Queenstown high school fights exodus

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Wakatipu High is unveiling a new image to the community in a bid to stem a private school exodus. 

The school’s board of trustees is keen to shake off negative perceptions that may contribute to local families sending kids to expensive private education in Otago and Canterbury. 

Board chairman Alistair Nicholson revealed future plans to Queens­town Chamber of Commerce members last night, saying departures have a major impact on the economy. 

“There are a significant number of locals who send their kids away to boarding school – some who even depart as a family – in many cases causing considerable angst but also taking with them probably $5-$10 million a year that is simply lost to the local economy,” he says. 

About 25 local kids leave to attend private and public boarding schools each year. 

Queenstown parent Craig McLachlan says families should recognise the local education opportunities – and not let a boarding school “bring up your kids”. 

“I think parents should take a lot more responsibility and not just hand their kids over to a school and expect the school to do everything,” he says. 

“I think by sending your kids to a private school you’re doing that – you’re sending them to someone else to bring up your kids.” 

Nicholson and his board want to turn the private school exodus around – and fundamental to that is a new-look Wakatipu High. 

Business leaders were last night shown major $3m infrastructure improvements – including a new state-of-the-art performing arts block, the recent cafeteria development and gym extensions. 

A new centre to house information and computer technology, a library and study rooms is expected soon. A new school will eventually be built somewhere in Frankton, but that’s still to be decided by the Ministry of Education. 

With a new principal in the mix – that announcement is expected in the next few days – the school is determined to 
remove itself from a shaky past few years.

Former principal Lyn Cooper was fired, rehired and then resigned last year after Government-appointed official Peter Macdonald was called in to overhaul the management structure. 

Macdonald was enlisted following the school’s Education Review Office report a year ago, which criticised senior management but praised teaching staff and students. Macdonald continues to work with the school this year. 

Nicholson says despite “some uncomfortable recent occurrences”, there are plenty of positive aspects, like students winning 14 scholarships last year – double any previous year. 

The school, which already has well-established ski and tennis academy links, is keen to expand these. 

Board member Greg Turner says they’re looking to ramp up the academies and strengthen links with local businesses – as well as look at its own boarding options. 

Nicholson adds: “We have enormous ambition. With our new principal, we’re determined to recalibrate the school in such a way that, while there will always be reasons that parents decide their kids might be better off somewhere else, there will be no academic, cultural, sporting or pastoral reason for that decision to be made,” he adds. 

Nicholson believes the school has already “started to win the hearts and minds of families here”. 

“If we can continue to progress, then it may well be that we eventually end up with a net gain – rather than a loss – of students coming to the area.”