Student with a mission
Ceri Jones speaks softly and chooses her words carefully.
“I don’t like mainstream schools. I hate being in a big class. I wouldn’t get the help that I needed because other kids need it,” she says.
She didn’t fit in at Wellington East Girls’ College, or Challenge 2000, or Wellington High.
“In mainstream you get bullied and there’s all this drama,” she says.
“Here, it’s like family. There’s no backstabbing. You get support from everyone. They will encourage you to do better.”
Three weeks ago she earned the 80 credits required for NCEA Level One qualification – the first Mission for Youth student to do so during the school’s 12 year history.
Her hands braced around her belly, Jones says, “I’m just glad it happened before the baby came.” Nine months ago, she accidentally became pregnant with her boyfriend, Justin, also 16. Rather than drop out, Jones – a Guatemalan native who was adopted by a Welsh father and New Zealand mother – kept going to Mission for Youth.
“Ceri has set the bar high for the other students,” says Hannah Mark-Brown, the educator who’s been teaching at Mission for Youth since early 2011. “Now, all the other students are like, I want to get my Level Ones, too.”
She predicts three of the thirteen other students at Mission for Youth will achieve Level One next term.
“I said when I started here that it’s possible to get Level One, but there’s no proof yet,” she adds. “Young people find it hard to believe something they can’t see happening, but they all know Ceri.”
Jones is one of the approximately 3,000 kids who attend about 100 alternative education programmes throughout New Zealand. Routine truancy from one of the ten schools in Wellington region is what brings students to Mission for Youth. Aged 13-17, two thirds have drug and alcohol problems, a quarter have psychological disorders, many are victims of a physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Only 20 percent have support from both parents.
“We have really high risk students coming on board,” says John Chapman, manager of Mission for Youth since 2010. His solution is to “provide an environment that attracts students.”
Chapman has community youth development “in the blood” – he’s the son of Haami (Sam) Tutu Chapman, who’s spent 40 years doing community outreach in the Auckland region and founded the Houhango Rongo Trust in 1989 with his wife, Thelma.
“For me growing up they used everything about rugby to get me interested in learning,” Chapman says. He applies the same principles to Mission for Youth, where much of the curriculum appears the same as any school – maths, writing, spelling, physical education, but they also evaluate each student’s “NOIS” – needs, opportunities, interests, and strengths.
To that end, Chapman and his five staff started a new programme called Urban Arts, where students design murals, screenpaint t-shirts, and learn emcee skills.
“We relate everything we do in Urban Arts to being educated. Emceeing is about learning your maths and being literate,” says Chapman. “Last year most of the students were walking around with dictionaries learning new words to rap.”
Students also take turns budgeting and shopping for food, then cooking lunch, which is served communally every day. Ninety percent are Maori and the halls of the Newtown building echo with waiata when they practice.
Alternative education programmes in New Zealand have had as rough a history as some of the students schooled in them. Developed ad hoc over the past 15 years, Ministry of Education funding was flat – pinned at $11,100 per student – until 2010, when an additional $1.5 million was allocated.
“There hasn’t been much support for Alternative Education until recently,” says Chapman, who gets one third of the school’s funding from Ministry of Education, with Wellington City Mission providing the remainder. A 2009 Ministry of Education report considered cutting all Alternative Education funding because educational outcomes were so poor, based on very low NCEA level achievements.
Chapman and his staff are turning that around, beginning with Jones.
Technically, she could have left school at 16 or switched to the Mission’s transition to work programme. Before she got pregnant, she pictured herself working as a flight attendant and rattles off a long list of the places she’s travelled – Spain, France, Morocco, Australia, her native Guatemala three times to see her birth parents and siblings, and to pick up her younger brother, also adopted.
“That would be hard now, going off for two or three days away from the baby,” she says. “Now I think about doing something with tourism, working in a hotel or even at the airport. I want to get a good job.”
When it comes to her education she is unequivocal. “I will go back to school or do home schooling. I’m going to go for NCEA Level Two.”