Rachel Velden is on a mission. The 83-year-old grandmother is desperate to help the children in the Kaikohe community.
She says there's a serious problem with school attendance in the area and learning is being jeopardised by a lack of support at home.
Often by no fault of their own, primary school and high school students who do make it to classes are showing up unprepared, according to Velden, who says the opportunities for them to reach their full potential are being lost to absent parents, a lack of resources in schools and faded community-spirit.
On weekdays, Velden volunteers her time to Kaikohe West Primary School, taking kids for reading and writing - offering a safe one-on-one space for young tamariki to be vulnerable.
She sits and helps, trying to ensure the students are understanding what they're learning, but she also listens to their stories of broken home life and heads to the local Warehouse to buy clothes if they're without.
"A lot of them don't get help at home, when they do come into school, they're not ready for school. They haven't had stories read to them," Velden told Newshub.
"We want the whānau to come in, but they don't, so what do you do to make them come in?"
The mother-of-six, who has 11 grandchildren, has been actively involved in organising school events for more than 15 years.
Over the last four years, Velden has outlined issues around truancy and the need for more assistance in classrooms in letters to the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament, the Commissioner of Police, Minister of Children, the Children's Commissioner, local boards, trustees and committees.
In many cases, her pleas have been ignored and Velden says if nothing changes it's going to be the next generation who will suffer as a consequence.
After being inside the classroom environment she decided the problem is "simple".
"The teachers in most cases are not getting the help they need in the classroom. The children do not get help in the home," Velden says.
"More is needed in at least the first 3 to 4 years of primary schooling for teaching, reading and making sure they understand what they read."
'The people are broken'
Once 'the Hub of the North', Kaikohe is surrounded by green hills, paddocks and mountains, acting as the main thoroughfare to places like Opononi, the Waipoua Forest - known for the Tane Mahuta walk - and on its outskirts sits geothermal hotspot Ngawha.
But the once-thriving small town predominantly made-up of Māori isn't the same place it was 20 years ago, Velden says.
Some of the Far North's beauty has been lost, falling victim to social issues fueling hard times, leaving Velden fighting for the town's youth to have the best chance at success.
She says local families once used to garden, cook, teach life skills at home and made sure children were in sports, church and school, and always behaved as responsible members of the community.
"There was a respect for elders; parents knew where their children were. These types of things are very much lacking today," she says.
Velden's family moved to Kaikohe in 1979 from their Bradley's Landing dairy farm in Dargaville and her two younger children did their schooling in Kaikohe.
She raised her granddaughter Shanieka Trask, 21, who attended Northland College before she moved on to Whangarei for her last two years of high school at Kamo High School.
Shanieka told Newshub her grandmother is doing the work that others are turning a blind eye to.
"Her one goal is to help these kids see themselves as powerful young rangatahi, not another statistic," she says.
"The people are broken, the vicious cycle of intergenerational trauma from things like colonisation and police abusing power is very prevalent.
"Drugs and alcohol are often more important in a household than bread and butter, and our most vulnerable are the tamariki."
Velden's concerns around the "inequalities and extreme juxtaposition" between Northland College in Kaikohe's centre and Kerikeri High School - just a short 25-minute drive apart - appear validated.
Comparisons between the two schools' NCEA achievement levels show a rather stark contrast.
At Northland College, school leavers holding at least NCEA level 3 in 2019 was 13 percent whereas Kerikeri High School reported 54.9 percent - just over the national average of 54 percent.
The retention levels show imbalance too. The percentage of students staying until at least until their 17th birthday was 56.5 percent at Northland College in 2019 versus 81.9 percent at Kerikeri High School for the same year, against the national average of 82 percent for the whole country.
'I have seen our community decline socially and economically'
Robin Craig, a Kaikohe resident of 61 years, shares Velden's concerns.
"The heart of the people of Kaikohe is broken in many ways."
He says over the last half-century, he's seen a loss of compassion for one another, damage from drugs and alcohol, the loss of self-pride, the general acceptance of lower standards and a lack of engagement with schools and the community.
"Who would want to come to Kaikohe?" he said. "I have seen our community decline socially and economically."
Part of Velden's solution plan is for police to take a stronger part to encourage behaviours not being taught at home with more visibility in schools. She believes the stronger positive influence officers can have on youth now, the better relationship they will have with the community as adults which may reduce crime later on.
Former Māori Land Court judge Andrew Spencer, who lives at Ngawha Springs near Kaikohe, regards Velden as a "longtime respected" community member in a letter supplied to Newshub dated September 3 2019.
He said there is an "urgent need" for the police to have regular clinics in Northland primary schools.
"There is irrefutable evidence that lack of self-esteem impacts upon children's learning which, in turn, leads to alienation from society. Families who come to the notice of the police become stigmatised in a small community.
"Rather the police must have a friendlier face to assist schools with truancy."
A police spokesperson told Newshub many families are faced with difficulties and although policing in rural communities does come with challenges, staff in Kaikohe on the ground are engaged with youth who they have "regular positive interactions" with.
Police say they have a school community officer based in Kaikohe who works alongside schools to address issues they are facing and throughout the Northland District, Iwi Liaison officers also work closely to understand and address issues facing the community.
"Rather than roll out the same programme across all schools, our school community officers liaise with the schools to identify specific issues they may be experiencing, and then develop programmes accordingly."
They are also working with the community by focusing on recruiting people from their own Northland communities to police the district.
"This means that our staff have knowledge and a greater understanding of the needs of the local community and the issues they face. This also helps build further trust between the public and police by having staff who were raised in the areas they are serving and are already known in these communities."
'Nobody seems to care'
Velden has been unstoppable in trying to spread awareness of the issues facing Kaikohe far and wide.
Her crusade has included correspondence in 2017 to the then-Commissioner of Police Mike Bush telling him her ideas to help her "troubled town".
A year later in May 2018, she wrote to Whangārei-born Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who had represented Northland in Parliament from 2015 - 2017, asking if he could help set up a task force within the police to be responsible for following up on unexplained absences.
In June that year, she also tried PM Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and MPs Tracey Martin, Stuart Nash, Shane Jones and Chris Hipkins in her attempts at getting more eyes on her concerns for the Kaikohe youth.
"Please help, help, help," she asked. "It is a lot easier to help children when they are younger than to get them to college at 13-14 years old and they cannot read and understand what they read.
"I do not believe that this is by any means new. These problems have been around for years but they are a lot worse now."
Velden wrote another letter to Police Commissioner Bush in June 2019 explaining the truancy problem and requested to know a list of the agencies in the area that were able to help children and families.
"There's been a lot of phone calls too," Velden told Newshub.
In May, Velden wrote to Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft saying her efforts will not dwindle until the change comes.
"Nothing has altered, nobody seems to care that could help. After all, what is the future of the children and a lot around here are not getting a fair go," Velden wrote.
It's a tough position trying to spur change by the means of Members of Parliament.
All state schools in New Zealand are independent Crown Entities as per the Tomorrow’s Schools Model, in place since 1989.
Under the Tomorrow’s Schools model, no Minister can instruct a school to take a certain action unless that action is inside legislation.
Minister for Children Tracey Martin, who is relevantly also Associate Education Minister and Minister for Seniors, told Newshub this limits what can be done.
"An example would be that as much as I would like to, I cannot instruct a single school or all schools to have an anti-bullying programme that includes student voice.
"I can ask them, I can implore them but I cannot instruct them. This is one of the flaws of the current model - all schools are independent crown entities."
This means issues must be addressed from a nationwide perspective rather than an individual school perspective, however a Minister can require a Ministry to inform them of what actions they are taking to address any issues raised with them by concerned citizens.
Martin was one of the few ministers to respond to Velden after one of the letters addressed to the Prime Minister's Office was forwarded to her. She thanked Velden for the tuition she was providing in the area and ongoing advocacy for the children.
Velden replied to Martin explaining the most important issues that need attention and where help could be used when the communication line ran dry.
Disappointed with the outcome of their short exchange, Velden told Newshub of Martin: "She's not on my planet".
Martin told Newshub she is sorry Velden believes nothing has changed.
"I did not outline all of the work that myself as Associate Minister was doing around the area of attendance at that time as it had yet to be through the Cabinet or Budget process."
She said she is aware instead of "multiple supports" that are in place in Kaikohe but accepts "many of the concerns she has have been there for many years, they are somewhat entrenched and that change takes time."
"I am grateful that there are individuals inside the community that remain committed to positive outcomes for children."
Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis, Labour’s deputy leader, visited Velden's home in 2015 after hearing of her concerns during his first term after succeeding Hone Harawira in the 2014 election.
The Māori electorate of Te Tai Tokerau covers the Northland region from Cape Reinga to Auckland’s North Shore, leaving Davis as a top priority for Velden's attempts at spurring change.
He told Newshub he remembers meeting with Velden and discussing her ideas for Kaikohe long-term education needs.
While acknowledging some of the challenges locals are facing, he explained the setbacks some have suffered may be contributing to the issues prominent currently.
He said many students don’t feel that their identity, language and culture is respected or valued within schools, and some report being discriminated against based on race.
"We know that our education system has historically underserved Māori learners and their whānau," he said. "We know from our research, from discussions with the sector, and with whānau that attendance is connected to other indicators of wellbeing, like a sense of belonging, bullying, feelings of safety."
As Associate Education Minister responsible for Māori Education, and the MP for the area, and as a former principal, Davis says rectifying issues in this area is a huge focus after being "neglected for generations".
In Budget 2020, the Labour Government introduced a $50 million Urgent Response Fund to support ākonga to remain engaged with education and the Tai Tokerau region has been allocated $2.9m to support student attendance and engagement post-lock down.
Programmes to tackle poverty, lift incomes and address addiction have also been rolled out in addition to public housing, targeted trades training, free apprenticeships and a $6 million package to fight meth harm in Te Tai Tokerau.
Last year Davis also announced Te Hurihanganui – a $42 million programme to address racism and unconscious bias across the education system, support was boosted for Kōhanga Reo by $230 million and $200 million was allocated in Budget 2020 to support Māori learners and family to engage with education.
"It will take time to see the full benefits of these initiatives, but we’re making good progress in working to ensure our system supports Māori success."
The plans in place now
Ministry of Education spokesperson Katrina Casey told Newshub regular school attendance has been dropping over the past few years, including in Te Tai Tokerau.
"We knew we had to do things differently. We went to school leaders to ask how we could help them turn the declining trend around."
In May 2020 the Ministry of Education initiated a new plan to work collectively with early learning services, schools and kura on new approaches to support the wellbeing and mental health of all children and young people and help them return to education following the COVID-19 containment period.
As part of the plan, the Ministry of Education has supported schools to free up teachers, social workers, teacher aides, and other school staff to encourage attendance back to school and reengagement in learning which includes home visits and phone calls.
"We are also working closely with alternative education providers and activity centres to ensure students are attending and continue to do so. Such partnerships include working directly with iwi to re-engage students."
In Budget 2020, the Government introduced an Urgent Response Fund (URF) to support ākonga to remain engaged with education.
URF provides $50 million, in 2020/21, to give immediate support to schools and kura to improve attendance, and to help manage any learning, social, emotional, mental, or other wellbeing needs directly related to COVID-19.
Regional staff in Northland are expected to work in close contact with their schools and Early Learning services to help address attendance and engagement concerns, Casey said.
"All the schools and kura in the Kaikohe area will be participating in the Ko Ora, Ka Ako (Healthy Lunches in Schools) programme which gets underway early next year.
"This will provide a lunch for every student, for every day of the school year they are attending, and is expected to be of significant benefit to the community."
The Ministry works as part of a multi-agency team in Kaikohe with schools to identify attendance issues, and plans accordingly to address these through the ‘Rock On’ initiative - Reduce Our Community Kids Offending Now (ROCKON) - a school campaign that works with community groups to address the causes of youth offending and truancy.
'We will hold the system to account'
Kelvin Davis says it will take time to see the full benefits of the initiatives currently implemented, but believes good progress is being made to ensure our system supports Māori success.
"As Māori, we all have friends and whānau who have experienced an education system where we have faced racism, unconscious bias, deficit-thinking and low expectations. This tells Māori learners and their whānau: You don’t belong; your culture, your identity isn’t valued; you’re invisible; you’re doomed to fail.
"What I’d say to whānau in Kaikohe is that those days, where that kind of thinking was in any way acceptable, are gone."
He says there are two critical factors in supporting Māori learners; high quality teaching that reflects culture and identity, and strong engagement from whānau and the wider community.
"We are taking significant steps to give practical effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and we will hold the system to account to deliver more and better for Māori.
He says it is important not to be afraid to engage with schools and kura and to ask for help.
"We will meet you halfway to support you and your tamariki and rangatahi to succeed."
Velden says the intentions might be good but until she sees change on the ground level, she won't give up fighting for the kids.
"It's not about me, it's about the kids."
And it's not just Kaikohe. she's worried about. Velden says her children living in different towns around the country see huge gaps in the education system.
"There's lots of places like here," she says. "There wouldn't be the same amount of crime in things. We're always going to get this, we have to try and break it somehow so that they grow being able to do things they want to do."
On October 20 Velden is holding another town meeting which will host representatives from the police and a Ministry of Education as well as community leaders with an invitation extended to all town members.
"I've never buried my head in the sand. I won't stop until I get the police different and more help in the schools. The children are the future."