Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Tapu Misa: No lack of nurture for South Auckland's young talent

It is never a good idea to venture into that area known as South Auckland at a time when the inhabitants happen to be feeling particularly aggrieved with the media, especially when you are the only representative of the accursed profession for miles.

But as I had an invitation to speak at the Otahuhu College prizegiving, and couldn't come up with a good enough excuse to turn it down, I went anyway, and endured the grumpy, but thankfully good-natured, complaints about the media's role in blackening the reputation of South Auckland, a place which doesn't actually exist on the map.

Otahuhu College, in case you didn't know, is right next door to Kings College, which is a cause of occasional confusion for Kings-bound visitors who mistakenly drive in and can't believe that such a nice building and grounds belong to the biggest decile one secondary school in the country.

But any confusion is dispelled the minute you enter the lovely old assembly hall and see the student body.

Very brown it is: 70 per cent Pacific, 12 per cent Maori, and about 14 per cent Asian. Pakeha students make up 3.5 per cent, which is nearly half what it was in 2002. I'm not sure whether it's white flight or simply the pressure of being a minority.

I imagine assemblies at the private school next door look very different.

Everyone, including the nuggety principal, Gil Laurenson, who flayed me, metaphorically speaking, as the nearest personification of The Media, was at pains to point out that many of the kids here are exceptionally talented and clever individuals, destined for great things.

And I don't doubt it. As I told a reader, who wrote after last week's column to say she agreed with black comedian Bill Cosby's assessment of poor black parents, some of these kids will achieve no matter what and a few will fail no matter what.

It's the big group in the middle, who could go either way, that concerns me most.

I sat next to the chair of the Board of Trustees, a Maori woman married to a Tongan. Her children have long since left the school but she continues to serve out of a sense of duty. Now there's an outmoded concept in these days of hyper-inflated salaries.

She told me, proudly, that her son is taking the Hippocratic Oath this week, and her daughter is finishing a degree.

She runs a homework centre, too, out of her garage, for 30 kids, every day of the week. When I congratulated her she gave me one of those looks. These are our kids, she said. If we don't do it, who will?

Someone told me she gave Howard Fancy, the Secretary for Education, quite a talking to when he visited a while ago, about how the kids here couldn't afford to wait around for his ministry to get its act together. But I'm not sure it had the desired effect.

Over a cuppa afterwards I met the two blond, green-eyed daughters of a former teacher who taught at Otahuhu College for 25 years. They come every year to present the Peter Taylor Memorial Prize in their father's honour, as did their mother before them.

They look as if they'd be more at home in Remuera than Otahuhu, but it turns out they are old girls of the school from the late 60s and 70s.

Their father and grandfather went to Kings, but their dad refused to teach anywhere else after coming to Otahuhu, and is credited with starting the school's first Maori club. Both women can remember joining the group and doing the haka, as did all the girls back then.

It was another world. Latin was on the curriculum, the school boasted a full orchestra, and spectacular Gilbert and Sullivan productions were part of its calendar.

A leaner version of the orchestra still plays the classics, but is creating distinctive new sounds, too.

Of many talented performances, one in particular, titled Pacificussion and employing little more than a couple of tin cans and a wooden table, rates a mention as the best original percussion piece I've heard in a long time.

Which accords perfectly with what Brother Steve Hogan, the principal of De La Salle College in Mangere, tells me about the concentration of talent to be found in South Auckland.

You may recall I mentioned De La Salle in last week's column after the Herald on Sunday reported that only 40 out of 900 parents turned up for their parent-teacher evening, and that NZ Idol was suggested as the likely reason for the low attendance.

In fact, 40 per cent of parents attended the evening, which is considerably more than 40, but still down on the usual 60 to 70 per cent.

Idol may have played a part, but only insofar as the students were concerned, because the school has a tradition of students attending the interviews with their parents.

So apologies to the unfairly maligned De La Salle College and school community, especially the parents, who, as Brother Steve points out, are very supportive of their boys' education.

As with Otahuhu College, there are many laudable things happening at De La Salle, which has the largest Pacific Island roll of any boys school in the country.

The literacy programme ensures that reading ages are raised by an average of two years after the boys arrive in Year 7. By Year 11, the school's literacy rate is 72 per cent, above the national average.

There's a breakfast club, where boys have a healthy breakfast before reading and discussing the newspaper; big brother outings provided by the old boys association for at-risk boys lacking positive male role models in their lives; fundraising efforts which brought in $100,000 this year; and other old boys' initiatives including reading help, a homework centre and volunteers who man the school library until 9pm.

An employment programme ensures that the 30 per cent of students who don't go on to tertiary study are helped into work when they leave.

All parents care for their children, says Brother Steve, but some don't know how or can't do it by themselves.

There are more young people in South Auckland than anywhere else in New Zealand. In these concentrations, the law of averages is that you are going to have more of every kind of activity, good or not so good. When I am outside Auckland I find this fact eludes people.

There are more good kids, and more creative strategies, in South Auckland.

And just so you know, they didn't make me write this.

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