Class structure revamp a hit with teachers and kids

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A once controversial move to dramatically change class structure at Wakatipu High is being hailed as a success 18 months after it was introduced. 

Last year, in what was believed to be a first for a New Zealand secondary school, Year 8-10 students aged between 12-15 years were grouped in classes according to their learning ability rather than age in a curriculum revamp. 

Initially touted as a “social experiment” by some local parents, there are plenty of benefits with the “individualised learning pathways”, teachers believe. 

Proof of its success are two star pupils who have also been part of another big change to the school – losing Year 7s and 8s in a roll reconfiguration over the past two years. 

Hebe Hilhorst, 13, and Liam Kirkpatrick, 12, decided to skip Year 7 at their former Queenstown Primary and jump straight from Year 6 to Year 8 at Wakatipu High at the beginning of last year. 

With Year 8s being shifted to QPS in 2011, Hebe and Liam are now Year 9s – but they’re learning at levels of 16-year-olds, or Year 11, in some subjects thanks to the new mix of their classes. 

Liam’s mum Carolyn says her son has benefited from the early move to high school and the mix of classes he’s in.
“At WHS, Liam has been able to develop a schooling programme that meets his individual needs,” Kirkpatrick says. 

Liam studies NCEA Level 1 History, plus through a distance-learning programme offered by the United States’ Johns Hopkins University, he takes Year 12 Mand­­­­­­-arin and a Year 13 English paper. 

His mum adds: “Liam feels he fits in better in terms of social interactions with peers and his learning. He is happier because he is more challenged and moving at the speed that feels right for him.” 

Hebe, who takes NCEA Level 1 papers in drama, mathematics and English, loves being part of a mixed age group: “Most people think I’m about 14 … so it’s quite easy fitting in with the other kids.” 

Senior teacher Eleanor Quaid, who helped implement the change, says the structure is about catering for each student at their curriculum level: “A holistic view of students’ learning needs is taken when deciding where the best fit is for them rather than the old system of age-based placements. It’s about where they should be learning so they are engaged.” 

Head of English Brian Strang says initially the change was “difficult”, but through course counselling, “Every parent I’ve spoken to is very happy that students have these possibilities”.

Celia Williams, Sophie Lake and Bryce Skudder