From the outside, it doesn’t look like a school. There is no school sign, no front door and no playground. But sitting in the middle of a semi-industrial area of West Auckland, an alternative education center is trying to change the lives of young people who have disengaged from school and often got into trouble with the law.
“Since coming out of lockdown, I have never seen so many cases of raids and vehicle thefts among our young people,” said the center’s head, Damon Ruakere.
Most of the students are between 13 and 16 years old. Some come from mainstream schools that have suspended them, while others are referred by the police and Oranga Tamariki.
Ruakere said many young people are feeling the effects of their parents’ separation or job loss, or having had to move house or witnessed domestic violence and substance abuse.
“I pick them up in the morning and on Monday I hear ‘I haven’t eaten since I left class on Friday’, or ‘I haven’t seen mum and dad for three months’,” he says. -he.
Staff also try to get help for students with learning disabilities. “You have fetal alcohol syndrome, you have ADHD, dyslexia, and even speech impediments,” Ruakere said.
1News spoke to three students, aged 13 and 14, on condition of anonymity. All said they left school after constant fighting and absenteeism.
1News asked one of them what it was all about. “I don’t even know,” he said. “People come and ask for a fight, and yeah, we end up fighting.”
Another said: “People talk shit, and you end up getting mad, and you have to fix it.”
1News asked the third boy about his schoolwork. “No, I don’t like school,” he said. And when asked for an example of what he didn’t like, he replied, “Probably, all the writing, huh?”
The group said they were often bored at home and hung out with other young people outside of school hours. They have forged close ties. “They are my brothers,” said one. “They still are, to this day.”
All three said they had been involved in car thefts. 1News had the following conversation with one of the students:
“Where would you find the cars?” 1News asked.
“Anywhere. Parking lots and all that.”
“How hard were they to steal?” 1News asked.
“Oh, not difficult.”
“Did you drive? 1News asked.
“Yeah, I can drive some of the cars.
“But you are thirteen? 1News asked.
“How old were you when you learned to drive? 1News asked.
“I think eleven.”
This same student told 1News that he had participated in roundups of dairies. He said he would steal cigarettes, which he would resell.
He also said he robbed liquor stores and would drink or sell liquor. He said he could make up to a thousand dollars.
“How long would it take to earn a thousand dollars? 1News asked.
“Probably less than a month,” the student replied.
“That’s a lot of money for a 13-year-old kid. What would you do with it?” 1News asked.
“Buying clothes and stuff.”
To try to help the students, the alternative education center organizes a structured day. Teachers collect each student individually from home. Their lessons cover math and English, but also practical skills like preparing for a job interview. Students receive lunch and are taken to physical education classes.
A school nurse assesses their condition and teachers check that students are taking all prescribed medications – usually for ADHD.
Classes are small – usually six or seven – and teachers try to treat them as they would any student.
“We really try to focus on our interactions with young people,” Ruakere said. “A lot of times what they really need is just to feel respected.”
Over a year, the center can accommodate up to 50 students. This year, six or seven have returned to mainstream school and others have been referred to jobs. But success will be measured differently for different students, Ruakere said.
“Some young people come here, and you wouldn’t get a word, you wouldn’t get a smile, you’re disrespected every day. When they leave, they leave with a smile, a handshake, a hug, and that is our success.”
In early September, the government announced its Better Pathways scheme, with several agencies working with disaffected young people receiving additional funding. The alternative education center was excluded from this funding.
1News asked Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti why this was the case. She replied that the government is “committed to ensuring that alternative education is part of an inclusive education system”.
“While increasing funding for alternative education was not addressed in the first round of funding for the Better Pathways program, that doesn’t mean we won’t be investing more in the future,” he said. -she adds.