On the 29th of May, when our mainstream schools are scheduled to be shut for the day amid action to recognize the outstanding work they do with our tamariki, some of our smaller, lesser known and recognised education providers will remain open as they continue to engage the students who are the most difficult to reach.

Youth Nelson, the alternative education centre in Nelson is one such provider, and it will remain open.

The day will start as usual as the four staff meet to review the previous day and plan the day ahead before going out to pick each and every student up from their houses. There will be 17 in all. Hopefully they all attend. But you never know and on a day like today, the draw of their friends not being at school may be too much for one or two. Most of them will come, though. They like it. It’s important to them.

In its 21st year of operation, Youth Nelson continues to provide ongoing education to 13-16 year-olds for whom the mainstream environment doesn’t suit. There has been no staff turnover for six years. The Manager has been with the program for 20. This is unheard of in alternative education. But in this time there has been little or no funding change. The Ministry of Education provides funding but it doesn’t cover the whole programme. It did 20 years ago and it most definitely doesn’t now.

Staff have held raffles to cover the cost of sports activities. The students prepare a hangi each term to cover the cost of outdoor education activities. Local businesses are getting on board to support educational programs. The Nelson City Council provides extra funding to pay for vans and petrol. They pay the utilities and help govern the organisation. Youth Nelson applies for extra funding to pay their staff – not extra staff, but their core staff. The staff who put together a programme and create a safe and secure learning environment for the students that mainstream could not.

These are not easy students. They are the students who could and would derail any classroom, with behavioural and learning requirements that require specialist support. But mostly they require adults who have the time to engage them, to earn trust, to build relationships, because it is the relationships that count.

Change has been promised over many years. The reality is that this change continues to feel a long way off. For programmes like Youth Nelson to continue to be successful it isn’t just money that’s required. It’s the respect and the recognition of the Ministry and our peers in the teaching industry.

We all know the stresses of teaching large classes. Working within school systems is a challenging career path. We in alternative education are 100% behind our teaching colleagues. We know how difficult the role is.

Instead of going out joining picket lines why not come and join us for the day in alternative education? We could sure use your skills. If you have ever wondered where that naughty boy who sat down the back went or that girl who just wouldn’t stop talking ended up, you’ll find them here. They may be different to what you remember, but they are still keen to learn. So, we need your help. Help with their spelling. Read over an assignment for them. Help with their reading. Explain a maths equation. Run a quiz or shoot some hoops. It’s all valuable.

Come and catch up with the staff. See what they do on a daily basis. See the challenges they face to keep these young people engaged. See what it is that they do that keeps these students coming back. The same students who used to have attendance issues. See the standards we set, the expectations we have and see what the students do to meet these.

Come and join us on the 29th of May. We need your backing. While you fight your battle, we have our own. It’s for equality in the education system.  We aren’t the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We are the first step on the path to success. The government has already stated there is no more money. We feel for the teachers. We know they deserve more. We wish there was more.

This, however doesn’t bode well for alternative education. It is likely that once again we will not be part of the discussion. The two unions working together is a great move. Maximum pressure and maximum impact. We aren’t quite as fortunate. There is no union to back us up. Our voice isn’t as loud. We need you to be behind us. We need you to think of us in the debate.

We are proud of what we do. We are proud of those we teach. Come and join us for the day. Be proud of us too. Help us to gain the acknowledgement we deserve. Please don’t forget about us in your struggles, because if you win, it could well be that we lose again.

See you on the 29th of May.

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