Meet our 2014 Woman of the Year

Love, humour, tenacity and vision... these are the qualities that have taken Sita Selupe from teen mum to inspirational founder and principal of a ground-breaking school that is transforming the lives of Maori and Pasifika children.

Sita Selupe


Lots of great Kiwi inventions start life in the humble backyard garage but for Sita Selupe there were no nuts, bolts or no 8 wire in sight. Selupe, a visionary teacher, CEO, school principal, community leader and mother of four, is NEXT’s Woman of the Year 2014, chosen for her inspirational work improving educational outcomes for Pacific Island and Māori children in south Auckland – helping break the poverty cycle one family at a time. From the early days running classes from her backyard garage, Selupe is now principal of south Auckland’s Rise UP Academy, one of the country’s first partnership (charter) schools, and CEO of the Rise UP Trust.

With Pacific migrant families now seeing their third New Zealand-born generation, she says it’s time to get savvy, get educated and break the poverty cycle. “In our family I’m the only one with a formal university degree and it’s still that way after three generations of us being here in New Zealand. The voice of the future is in the classroom and we shouldn’t take that lightly among the busy-ness of life,” she smiles.

Selupe is understandably proud as she guides a tour of the school. Kids call out “malo a lelei”, or in the case of her own kids “hi, Mum”, while little ones dressed in their black and orange uniforms peel off from their class groups to come and wrap their arms around her. She says starting the school has been like gaining an extra 45 nieces and nephews.

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“If someone had told me I could be here as principal of one of the first charter schools in New Zealand, I never would have thought that,” says Selupe, also winner of the education category in our awards. “The first week of school I’d drive up here with tears in my eyes; it was surreal.” Based in a former church school, faith-based Rise UP Academy has sunny, airy classrooms, a strong IT focus, colourful displays of kids’ work all over the walls, and a discernible learning buzz.

‘We’re not about dependence. Everyone has to bring their A game; we make that clear’

Calling all parents

A city-bound train roars past beside the school, while on the other side of the tracks stand the red brick towers of exclusive private school King’s College. It would be easy to make comparisons about the haves and have nots, but 39-year-old Selupe chooses not to. When it comes to educational achievement, she has a different take. “There’s a lot of that already being said out there and that’s coming from a deficit model of thinking. I liken learning to a game: if you don’t know the rules of engagement, you’re not going to be able to play the game correctly. Once parents have those skills we don’t see the deficit things that happen in other schools. They know the expectations and they have support if they become vulnerable but we’re not about dependence. Everyone has to bring their A game; we make that clear.”

Poverty aside, when she was working as a classroom teacher in Mangere, Selupe could see how much more progress her students could make if parents had the tools to set them up well from home. That realisation was her spark to initiate change. For the past eight years Selupe and her team have been developing and delivering programmes for parents and kids through Rise UP Trust, which began in Selupe’s south Auckland garage 2014 when she was on maternity leave from her primary teaching job. She says a number of events, including the death of a young family member through gang violence, galvanised her to action; she realised she had the skills to change lives. “When life deals you some stink cards, you have options – as much as you think you don’t. You can choose to see the positive and do something good out of that situation or to do nothing.”

Word spread about ‘Aunty Sita’s home-school’, and before long parents asked how they could get involved and support their children. “One of the mums said, ‘Sita, can you show me how to do that inquiry learning thing?’ and I said ‘Sure’, then she told another mum and then that mum rang and said, ‘Can I bring Rongopai?’ and then Rongopai said, ‘Can I bring Tita?’ and Tita said, ‘Can I bring Malia?’ and we had our very first parent meeting.”

The meetings grew into workshop, the workshops into courses and, over the following six years, partnering with ASB Community Trust’s Māori and Pasifika Education Initiative, they delivered the ‘Building Learning Communities’ project to more than 100 south Auckland families. At Rise UP Academy parents take programmes to discover their kids’ learning styles and personalities, learn problem-solving skills and how best to support their child’s education and be more demanding of the education system. However, she says her team is acutely aware you cannot teach a whanau what you know until they know you care. Humour is a key tool with Pacific people, Selupe says.

“If you add some humour to the hardest-to-digest messages, then it goes down a whole lot easier – thatspoonful of sugar.” The school also asks parents to donate 40 hours of their time in whatever area they have skills, be it IT, research, or taking the tea towels home to wash. Selupe’s husband Saia can often be found tending the school grounds once he finishes his day’s work as a truck driver.

A sense of purpose

The close connections with switched-on whanau, combined with strong governance, engaged kids and excellent teachers create a winning formula, says Selupe. The school also runs an after school programme teaching music, performing arts, sports, fitness, nutrition and culture and heritage. “We believe kids have a real sense of purpose when they know who they are, where they come from, and where they want to go.”

Selupe says she could have been an educational casualty herself, when she had her first baby at 16. What stopped her, she says, was a father with high expectations for her education, and input from a highly supportive community. “The village looked after me: the community, the school I was at, and my dad, who believed there were no problems, only solutions. It probably was hard, but there’s nothing wrong with hard, it builds character.”

She took a year out to care for her son Johnson, now 22, attending playgroup while her friends sat final exams, and the next year she started a Bachelor of Education at the University of Auckland. Education gave her options, Selupe says, and the controversial charter school concept is giving her students the same chance. She says while state schools have achievement aims, Rise UP Academy has set targets it must meet, something she is confident it can deliver.

“In most schools, having 85% of students achieving at or above national standards is an aspiration, but for partnership schools it is a contractual obligation and we have five years to achieve that with our kids.”

Recent testing shows the initial roll of 45 students is off to a flying start, already meeting levels for reading, with mathematics not far off. “We’re a work in progress but there are so many good things happening for these children and their parents. And it’s not just about educational achievements; it’s about community transformation.” And community transformation is an area she can see herself working in for the rest of her life. “Someone helped me when I was down and out and it’s awesome to be able to help others when they need a helping hand. There is so much I want to do so I reckon I’ll need to live to 91 to get it all done.”

As a leader of change she is aware of looking after herself and says prioritising where she spends her energies has been an important lesson. “I’ve learned in order to be effective you have to be selective and I’ve become way better at saying no this year. If you know what you’re called to do, then it makes it easier to say no because you know what your priorities are.”

Looking to the future, Selupe sees Rise UP Academy growing in numbers – its roll is pegged to double next year – with the plan to offer a middle school up to Year 10 in the future. She hopes the model will be successful and transferable to other mainstream schools. “That is ultimately what we want, not just for the whanau here. If it works, why wouldn’t we want every other community to have a similar model? We have aspirations Rise UP will grow to be a real pillar for Pacific education in the whole Pacific, not just here in south Auckland.”

She says change happens on many levels, from the individual to families, communities and at local and central government levels. She doesn’t discount a move into politics in the future to make an impact on policy. But for Selupe, all those big dreams have one very real goal. “I’m very clear I am breaking the poverty cycle for my kids and my whanau, and our school is about taking those families that want to come with us.”

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