite different to that of a middle class European New Zealander,” says Mr Backhouse.
“A Pākeha student may have parents who have achieved higher education, work in professional jobs, can provide resources and tutors for their children and have the connections within their own businesses to be able to provide mentors.”
Mr Backhouse believes addressing the discrepancy of achievement is about giving these students similar opportunities.
As an advocator for his “Dreamers” he has provided support with such things as goal setting, liaising with teachers and principals on behalf of the students and helping them understand the criteria for acceptance into classes.
The programme includes an after school centre for the students with quiet study spaces, computers and one-on-one volunteer tutoring support. Also on offer is the opportunity to shadow people in professions which students may be interested in.
“It’s bringing all that outside support in and putting it alongside the existing education system to be able to help those kids,” he says.
Mount Albert year 13 students Tevita Fualalo and Jade Nicolas are two of the “Dreamers” who are set to graduate and go on to tertiary study next year. Both are aware how lucky they are to have been part of the programme.
“It’s good to see that a lot of us "Dreamers" are still in school,” says Jade.
“I’ve seen a few go through some really bad times and then manage to pick themselves up just because here we have support and people who believe in us.”
Tevita acknowledges how much the tutoring support has helped and wishes the programme was offered to more students as his friends often ask him how they can get in.
While both students have good relationships with their teachers this year, they feel some teachers make assumptions about them as Pacific Island students.
“The first day you walk into class the teacher already has an idea of who you are. If you’re an Islander they’re straight on you. The white kids can play around but not us. We don’t get the same treatment,” says Tevita.
Fostering meaningful teacher student relationships is something Mr Backhouse sees as integral to improving engagement and achievement levels.
“These kids realise when a teacher thinks they are not going to make it or just automatically writes them off or talks down to them so they just disengage.
“It’s like the iceberg theory. Only a third of it sits above the water. Do teachers and principals just see the student before them who might misbehave and give them a bit of lip or do they have a quality relationship with them to the point that they can see underlying potential in that student?
Another issue is the lack of alternative pathways for students not interested in pursuing academic study. There are schools that offer excellent vocational or service-based pathways for students but these are not the norm, he says.
For students who wish to continue with academic subjects but do not meet the strict entrance criteria set by the school, the default option is to put them into “soft unit standard-based subjects” like tourism or low level English. The problem here is these courses do not lead to a qualification valued by tertiary providers or employers.
While Mr Backhouse acknowledges that placing students into classes they are not ready for can lead to a lack of motivation, the opposite can also be true.
“It’s like in sports, you set people a challenge and they rise up to it. Obviously you don’t want to just dump kids in a class and hope they are going to cope. You need to provide resources and support to help them achieve their goals. I think that’s what this programme is largely about and what we’ve been able to do for some of our Dreamers.”
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