At 9am on a Thursday morning, the metal door of a large converted garage, now base camp for Palmerston North’s Te Aroha Noa youth programme, swings up to reveal a van pulling into the car park outside. You can hear the kids inside before you can make out their faces.

Te Aroha Noa youth programme facilitator Hinemoana Watson-Pitcher has done the rounds of the surrounding Palmerston North suburbs, as she does every weekday, and crammed the van to capacity with what looks like any other herd of millennials on their way to school: lots of strutting, arcane hand signals, competition for attention.

But these aren’t ordinary children on the verge of adulthood, and this isn’t school. This garage represents possibly the last chance these kids will get if they are to avoid becoming statistical near-certainties. The laughter, the occasionally breaking male voices, the innocent bravado belie the path that leads here, which normally features some combination of those familiar greatest hits of deprivation – crime, neglect, drugs, alcohol, violence, and finally the lashing out that got them expelled from the world of their peers.

All of these rangatahi are here because they have exhibited serious behavioural problems, to the point that they’ve been excluded from both mainstream and alternative education. Yet many have stuck with Te Aroha Noa, sometimes for years. Sticking with anything involving authority is a first for every one of these kids, says programme coordinator Brad Rapira.

The first thing I notice is that, as time passes and the decibel level hasn’t dropped, nobody is raising their voice to try to get this typically unruly mob of kids settled. I wonder if the presence of a camera means that the group is more excitable than normal, but in fact, after a few minutes, only the more gregarious boys seem interested in playing up to the lens.

And play up they do. Shaquille (Shaq) takes us on a tour of the building, giving all the printed wisdoms on the wall his own little comic spin, telling us that Joseph Parker drops in regularly for training sessions – of course Shaq taught Joseph everything he knows.

Brad, Hinemoana, and learning coordinator Julene Duerkson-Kapao circulate among the teens as they make themselves a toastie, noodles, or a cup of tea, clown around, lounge on the chairs around the horseshoe of tables. But when Brad calls the group to grab seats, it doesn’t take long before all eyes are on him.

Painstaking progress

While we were waiting on the kids, Brad told us that we would need to have a korero with the group, as to who we are and what we’re doing here. The painstaking progress they’ve made in creating a safe place is easily undone.

“Consistency and continuity are important. When someone new turns up, it can put them on alert – ‘who are these guys, what’s their angle?’, sort of thing. They can easily revert back to that protective state. And at the end of the day, it’s that protective state that got them here.”

“The next step is actually having agencies like Te Aroha Noa working in partnership with schools, to say ‘let’s find ways to support young people to stay in education’. They might be able to come in for half a day, for example, and the other half could be at a community organisation.”

Brad explains that what hasn’t worked for these kids is shoving rules down their throats. By virtue of the fact that nothing else has worked, his team has scope to experiment, to test, try, possibly fail, and start again. Brad explains that simply throwing rules around and expecting these kids to put aside their carefully crafted facade of staunch is wishful thinking. The deliberate flouting of boundaries makes them feel better, because it demonstrates to the world that they can’t be touched.

As we wait, we talk about the ethos of the Te Aroha Noa programme, more properly referred to as He Ngakau Toa (boys) and He Ngakau Noa (girls) – ‘heart of the warrior’/’heart of the young woman’. He ngakau/heart, I’ll discover over the course of our day at Te Aroha Noa, is a word that comes up again and again.

Seeing what others see

Brad doesn’t try to pretend that they’re not confronted with the hostile and antisocial behaviours that got these kids here.

I ask, what’s being done differently at Te Aroha Noa that keeps these kids coming back? Their behaviour toward authority has come to follow a rut of defiance: why don’t the kids just walk away, as they have done again and again?

“When we have a problem,” says Brad, “we stop what we’re doing and deal with it. We have a conversation about the issue, tease out the deeper issues that are there and name them for the youth. Often, they’re acting out of habit or fear.

“For example, one of our past rangatahi had intellectual impairment issues. The other youth would tease him and he’d get angry. We would talk to the group, as a whole, and say, “You know that [this young person] has developmental issues. You are getting enjoyment out of teasing him and making him angry.” We help them see what we see, and how their behaviour impacts others.”

Meaningful pathways

Brad tells the group who we are, and what we’re doing here. He explains that I would like to interview one of the kids at some point, and nominates Shaq to step up to the hot seat – to an explosion of good-natured needling and a chorus of “shame!”

Introductions done, learning coordinator Julene Duerkson-Kapao starts distributing workbooks and learning materials. It’s time to get stuck into the part of the day that would be familiar to any classroom teacher. Learning programmes are put together on a bespoke basis, sourced from Te Kura/Correspondence School resources, Julene explains.

“My job is to create meaningful learning pathways for each of these young people, to find the right learning for them. Of course, that involves literacy and numeracy, but it might also involve physical education, or whatever captures their interest.

“That then underpins all the other things they’re learning about: the hauora sessions, where they talk about relationships, and health choices. Around here it’s learning 24/7, we’re constantly and intentionally planning conversations, planning to empower these young people.

“I’ve just realised that you can’t really get far with the old ways. They can’t get you to the places you wanna be. They’ll get you to jail, but that’s not where I wanna go.”

“It’s totally different to the classroom environment they’ve come from. Here the learning ebbs and flows, according to what’s going on in their lives. The environment responds to their needs and interests.”

Julene has 15 years as a secondary school teacher behind her. At some point she found she couldn’t get those kids she had to keep saying goodbye to out of her mind.

“I woke up and I had gotten to a point where I saw that so many young people were falling through the cracks. Often you have kids who have been excluded, you wave goodbye to them, and you have no idea what happens to them. They just disappear.”

What they each have in common, says Julene, is chaos. They share a story that is characterised by a lack of hope and possibility, and by fear. Pressing matters for these kids have nothing to do with NCEA credits.

A zero tolerance approach, says Julene, can only compound an already bad situation. We can only confirm what they’ve already come to see in themselves – worthlessness, and hopelessness. Te Aroha Noa equips their rangatahi with the tools that schools simply can’t provide, but without which they can’t be part of a school environment.

“You’d think we’d start with education,” says Julene. “But that is right where they’ve disengaged. Just recreating a classroom isn’t going to get us anywhere. We start with the heart: emotional and social engagement and literacy.”

Climbing Everest

Brad Rapira is an eloquent man who often speaks in parable and analogy. It’s not difficult to see why the kids respect him.

“If you want to understand what we’re doing here, think about it like this: life is like climbing Everest. Your children will start at base camp, with a backpack full of gear that they’ll need, warm clothes, having had a good night’s sleep in a warm tent. These kids slept in the snow outside, they have no shoes, and they’re wearing a tee-shirt and shorts. Yet we expect them to turn up to school with a smile. And we come down hard on them when they don’t.”

Part of the reason Brad gets such obvious respect is that he’s been there, done that. He tells me that he was only rescued from his own spiral of disengagement because someone recognised in him the potential to help others.

“I just hated the world. Hated education, hated school. Roamed the streets, got drunk, got into fights, got wasted, stoned, all of those things. That became my life, my world.”

Shaq’s story

Shaquille ‘Shaq’ Simeon says that Brad’s background is part of the reason he didn’t walk away from Te Aroha Noa, as he has from every other institution.

“Here it’s like everybody is family. The tutors here are, like, role models, they’re real good.”

“[At school] I just started changing and being a bit naughty, doing things I shouldn’t have. Started smoking weed at school.

“Then I went to alternative education. Didn’t really like it there. I made a teacher cry. Then I got excluded from there, went to [a community programme]. They tried to make me sit in the rain and watch rugby, it was like fully raining. I just walked off from there.

“Then I ended up here. Ever since then it’s been chilled, peaceful. More relaxing.

“Brad used to be exactly like us. Everything he’s done in his life, he’s related it to us, and explained it to us, how he was. We all clicked onto that, yeah, like we knew what he was on about.

“I’ve just realised that you can’t really get far with the old ways. They can’t get you to the places you wanna be. They’ll get you to jail, but that’s not where I wanna go.”

Fresh thinking

Robyn Munford and Jackie Sanders of Massey’s School of Social Work are co-leaders of two major research projects funded by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Enterprise: Pathways to Resilience, and Youth Transitions. Both are longitudinal studies, and both focus on the use of services that vulnerable young people come into contact with. These typically fall under four categories: mainstream education, alternative education, and education support; mental health services; care and protection; and youth justice.

Around 80 per cent of the young people they have worked with – who came to their attention as ‘multiple service users’, those most at risk – have been expelled from mainstream education, and haven’t found a way back.

“One of the patterns that we see in our study is that once young people fall out of education, the chances that they will go on to experience poor outcomes – interact with the criminal justice system, and end up with a lot of really major life challenges – increase exponentially. So finding ways to keep young people in mainstream education, or return to education, is really critical.

“These young people slip between the cracks, so they may be stood down or expelled, and they then become a problem for somebody else to solve. The process of solving that problem takes time.

“It’s a major issue, because the longer these young people are away from educational contexts, the harder it is to get them back, and of course they miss out on all of those normative developmental opportunities, all of that sense of belonging.”

Robyn is quick to point out that nobody is blaming schools. She believes that schools need to be supported more to meet the needs of every student, and that more robust dialogue between schools and agencies like Te Aroha Noa would be a great start.

“We need stronger partnerships. There are pockets of good practice – we have agencies like Te Aroha Noa, who promote really good practice in working with young people, engaging them, trying to be creative. That doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t trying to do that too, but with all the structures, and the fact that they have to teach every student who comes through the door, of course it’s a huge challenge.

“The next step is actually having agencies like Te Aroha Noa working in partnership with schools, to say ‘let’s find ways to support young people to stay in education’. They might be able to come in for half a day, for example, and the other half could be at a community organisation.

“What organisations like Te Aroha Noa do really well is create safe spaces.”

Connections

While the group at Te Aroha Noa was working with the Te Kura resources, what struck me was the enthusiastic concentration with which these supposedly belligerent young people went about their work; as though they were in a hurry to learn, now that they had found a setting in which they felt comfortable. We noticed one shy young woman in particular, whose hoodie went up as soon as the camera went anywhere near her, who seemed impatient to stuff knowledge into her head, firing questions at her classmates and tutors. Certainly not what we had expected, given the history these kids bring with them. Brad offers another of his elegant aphorisms, to help us understand.

“Children don’t rebel against rules, they rebel against relationships. When they know they’re loved and nurtured, they’re not worried about which rule they have to follow. They just do it, because of the connection they feel.”

Watch a short film of Jaylan’s visit to Te Aroha Noa: https://goo.gl/V4BaCo

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