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Left: Students at Newton Central Primary School learn Ataarangi. Right: A photo from a news article on the unit. (Photos; Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Left: Students at Newton Central Primary School learn Ataarangi. Right: A photo from a news article on the unit. (Photos; Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)

ĀteaDecember 17, 2023

A school that loves you: The story of Te Uru Karaka

Left: Students at Newton Central Primary School learn Ataarangi. Right: A photo from a news article on the unit. (Photos; Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Left: Students at Newton Central Primary School learn Ataarangi. Right: A photo from a news article on the unit. (Photos; Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)

Lillian Hanly is a former student of Te Uru Karaka, Newton Central Primary School’s full immersion Māori language unit, which her mums played an integral role in developing. She talks to them both about what the school has achieved.

My old school is nestled near Grey Lynn in Auckland city, alongside the northwestern motorway and not far from Karangahape Road. Our caretaker, Matua Ross, would apparently, on occasion, have to roam the grounds first thing and remove needles or condoms – but I only found that out when I got older. When I was a student there it was a safe haven. We had a native forest full of mānuka trees, a field to play bullrush, a playground, a māra kai (food garden), a sand pit even, a music room and multiple murals.

It was vibrant and colourful in the thick of the city. It rang with laughter and chatter rings during lunchtime, and you would often hear singing in multiple languages, or Whaea Piri’s Rarotongan drums. The school principal while I was there, Hoana Pearson, would tell us we went to the “best little school in the whole wide world”.

And we believed her. 

Newton Central Primary School celebrated its centenary last month with two days of activities. Hundreds of people, including some who had attended the school in the 1950s, gathered for a pōwhiri before seeing a showcase from the current students. There was a school band performance, kapa haka and Pasifika drumming and dancing. There were speeches from former principals, a special centennial lunch and guided school tours. They held a fiafia day as well, with more live performances, and took photographs of whoever was present from various decades. The food trucks ran out of food by mid-afternoon.

I attended Newton from 1999-2004, though I definitely spent time in the classroom before I turned five. One of my mums, Tamsin, became a teacher there and she taught me and my older brothers. Some of the older students often remarked on how I, as a toddler, would be climbing around the windows of the classroom during lessons. We were students of Te Uru Karaka, the full immersion Māori language unit that started up at Newton in 1996. A number of kids in the same area, including my brothers, were finishing at kōhanga reo and needed a school where they could continue learning in te reo Māori, and so the unit was born. At the time, there weren’t many places like it in mainstream schools. There weren’t many kura kaupapa Māori in Auckland at all. This was the 1990s, the kōhanga reo generation was flourishing, but they were also getting older. Today, there are three full immersion units that make up Te Uru Karaka and also three bilingual units, under the name of Te Awahou. Together they are now known as Te Aka Pūkāea. The six classes, with as many teachers, currently have more than 100 students. 

My two mums, Tamsin (Pākehā) and Leonie (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki, Waikato), were instrumental in starting the unit. They approached the then principal Tim Heath who said, when asked about it this year, the case presented at the time was  “elegant” and “unarguable”. Growing up, it was absolutely normal to me that we were taught in te reo Māori. As I got older I realised this wasn’t the case everywhere. I interviewed both my mums in the lead-up to the centenary celebrations to share what I now understand to be quite an incredible story.

The crew of Te Kauta, the cafe at Newton Central Primary School (Photo: Supplied)

Leonie: We wanted [our kids] to be going into either a kura or an immersion context that was close to the community in which they lived. And because there was only one kura which was quite full at the time in Tāmaki, it seemed an appropriate idea to either look at establishing a second kura, or drawing on an existing bilingual unit and seeking to move it to immersion, and that’s what we did. … It was about doing what’s best for your tamariki, and that’s what was best. But not just for the boys. Because at least 20 tamariki started that first year.

Lillian: Was this only about the reo, or tikanga as well?

Leonie: First and foremost, immersion schooling. Because the tikanga comes with the reo, mātauranga comes with the reo. So once you commit to te reo Māori immersion schooling, you commit to all of the other kaupapa that come with kaupapa Māori. 

My mum, Leonie, speaks often about being a good ancestor. She grew up without speaking her own language, and has spent her life reclaiming not only te reo Māori but all that comes with it. She carries an unwavering sense of purpose and has a piercing clarity for what is just in this regard. Her life’s work has been around creating, sharing and maintaining kaupapa Māori initiatives, to ensure the next generations can thrive. She does this in research and academic spaces mostly, building connections between people and across oceans, but her strongest contribution in my eyes is the framing of herself in relation to her tamariki and mokopuna. She is us and we, her. As Moana Jackson would say, a series of never-ending beginnings. 

When I spoke to her about the beginnings of this unit, she explained how they came to choose a name for the classroom, Te Uru Karaka – the karaka grove. There was a karaka grove that ran along the bottom of the school next to the motorway near an area called Te Rae o Kawharu – a place of significance for Ngāti Whātua, on whose land the school sits. She said that a karaka grove was a place where trees grow together collectively, and how that brought up ideas of coming together in a particular way for wellbeing and survival. 

Leonie: When you want to have a rumaki or a kura, you have to just keep pushing through all the time. Keep pushing pushing pushing until you find the space, or the space opens, which it does sooner or later. It’s just got to be at the right place, at the right time with the right people. 

My mums were around 30 years old when they, along with other parents, embarked on establishing a space where my brothers, Kumeroa and Teahooterangi, could receive an education in their own language. The indigenous language of this country. I’m about to turn 30 and I keep telling myself I should make more films, get back into the piano, or simply read more, let alone contribute to a very serious and long-lasting form of language revitalisation. 

Leonie: Well… we created it. We created in the school a new initiative that was innovative, that was committed to te reo Māori and tikanga, that brought huge wellbeing to the Māori whānau that came into it. And we did it through developing strong alliances and relying on whanaungatanga. And a lot of talking. Long whānau hui. We had to write lots of different policies too around the functioning, the operations, and also the kaiako. The commitment the whānau needed to have, knowing that tamariki can’t be immersed in te reo Māori if they go home to English-speaking environments … I don’t know if they still have that early documentation. But it stood it in good stead.

A lot of students have come through that school, that classroom, since the unit opened 27 years ago. A lot of parents have been involved in maintaining the kaupapa behind it. A lot of teachers. Whaea Hoana was the first teacher in the unit before becoming the principal of the (best little) school (in the whole wide world). When that happened, Te Uru Karaka needed a teacher and my mum, Tamsin, was trained and had some reo Māori. She is also Pākehā. She initially didn’t think she should be the teacher, but with the blessing of the whānau, she took up the role, checking in each year as to whether it was still appropriate or not. She ended up spending 17 years as one of the lead teachers of Te Uru Karaka. Another parent said that she “possesses a talent and dedication for educating tamariki that is without peer. Quite simply, our tamariki flourished under Whaea Tamsin’s boundless energy for perfecting her craft as an educator supreme.”

Mum was brilliant, and creative, and wonderful – and she was strict. She would, without fail, make any student pick up rubbish if they walked past some on the ground. “It’s not my rubbish though, Whaea.” “Is this Earth your home?” she’d whip back. She was merciless around the rule of not speaking English in class, with some people calling her a taniwha. But I guess she had to be tough. They were creating something in a new environment and having to prove to everyone that not only was it a good idea, but it would be successful. 

Tamsin: I had high standards on myself, therefore I had really high standards on the kids. We all had high standards on each other, really. 

She’s a force. In a way, I felt like she was an extension of the unit. I can still remember her conducting experiments and research at home to bring to school. We had beehives at home and did recycling well before it was cool.

Tamsin: I had to learn all the glossary words, looking them up in the Māori dictionary. Te Taura Whiri didn’t exist then, you had to create everything yourself. I had to spend weekends working and nights once the kids went to bed. And you didn’t have a computer then either, everything was handwritten. It was a steep learning curve, learning all the kupu Māori. And the whānau, not just parents, but extended whānau, also helped us learn the new vocab.

Lillian: But you essentially developed your own curriculum?

Tamsin: We absolutely did, but as a community, a whānau, we did. It wasn’t just me. 

Press clippings on the immersion unit at Newton Central Primary School. (Photos: Supplied)

The curriculum was engaging and enlightening. I have the best memories of doing outrageously creative things as part of our learning. We mixed kutu shampoos using native plants and rongoa māori; we made manu aute using natural resources to test which materials flew best; we stayed overnight at school planning for an environmental disaster using survival skills and Māori resources; had noho marae around different parts of the country to learn our history; started an organic māra kai (with the help of our Matua Ross) and a compost for the school; we planned and ran a functioning cafe, with aprons of our own design, that sold kai Māori; we held Matariki celebrations; and we were taken on the foreshore and seabed hīkoi as a classroom. All the while doing the basics as well.

Tamsin: We were the first science fair entries in Māori ever, and they had to get in Māori language judges to mark them. So that was cool. 

I think my mum has always known what they did was amazing, she’s proud for sure, but she won’t rub it in your face. Just a simple, “Yeah buddy! We did such cool things.” Such cool things. Leonie doesn’t really hype it up either, it’s as though she accepts it just had to be done. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realised we were a little ahead of our time.

Leonie: We had Matariki celebrations from the very first year, because the whānau wanted it. They may have been small, but they were there and they built through the 27 years. So now that Matariki is a fully fledged nationally recognised way of being and day of acknowledgement, that’s been really pushed by those who are leading it at the moment, that was a part of our curriculum 27 years ago, as it was in kura and kōhanga.

Tamsin: So Matariki was a whānau thing. But in class I taught astronomy, planets, space – looking at western science as well. [I] looked at Matariki and Puanga and taught that through mātauranga Māori. We would go to the beach, as a way of getting out of the classroom. We would bake kūmara and smoke fish, and leave an offering to the atua. We would make masks and puppets of the atua and tell their stories. We would acknowledge those who had passed on that year by writing letters to them.

The cafe too, I can’t believe we ran a cafe at school where people actually came and sat and ate and paid money. It was called Te Kauta. We made such sick aprons for ourselves. 

Tamsin: I think cafes were starting to become popular in NZ then. So I thought, why don’t we have a Māori cafe. And then used the whole term of all the curriculum areas to prepare for running a Māori cafe for a week in the school, with the kids doing everything and the parents and whānau and community helping as well. 

All with parental permission, of course.

Tamsin: It was the same when we thought it would be a good experience to take our little choir busking. We went at lunchtime every day for a week up to K Road singing songs in multiple languages. We had to get permission from the parents. And imagine asking to take a group of primary kids up K Road! 

Te Kauta was such a cool thing to do to look at how you could learn things in a different way. As children we were trusted and encouraged and respected by our adults to do what seemed to be grown-up things. 

Tamsin: There was a real high expectation on the kids of their involvement and commitment, and for us loving them.

Loving them. Perhaps that reads strangely, who would think that your school might actually love you? They’re supposed to be a safe place to explore, to grow and to learn. But beyond that, can they also offer you a grove where those around you can support you, uplift you, uplift each other, survive and thrive together? It’s hard not to feel like Te Whānau o Te Uru Karaka, and Newton Central School, were really onto something.

Leonie: Now that I think about it, it’s quite an achievement. Having fought for a context like that in a mainstream school. But it feels like because there are so many of them now, it’s just kind of taken for granted. Which is what Graham [Smith] says about kaupapa Māori initiatives driven by community, is that they should be taken-for-granted initiatives, where te reo is taken for granted. All these things are what we should be, are what we’re expecting and what we have a right to and what we shouldn’t be begging for any more. It should be taken for granted that they have an obligation and a responsibility to do something about te reo Māori.

Growing up, I took it as normal that the other students and I were loved, that learning to be curious could be so much fun. I took it for granted. When I think about how to be a good ancestor, and what we might leave behind for the next generation, I wonder what exactly it will be that they take for granted? What will we fight for that will become normal for them? I have been privileged to be raised with access to te reo Māori and to have a connection with this land. I am unbelievably grateful to those who have fought to make that access, and the sense of pride and responsibility that comes with it, a reality.

A sense of pride and responsibility that was planted and nurtured in a karaka grove, along the side of the northwestern motorway near Grey Lynn, at the best little school in the whole wide world.

Keep going!