Schools Try to Save Maori Culture

New Zealand educational programs aim to revive the language and spirit of native people

TEN years ago, Maori was in danger of becoming another dead language. Today, 12,000 preschoolers a year are helping to keep it alive by learning the language and customs at 680 kohanga reo, or Maori-language learning nests, around New Zealand.

The learning nests are total-immersion preschools where teachers speak Maori, a Polynesian language, to the children for about five hours a day. At the Te Whanau O Karori (Family of Karori) school in this suburb of Wellington, about 15 children sing Maori songs, play Maori games, learn to count in the native tongue, and even eat some Maori food, such as Rewena bread, loaves made from potato yeast. As is true in all Maori life, there is a strong element of the spiritual in the school, with the children le arning to pray in Maori.

The children are led by kaiako, or head teacher, Chermine Rountree. She is proud of the children's language skills and discipline. She watches as the children count to 10 in Maori. They can't leave their chairs until they get it right. Although some fidget, Ms. Rountree points out that they have learned Maori discipline by remaining in their chairs until they are told they can leave.

Several mothers are helping, including Tuaine Kotuhi, mother of one-year-old Bronson Wayne (named after Charles Bronson and John Wayne). She hopes to get her son into a bilingual school after he leaves the kohanga reo. "I have another son who has not continued speaking Maori, and he's lost most of what he learned," she explains.

For many Maori parents, these schools are their first contact with the Maori language, which started to disappear in the 1920s as families moved into the cities. After World War II, the trend accelerated and was even encouraged by school authorities who punished students with a leather strap for speaking their native tongue. When a survey in the 1980s found a scarcity of Maori speakers, the Maori community reacted by setting up the kohanga reo.

Some people in the Maori community are pushing for more funding for kura kaupapa Maori, or schooling totally in Maori through the primary level. So far, there are about 11 such classes within the public schools and another 17 that are bilingual (classes are partly in English).

SINCE 1987, when Maori became an official language of New Zealand, almost all primary and secondary schools have had some component of Maori in them. All student teachers must be trained in taha Maori, the Maori dimension. The government hopes to establish a Maori university next year.

The kohanga reo are currently the most popular schools. Nearly 25 percent of Maori preschoolers attend a learning nest.

Besides teaching the language, the schools are supposed to help lessen the learning gap between Maori and non-Maori children. "Each year the gap grows wider and wider," says Wiremu Kaua, Maori group manager at the Ministry of Education in Wellington.

To try to reverse this trend, New Zealand has substantially increased its funding of kohanga reo. Five years ago, the country spent $5 million (New Zealand; US$2.7 million) on the kohanga reo. This year it is spending $36 million (New Zealand; US$19.8 million). Education authorities say the spending increase puts the kohanga reo in line with the funds spent on other early-childhood schools.

Part of the kohanga-reo concept is to encourage parents to get more involved in the children's education. "Often this means the extended family, which may include aunts and uncles who become involved on a daily basis. There are almost always one or two mothers coming to a kohanga reo," says Richard Benton, head of the Maori Unit of the New Zealand Council for Education Research in Wellington.

It is unclear how successful the nests are. Mr. Kaua says some children who attended kohanga reo are more advanced than their European counterparts. "Some of the kids are already reading when they go into the school system," says Kaua.

Some questions have been raised about the monitoring of progress in the schools, however. "I am not confident that in the case of kohanga reo and Maori language teaching within our education system, that current monitoring systems ... are sufficient so that the results we want to achieve are being achieved," said John Carter, a member of Parliament, in a speech last month.

Mr. Carter claims that a recent oral assessment of new entrants by a school in his district "gave quite alarming results." Of the 19 percent who attended kohanga reo, only 25 percent had a learning age above five and achieved the level of a six year old.

Carter also cited the results of a local high school, which found that children who had come through kohanga reo, bilingual, or total-immersion schools, had low skill levels.

"One of the reasons given for these results is that many of the people involved in the kohanga reo, bilingual, total-immersion system who are tutoring these children, are not trained teachers, said Carter.

In fact, the main qualification to teach at a kohanga reo is fluency in the language. The Kohanga Reo Trust, which governs the movement nationally, is just now putting together a national syllabus.

Maori education experts question Carter's results. Dr. Benton notes that Carter's electorate has an extremely high unemployment rate. According to the New Zealand Employment Service, the unemployment rate among Maori in that area is 40 percent. "When you have an economically depressed area, that is where you get learning, social, and health problems," he says.

Benton says it is too early to expect any results from the movement, since the increase in funding started only five years ago. "You really won't see results until there are more trained teachers," he says, adding, "The kohanga reo need time to mature."

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