Bex Skerman had just turned 26 when she was made principal of Bridge Pā School, in one of Hawke’s Bay’s poorest communities. By the end of that first year, she’d doubled the roll. And no matter how tough life gets for her kids outside the school gates, they know she’s got their back. Joanna Wane reports.
They dream big, these scraggy, quicksilver kids, who soak up attention and praise like the parched land craves rain in a Hawke’s Bay drought.
“Whaea! Whaea! I’ve got something in my eye,” says a wee girl, running across the playground at Bridge Pā School to wrap her arms around principal Rebecca “Bex” Skerman’s long legs. (Skerman played competitive netball as a lanky defender until she snapped a ligament in her knee, due to an “uncoordinated dismount” from a paddle board.)
“Whaea! Whaea! Look how high I can go,” calls a boy from the top of the BMX track, across the other side of the field. A shed-full of bikes and helmets was donated a few years back as part of an initiative aimed at low-decile schools and the gear gets a good thrashing at playtime, but maintaining the lime track drains $1200 each year from an operating budget already stretched perilously thin.
Moments later, there’s an almighty crash as another uncoordinated dismount sends a rider sprawling when he misjudges a jump. “I bet he doesn’t cry,” says Skerman, who’s on patrol for morning break. “That’s one of the things I love about these kids; they hardly ever cry about stuff like that.”
Skerman, who turned 27 in December, is no sook, either, after growing up with three younger brothers on a sheep and beef farm in Patoka, 50km inland. But a decade ago, she was still a schoolgirl herself, so it raised a few eyebrows last May when she was made principal of the Year 1-8 junior school at Bridge Pā, a tumbleweed township on the rural outskirts of Hastings.
At least both sides knew what they were letting themselves in for. She’d been filling in on a temporary basis since the first term, when there were only 35 pupils on the roll. By the end of the year, that had doubled, as word spread of a changing culture at the school. If the numbers sneak up just a little bit more, they’ll qualify for an extra teacher.
“Apparently you don’t get the actual building for a long time, so we’d be packed to the rafters,” says Skerman, who teaches a combined Year 3 and 4 class two days a week. “But that would be a massive turnaround. It’s never been a four-teacher school before.”
Monday morning, and Skerman is up at six for her daily walk, to clear her mind and prepare for the day ahead. Soon after seven, she pulls up outside the school, takeaway coffee in hand. A handful of kids nearly always beat her there.
“Whaea, why does the weekend go so fast?” asks a young girl, drifting into the classroom with her little brother to help Skerman put down the chairs.
On paper, she’s a fish out of water, this Pākehā private-school girl, in a community where too many families struggle on the poverty line and 100% of her students identify as Māori. “Whaea” and “Matua”, not “Miss” and “Sir”, is the way you address a teacher respectfully here. But to the youngsters who drape off Skerman like ribbons on a maypole, she’s part of the whānau. “Have you seen my auntie?” a junior asked one of the teachers last year. “The white one?”
As for Skerman, she reckons a high energy job like this needs someone young to keep up with the children. “It’s full on,” she laughs. “Our boys need to move all the time.
“Some days you’re shattered and just running on adrenalin. But the kids all love school – our attendance is really good because they come every day, regardless of whether they’re sick. At the end of the day, we have to make them leave. They just go home, take off their tops and they’re back 10 minutes later.”
There’s an unspoken subtext to that: they’re at school, some of them, because it’s better than being at home. They can shower here if they haven’t been able to wash for a while, or snuggle into bed if they need to catch up on sleep. There’s Weet-Bix for breakfast, milk at lunch and buckets of fresh fruit in each classroom – because there are kids at Bridge Pā who don’t know where their next meal will come from, or where they’ll be bunking down that night. Or the night after that.
Ask Skerman what the biggest problems are facing the community and she singles out three: split families, unemployment and poverty. One of her young students, who was living in an overcrowded, run-down rental, nearly died from double pneumonia. On the upside, cases of rheumatic fever have declined since the public health nurse began coming in each week to take throat swabs.
Late last year, six Bridge Pā pupils were living in emergency accommodation, jammed into a motel bought by the Ministry of Social Development at the height of the housing crisis. The kids hated it: the lack of space, the all-night parties. Skerman, who’s single and flatting, says her class can’t believe she has a whole bedroom to herself.
About a thousand people live in Bridge Pā, a drive-through pocket of poverty in the heart of Hawke’s Bay wine country. Many of the school’s families are Mormon, part of the congregation at an enormous Latter-day Saints chapel just a few doors down. For others, it’s the handy access for visiting hours at the men’s prison on Mangaroa Rd that’s brought them to the neighbourhood. One of the kids has been heard to ask another, “What unit’s your dad in?” as casually as if the two were talking about their favourite football teams.
Gang insignia is banned at school, but this is Mongrel Mob and Black Power territory. Prospects are as young as 10 or 11, and Skerman has heard of schools having students recruited as they walk out the gates.
Inside the classroom, conditions such as ADHD and foetal alcohol syndrome are often the root of disruptive behaviour and learning problems, but often go undiagnosed – and therefore don’t qualify for extra support – because parents aren’t engaged with the school and don’t want their private lives to come under scrutiny. Last year, five cousins who transferred from another school were at least two years behind in maths, reading and writing. A flag on their file noted a poor attendance record but, incredibly, failed to mention any concerns over their miserable lack of achievement.
Precarious living arrangements mean some families are constantly on the move. Skerman says it’s estimated that each time a child shifts school, it sets them back three months – a loss kids like this can ill-afford. To help them stay at Bridge Pā, a school van does three runs each morning, picking up children across Flaxmere and Hastings. A new 11-seater bought from the fundraising kitty has replaced the old dunger that was constantly on the verge of a breakdown, but the school pays for petrol and the driver’s wages.
Parents aren’t asked for a donation, but the staff dig into their own pockets more than they should. When temperatures hit the late 20s and some children still didn’t have sunhats, Skerman popped into Kmart at the weekend and bought a whole stack. If kids start to smell, she takes their uniforms home to wash.
Social workers are overloaded, under-trained and often not willing to go into homes and have “difficult conversations”, she says. It’s mandatory for schools to report any disclosures from children about physical or sexual abuse, but there’s little protection for those who do. One angry parent who suspected Skerman of contacting Child Youth & Family tried to intimidate her by turning up at a netball game she was reffing. “You shouldn’t have to feel like that in a job. But you can’t not report because you’re scared. It’s the kids who end up in horrible situations,” she says.
“When you come to school in the morning, you expect kids to have had a good night’s sleep, like you have. That they’ve had breakfast, like you have. You don’t know they’ve witnessed someone being beaten to a pulp, or that they’re in emergency housing and the lights have been on with a party all night so they haven’t had any sleep and they’ve watched their mum being totally written off.
“Most of our families are amazing, with lovely, lovely kids, and are really onto it. They’re very supportive of the school and do their best. But the bad ones are horrific; their lives are just chaos.”
Skerman was shocked when a police officer sat her down for a “reality check” and told her no action would be taken unless a child was at immediate risk of death. Removal was a last resort, because there is nowhere else for them to go.
“If things get serious, you do your best to protect them,” she says. “And yes, sometimes you do want to take them home with you. But you know you can’t. There are rules, and there are lines you can’t cross. But they’re happy when they’re here at school. And they’re here most of the time.”
When Skerman drove a different car for a while last year – a white, secondhand Mazda – she felt funny taking it to school because it looked flash. So no wonder she shifts uncomfortably in her seat when conversation turns to her old life, on the other side of the tracks.
Her teenage years were spent at Woodford House, an elite school for girls in Havelock North, then boarding at Wanganui Collegiate as a senior. She wasn’t a prefect, preferred sport to study, and reckons she did just enough to scrape through. “It was always expected that I’d be going to uni, and I passed everything. But I was very, very average.”
Privileged? Sure. She loved both schools and formed strong friendships. But looking back, she says anxiety and depression were a “massive problem” among her peers; bulimia and anorexia were also rife. “We’re lucky we don’t have much of that kind of thing here.”
When she sent her middle and senior classes on a two-day camp last year (bargaining down the price from $80 to $30 a head), no one had allergies or was gluten-free – unlike another school group that turned up with two pages of special dietary requirements and their own chef.
“I don’t think I realised until I went teaching what kind of world we were living in [at school],” says Skerman. “I’m fortunate now that I get to see both. If you’re born into privilege, you have no choice about that. But then if you get a job in that world, you never see anything else. I didn’t realise that at the time, but I definitely do now. Definitely. And it’s so close. Five minutes’ drive down the road and it’s totally different.”
Apart from the usual playground scuffles, bullying at Bridge Pā is rare. “They’ve just got each other, basically,” she says. “I don’t see my guys being mean to each other, because they know school is like their family. And that’s what these kids need – to feel like you’re part of their family, not just someone separate you see from nine till three on a weekday. We’re a big part of their lives. And we really do love them, we really do care about them. And they know that we do.”
That word she used back there – “lucky” – says a lot about Bex Skerman. Paul Grundy was her old principal at primary school in Clive (midway between Napier and Hastings), where her father was on the board of trustees, and even back then, her positive attitude was contagious. “The same Bex we know now,” he says. “She was a standout, for sure.”
Grundy, who’s just retired from Lucknow School in Havelock North, has acted as Skerman’s professional mentor since she took over at Bridge Pā, providing practical advice and support. He admits he was surprised to see a relatively inexperienced teacher offered such a senior role, but says she’s hit the ground running and built strong relationships in the community.
“She’s quite firm with the kids and they respond well to those boundaries. She’s particularly interested in keeping the young boys engaged. The school is a happy place – you can see that when you visit. They want to be there. And they want to succeed.”
After graduating, Skerman taught in Auckland for three years and at a boys’ school in London, before settling in Hawke’s Bay. In 2016, she completed a master’s degree in Maori education and achievement, with a particular focus on why so many young boys are excluded or drop out, and what interventions are effective at retaining them.
As part of her study, she wrote about a boy who was excluded from five different primary schools before the age of eight. Well behind the national standard for his age group in every subject, he hated school and wasn’t liked by his peers. At the age of 11, he dropped out altogether and began getting into trouble with the police, eventually ended up in a Youth Justice residence.
Skerman says what stood out in every study she looked at was the importance of a student’s relationship with their teachers, and how they were perceived by others. “One piece of research took the voice of all the boys who’d left school [at 13 or 14] and all of them said the teachers hated them, they weren’t happy at school, and no one in their community had any expectations of them.”
What can make a crucial difference is for a child to know at least one person believes in them. At Bridge Pā, the kids have more than one. Vanessa Sadler, who teaches the seniors through to Year 8, has three of her own eight children at the school, and her husband, Dustine, chairs the board of trustees. Steve Driver, a former principal, shares the middle class with Skerman. Gretchen Jarman takes the juniors and Gretchen’s mother, Delwyn, a retired teacher, helps children with their writing.
There’s no money in the budget for teacher aides, or sometimes even for basic art supplies, but the school works closely with the iwi-based Te Aka Charitable Trust, which focuses on increasing literacy and numeracy inside the classroom. KidsCan provides “care packages” with everything from food and raincoats to nit treatments and tampons; Fonterra supplies free milk.
Trips out of school are organised every week, to give the children an experience of life outside their narrow horizons. When they spent the day at the National Aquarium on Marine Parade, for some it was the first time they’d even been to Napier, just a 25-minute drive away.
Eventually Skerman would like to give every Year 8 student the opportunity to travel overseas, before they head to high school. “Vanuatu or somewhere, on a volunteering mission, so they can see there’s more out there, and that there are people in worse situations as well. It’s so easy for them to feel like they’re just trapped in this world,” she says.
“The best thing we can do is show them there’s another way of life, that they have options. I drum into them all the time that they’re going to get a job, they’re going to earn money and they’re going to like it. I say, ‘You’re going to ring me in 10 years and tell me what you’re doing. And you’re going to be doing well. But you have to stay at school.”
The bell rings and a boy who’s been playing up all day hangs back after the others pile out. “Sorry I was a dork in class,” he tells Skerman, scuffing his feet. She gives him a hug.
They really are lovely kids: respectful, curious, affectionate, full of spark and energy. And funny, in the way only children can be. “Stingrays can fly like a bird and when they land they do a big boom,” writes Johnny. “Male stingrays show off just to get a girlfriend and that is gross.”
In the junior room, Jarman has been holding rehearsals for a Bridge Pā’s Got Talent show. There’s a gymnastics troupe, a magician doing card tricks, and a boy racing the clock to build a rocket from mini pieces of Lego. It’s scheduled for the following Friday, but ends up postponed for a week, because a tangi is being held for the father of two girls at the school who has died in a holding cell at court.
Most nights, Skerman is up late dealing with emails and admin, especially after spending the day in class. She worries how her seniors will cope leaving the close-knit community at Bridge Pā, that they’ll feel lost in the anonymous crowds at high school where no one knows their story. The line between their lives and hers is already so blurred she reckons she misses them on weekends and holidays. “Until I see them on Monday…” she laughs.
“These kids need awhi [to be cuddled or cherished] and love, and they’ll be alright. If they’re told they’re crap and they think everything sucks and the world is against them, they won’t be okay. But if they’re solid in themselves, if they know there are good things about them and they know who they are, I think they’ll be okay.”
This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.