The Trust runs three schools: Mt Hobson Middle School, a private school in Newmarket; and South Auckland Middle School, and Middle School West Auckland, partnership schools which were recently approved to make the transition to designated character schools.
Students at all three schools undertake camps that see them traverse the flight paths, gravel tracks and train lines of New Zealand all while building on their classroom learning experience, according to Villa Education Trust’s academic advisor, Alwyn Poole.
“We take opportunities, sometimes during the year to kind of bring them together in a different way,” he explains.
Camps at Villa schools are designed to give students “real aspirational experiences”, Poole says.
Recently, Year 10s from Mt Hobson and South Auckland made the trip to Wellington, where they had the chance to see a parliamentary session and meet several MPs.
Students also visited Te Papa and Weta Workshop, contributing to their Wellington experience.
Even the travel to and from the camp is a novelty.
“Some of our kids take the train back ... and for some of our children it’s the first time they’ve actually been on a plane, so it’s trying to get that full experience,” Poole says.
Meanwhile, many of the Trust’s Year 7 students make their way to Northland.
In this more secluded spot, they dive feet-first into the historical perspectives offered in the region, travelling around the Bay of Islands and to Waitangi, where the Treaty that has influenced many of New Zealand’s activities and systems was first signed.
“The first time we took 30 children north from South Auckland Middle School, 22 of the 30 had never been across the harbour bridge,” Poole says.
“So again, we’re finding that for a lot of kids these trips are quite a big deal.”
Year 9 students went even further than that, journeying all the way to Cape Reinga, where they stayed on a marae.
Poole says this trip focused on culture, which is very important to his students.
“It’s quite a different experience, keeping in mind that most of our charter school children are Māori or Pasifika,” Poole explains.
Other students have travelled to Rotorua for camp, looking into geothermal activity around Tarawera.
Every second year, the Year 9s and 10s also go overseas; last year, 40 students went to Hawaii and visited Pearl Harbour, while others went to Hong Kong.
Although the camps are designed around educational experiences to complement classroom learning, there’s also time for the fun stuff: high ropes courses and concrete luging, for example.
Poole says the camp program aims to give students a good peer-to-peer experience through outdoor education, as well as informing them and tying in with the schools’ project-based curriculum.
The curriculum allows students to focus on broad themes of study, embedded into core subjects, while also having the opportunity to interpret the theme to pursue their ideas.
“All of the children in Year 7 do a New Zealand places and people project; in Year 8 all the kids do an oceans project; [and] there’s a lot throughout our projects on government, so the Year 10s get to experience that firsthand [on camp].
“So either they’ve done some project work on the places that they’re going to, or they have the experience first and depending on what age group they’re in, they have something to reflect upon when they get there.
“All of our children do a war project in Year 9, so again all of the kids who went to Hawaii had studied primarily World War II,” Poole adds.
He says the Hawaii trip is an incredible experience, with opportunities to interact with living history.
“I remember when we were there two years ago ... they were able to talk to veterans who were at Pearl Harbor in 1941.”
For many of Villa’s students, this sort of trip would usually be out of the question; even travelling to Wellington can blow the budget.
But he says there is a way around this: Year 10s heading to Wellington fundraise to cover the costs of their trip from their Business project.
In the weeks leading up to the Wellington trip, he explains, each Middle School’s Year 10s hold a business expo for which they design and develop their own products, with money raised from the expo going towards the camp.
South Auckland Middle School students raised $20,000, and Middle School West Auckland raised around $7000 in their first ever expo.
For younger students at the partnership schools, the school covers the cost out of its operational budget – the rationale behind this, Poole says, is that the camps are treated as vital parts of the curriculum.
It’s important, he says, for children to spend time with each other outside of the normal school environment: travelling on the bus, sleeping on the marae, home-staying with families overseas and so on.
Just as important, Poole says, are the emotional and aspirational benefits that students derive from the camp activities.
“One of the things that we consider really important is that young people are able to relate to adults in a respectful but peer-to-peer type way.
“So for our children, for instance, to spend time with Members of Parliament, and look them in the eye and shake their hands and feel that it’s a place where they also could belong is very important to us.
“[We] try and raise their eye level if you like – that’s what we’re aiming for.”
He believes there are many opportunities for today’s kids to learn and grow, whether in New Zealand or abroad.
“If a child doesn’t take advantage of those things, or are somehow excluded, then they’re missing out to a very significant degree,” Poole says.