Ōpāwa School is one of five primary schools involved in a ground-breaking programme to help young children affected by the Canterbury quakes. Its involvement and efforts over five years, are paying off.

What happened in Canterbury from September 2010 onwards – the large, damaging quakes and thousands of nerve-jangling aftershocks – was unique on a world scale. It was always going to leave an imprint on the population. Including its smallest citizens.

Within a year of the first big earthquake, education leaders such as Ōpāwa School’s Shevaun Karipa noticed a big shift in the school environment. “Children were going from zero to 100 in terms of aggression. We had a big spike in referrals to specialist services for children with learning and behavioural problems. You could see many children struggling to learn. The impact of the earthquakes was really profound in a lot of our children.”

Karipa is the school’s Deputy Principal and its Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO). That means she plays a critical role in ensuring children with special education needs or disabilities receive the help they need. By the end of 2012, she and her colleagues realised the combination of the school’s well-developed support systems and Ministry of Education programmes were not enough to address the ‘tsunami’ of need. “It was obvious we needed to do something else.”

They became one of five schools implementing the programme designed by Associate Professor Kathleen Liberty and her University of Canterbury colleagues. Ōpāwa School implemented all of the programme’s components. They began with new entrants, extending the programme so now all pupils are involved.

Karipa says while being part of the programme is tough, it is exceptionally worthwhile. It has resulted in a better learning environment, and higher achievement for pupils. For example, the percentage of children who met or exceeded the national standard for reading for their age rose from 52% to 85%. She says there has been a noticeable drop in the number of times the leadership team is called to classrooms to support or remove children who are not coping, and a corresponding drop in referrals to external agencies.

“The school feels much calmer since we introduced the programme. We are so glad we took part and in my opinion the children are definitely better off as a result.”