There’s something about the Canterbury Plains. Long, straight country roads crisscross the flat farmland, giving motorists and farmers an unhindered view of either the majestic snow-covered Southern Alps to the West or the Port Hills in the South. There are sheep and cattle farms on either side of the road—it’s easy to see why Selwyn District is synonymous with farming life. For years Rolleston was one of the small farming towns dotted around Selwyn, primarily scoffed at by the residents of nearby Christchurch for its naïvely optimistic town sign: “Welcome to Rolleston: Town of the Future.”
Jackie Freeman and her husband arrived in 1998, when the town’s population was less than 2000 people. The couple moved from Christchurch because of the same concerns that plague many city dwellers now: house prices. The Freemans built a brand-new house in Rolleston for the same price as buying an old one in the city, plus there was the added benefit of small-town living. “But back then it was really small, with no amenities aside from the local dairy and a very old petrol station. They’d only just built the community centre,” she recalls.
In an age of rapid urbanisation and rapid pace, the sense of knowing your neighbour can almost seem antiquated. Not so in old Rolleston—the town was small enough for families to grow up together, even if the children were only schooled locally until the end of primary school. Upon entering their teen years, kids were bussed out of town to attend Lincoln or Darfield High School.
Jackie is a gatherer, the kind of person who likes to pour out her heart and soul into the people around her, and Rolleston was no exception. She got involved with the local tennis and netball clubs and, before long, joined the Rolleston Residents Association. She was the seventh teacher hired at Rolleston Primary School, which trebled in size during the three years she taught at the school, and she used this experience in education to serve a number of years as chair of the local Burnham School Board.
Before long, Jackie became known among sports clubs and town governance as a mover and shaker in the community. She was known for her persistent voice, lobbying for change and improvement for the families in Rolleston—the town she had come to love.
Improvement became more and more necessary as the years rolled by and new families started moving in. Particularly after the Christchurch earthquakes, Rolleston became a prime location on these plains. A mere 25 minute drive from central Christchurch, offering reassuringly stable shingle soil, and cheaper land prices, it didn’t take long for property developers to start fencing off sections and buying up land. By June 2016, the town had quadrupled in size: 13,000 residents and growing. The future had finally arrived.
Within ten years, the face of Rolleston had changed from a quiet farming town to a bustling hub for young families, a transformation that finds an almost uncanny representation in new mayor, Sam Broughton. One of the youngest mayors in New Zealand, the energetic 35-year-old grew up on a sheep farm between Darfield and Colgate, a 20 minute drive from his Selwyn District office in the heart of Rolleston. Sam and his wife Liz welcomed their first child at the beginning of this year, and he’s got a sense of the tensions and opportunities ahead for the growing population.
“It’s easy to live a life that’s focused on yourself and your family. You’re never going to know everyone, but providing spaces where everyone can know someone well, that’s important.”
In order for communities to flourish, there needs to be common places of connection. Over a decade of watching the town’s rapid expansion, Jackie began asking herself how her town could retain a sense of connectedness and common identity, especially as her three kids started growing up through the local primary schools. While Rolleston was attracting new commercial amenities like supermarkets and fast food outlets, she knew that unless someone started lobbying for a high school in town, her kids would have to spend the majority of the week away from their community and she would lose touch with other parents as their teenagers dispersed.
“Rolleston has been a little bit soulless,” says Sam. “It’s been a place where people live, but travel away for work. Children have grown up here, but haven’t been able to stay for high school. Schools provide a place for all families to connect and grow together. When it stops at the intermediate level, there’s no longevity of relationships.”
In 2014, after years of lobbying the District Council and the Ministry of Education, Jackie got her wish: the Ministry recognised the need and announced that Rolleston College, a Public-Private Partnership high school would open in early 2017. The community was given the task of selecting an Establishment Board of Trustees (eBOT).
Of course, one of the first people appointed to the six-person board was Jackie: “They knew I had some pretty strong opinions about what needed to get done and I wanted it done right,” she says with a laugh.
The new eBOT were given a 500-page document from the community that outlined key needs and wants for the teenagers of Rolleston. The list included easy access to the outdoors for the sporting-mad students, good teachers, and openness to the community, a place where parents and guests feel welcome.
Also on the agenda—and of particular interest for this predominantly New Zealand European town—was the conscious decision to weave te ao Māori (the Māori world) into the design and practices of the new school. While engagement with Māori culture has not historically been a large part of mainstream schooling in Canterbury, the school has worked with the local Māori council, Te Taumutu Rūnanga to include the values of mana whenua (the people of the land) into the fabric of how future Rolleston students will learn and interact with their people and their place.
The Board came up with a group of six values that they wanted to shape school culture, qualities that they hope future generations of Rollestonians will draw from their time at the school: Joyful, Resilient, Manaakitanga (Hospitality), Creative, Kaitiakitanga (Guardianship) and Connected. The rūnanga gifted Rolleston College with a Māori name: Horeaka Haemata – the flourishing lancewood. In its infancy, the stiff and spiky leaves of the native tree grow downwards then lift towards the sky as the tree grows into adulthood, a metaphor for how the community hopes their young people will mature and flourish through their experiences here.
The eBOT also wanted to ensure the school’s first principal would be a suitable fit for the community—a leader who was innovative in a way that could reflect the energised new community. Jackie recalls how, during the interview process, the pool of potential candidates grew smaller and smaller until the only candidates remaining were those who had never been a head principal before. They found their answer in Steve Saville, former Deputy Principal at Alfriston College, a high school in the south of Auckland.
Saville carries a contagious energy. He sports a pierced ear, teaches comic art in the classroom, and bounds around the campus, greeting students and parents by name. He saw Rolleston College as a new opportunity for an evolving place. “Rolleston felt like a very energised positive community,” he recalls. “It was initially quite dislocating; the town was growing so fast. The College has become a very, very important community focus—[the opening] is another rite of passage for this community as it grows.”
It’s evident from the school’s design that Rolleston College is intended to reflect a new style of learning and socialising. The classrooms, like many new schools around the country, are all open-plan with break-out rooms for quieter work. Visitors are welcomed through a whare at the school’s entrance into a large, high-ceilinged foyer. Students can be seen bustling along the open-air bridge that connects the two arms of the building. Each flexible learning space is named with big, bold letters on the wall in both English and Māori, with the expectation that students will learn parts of te reo by association. 90 percent of students have a smartphone and are encouraged to carry it with them to scan QR codes dotted next to certain exhibits for further information, as well as to document work projects and upload images to their online ePortfolios. The expansive courtyard between the arms of the building was designed to evoke a street-café, encouraging the students to spend time outside with each other.
Principal Steve and the Board were keenly aware of the challenge of starting an institution from scratch in a new community. Rather than opening the doors to students at every year level, the decision was made to open for the first year with just Year 9 students, to allow a smaller group to help define the kind of place Rolleston College would be. For the first three weeks of the first school term, there was no traditional subject learning. Instead, the teachers worked with the students to create a college haka, and together, they developed the school’s new cultural values and practices.
At the start of the now normal school day, students are encouraged to pursue their own areas of curiosity and interest during the 100-minute “ako” learning time, named for the Māori concept of reciprocal learning between mentor and student. There are also longer periods each day of “Connection Learning”—covering traditional subjects like English, Mathematics, Science, Social Sciences, Health, Physical Education—and “Selected Learning,” during which students work on two subjects they can choose to pursue for a term, like Spanish or Art. The responsibility for learning is placed in the hands of the students who are encouraged to enjoy their education, while teachers ensure they are still on track towards their NCEA qualifications.
While a high school cannot be expected to bring all people together—there are local families who will not send their teenagers to Rolleston College—the openness of the school grounds, its emphasis on local cultural narratives and its staff ethos are all oriented toward connecting the students with the life of their town. Open Days held before the school’s opening were intentionally aimed at those without teenage children, in order to allow the whole community to see and understand the vision of the College. Thousands of people streamed through the whare to take a look at “their” school.
Jackie hopes that over time, the local community will benefit from strong ties with the school. And there is evidence that this is already happening. Evelyn Taylor moved here from Auckland with her young family just after the earthquakes and watched the town evolve from a small community to a transient township.
“In the space of four years, we lost our identity. We don’t know the people and we’ve lost our character. School and sports clubs, that’s how we meet people now,” said Evelyn, whose daughter Emily started Year 9 at Rolleston College this year. “But Rolleston College is a community space, not just a high school. That’s how I see it, there’s no fences or gates.”
The question remains, how will these intentional decisions by the Establishment Board and its energetic Principal shape the character of this town as its students move on to life beyond College? Will the community embrace the College’s new methods and values? Evelyn’s friend has decided to send her teenage daughter to the more traditional Lincoln High School by bus each day, not wanting to take a chance on all of this change.
As for Jackie, she’s quietly satisfied with the progress so far. Her eldest daughter is older than Year 9 so missed out on the inaugural intake, so she will be stepping down from the Board of Trustees in 2017 to ensure parents of current students are the ones taking responsibility for the school’s direction. But that doesn’t stop her own sense of connection to Rolleston College.
“This is a dream come true,” she said, her eyes welling up as she stands in the school’s library and gazes out the glass walls to the Southern Alps. “Every time I drive past the school for the rest of my life, I’m going to feel incredibly proud.”