By DAVID HILL
In his 10 years at Kaiapoi High School, Bruce Kearney has overseen a transformation to become the school of choice for many in the town.
Mr Kearney arrived in term four of 2011 and admits he was entering the unknown.
Back then the school roll was around 500, with just 45 percent of young people in the school’s catchment area attending the school.
“It was on the end of the earthquakes and we were still getting some and the community was still reeling from that. It was a hard time.”
Being new to Kaiapoi and making the leap from being head of commerce at a Christchurch school to a principal appointment, Mr Kearney admits he felt like “a fraud”.
“The way that principalship tends to go, I kind of like view it as a trimester.
“Your first three years you are kind of a fraud, you’re waiting for someone to come in and take your seat.
“You don’t know your community, you don’t know your students, you don’t know your school , you don’t know your teachers and you kind of bowl up and say the new principal’.”
Mr Kearney says it takes a good three years for a new principal to become established and get to know their community.
“Being principal in a community school is fantastic and really hard, because you are at the centre of everything.
“When you pack your kids up and send them into town you don’t see what goes on, but all the good things and the bad things are on display every day at our school and you have to learn to embrace that and look upon it as a positive.”
The next three years is an opportunity to implement changes and then the third period of three years are “your empowerment years” to focus on growing the staff and offering leadership opportunities.
When he was first appointed, the Board of Trustees had set a goal of attracting 75% of young people from the catchment.
Achieving this meant changing perceptions, improving connections with local primary schools and the wider community, and “improving our resolve”, including addressing NCEA results.
“I think the reputation of Kaiapoi was slanted and it was slanted more towards a trade-based school, really strong with building, with outdoor education and it’s hospitality.
“But academic pathways for those students who wanted to go to university wasn’t a focus.
“If this area is a great place to live in, then it should be a great place to send your children to school and to be fair we weren’t there. We weren’t a solid choice and that wasn’t right.”
Mr Kearney says 10 years ago Kaiapoi was achieving good NCEA pass rates, but merit and excellent results were almost non-existent.
It meant changing the school culture to one of fostering academic excellence.
“To be fair, if you ask me what our focus is now, it’s connection with community, perceptions and continuing to move from good to great and building that academic portfolio. It hasn’t changed.”
As he prepares to move along the road to Rangiora High School, Mr Kearney is leaving a school which has been attracting 75% of its catchment for several years, has a roll of 1100 and is achieving good NCEA results with merit and excellence.
The secret to Kaiapoi’s success is the teachers, who are diverse, passionate and have a desire to do the best for their students, he says.
“I am really awesome at hiring good teachers… above all else they’re passionate about young people and what they do.
“And I’ve made some really crazy appointments not even knowing what they taught.
“I’ve done that four times at the teacher’s college days… they’ve walked in and they were just like, well, this person has something.”
While he will miss the staff, the students and supporting sporting, cultural and academics activities, he looks forward to returning to Kaiapoi to cheer on his new school.