A New Documentary Shows How Education in NZ and the US is Divided on Racial Lines
Where you learn depends on where you live, and where you live often depends on what colour you are.
It was the second-to-last day of intermediate school, and Antonio Ripata was surprised to be called to the principal’s office. He walked there with his mate Wiseguy trying to work out what they had done this time. “But we sat down with the principal and he pulled out a little pamphlet...”
They weren’t in trouble. That pamphlet was for the In Zone programme, a hostel set up in a ritzy Auckland suburb to give Māori and Pacific Island boys the chance to attend one of the country’s leading high schools. Going to Auckland Grammar usually depends on your parents having enough money to live in the school’s sought-after zone. And Antonio lived much further south.
The only catch? Antonio’s parents would have to hand guardianship of him over to stranger. Enter Terrance Wallace, the man behind In Zone. Terrance came to New Zealand from Chicago in 2010. His initial impression of Auckland was “a paradise” but it didn’t take long for him to identify a society divided along racial lines. He remembers hearing a news story about Māori and Pacific underachievement in education and immediately linked it to his own experiences with African American and Hispanic people back home in Chicago. “I decided I wanted to do something about it,” Terrance told VICE. “I had to come up with a way to see how I could make a difference.”
Achievement levels for Māori and Pacific students are rising, but they still lag behind other ethnic groups. In 2017, Asian students had the highest proportion of school leavers with the marks to make it into university (77.8 percent), followed by Pākehā (57.2 percent), Pacific (46.4 percent) and Māori (35.6 percent). At Auckland Grammar, 86 percent of students graduate with university entrance.
At the time Terrance opened In Zone, Māori and Pacific students made up only five percent of the school roll at Auckland Grammar. So he set up a hostel to give kids who would normally be shut out the chance to attend. Antonio was one of Terrance’s first students.
In the Zone, a new documentary directed by New Zealand filmmaker Robyn Paterson, chronicles the personal journey Terrance underwent as he set up In Zone and developed relationships with the students like Antonio. Between 2010 to 2017 the programme grew from 28 boys to 50. Later it expanded to include girls after a partnership was made with nearby Epsom Girls Grammar, meaning Terrance has now been the legal guardian to over 70 New Zealand children.
“Did it get crazy? Absolutely,” says Terrance. “I mean it was fun, we laughed a lot, we cried together, we ate together, we created stuff together and just challenged each other and I think it was a true sense of whānau.”
In one of the most moving scenes of the documentary Terrance explains to the parents of hopeful participants that they will need to sign over guardianship of their children for them to be enrolled in Grammar. As a complete stranger, Terrance had to assure parents of their child’s safety. Even though, in the beginning, he had no evidence of his programme's success, parents still handed over their kids. “I think that God must have graced me with how to communicate that to give them the comfort of knowing that I would do exactly what I said.”
After that initial meeting with their principal, Antonio and Wiseguy talked over the In Zone programme on their walk home from school. At the time Antonio’s family situation wasn’t good. He was sleeping in the laundry because the house was so crowded. No-one in his family had gone further than year 11 at school. Antonio was keen to better himself and seize opportunities, but says he came from an environment where wanting to be successful was looked down upon. The prospect of going to Grammar excited him, because he wanted push himself and show his family that anything was possible, that “being tough isn’t the only thing on offer.”
Everything fell into place quickly. The interviews for Auckland Grammar and the In Zone programme were the very next day so Antonio missed his final day of year 8 in order to attend. He was sold immediately. “Driving to Grammar through the front gates, I felt like I belonged... The vast history, all the names on the honours board, the existence of pride just drew me in.” Antonio believes he has the record for the fastest interview—so convinced was he that he wanted to attend, he was that quick to answer their questions.
Without In Zone, he says he wouldn’t be where he is today. If he could go back and do it all again, he would do so in a heartbeat. “Sometimes I look back and wish I was back there with all the brothers, back at Grammar with that structure for sure.”
Most of all he feels “very, very blessed to have met Terrance”, who, despite moving back to Chicago, still remains a massive part of Antonio’s life. “I was hardly ever at home, so I didn’t really get guidance or advice from my own father, so Terrance kind of filled that gap.”
But Terrance couldn't stick around forever. Seven years after establishing the programme, he felt the pull of home. He returned to Chicago to set up In Zone there to help African-American students get better access to education.
Like New Zealand, America’s high-school graduation rates vary across ethnic groups. Last year, 76 percent of black students and 79 percent of Hispanic students graduated high school on time, compared to 88 percent of white students.
Establishing a Chicago version of In Zone came with more challenges than Terrance had faced in Auckland. “Taking the equivalent number of African American young men into a heavily white community is like playing Russian Roulette. You are not sure if they’re going to embrace them, you’re also not sure if they’re going to be gunned down by a police officer.”
Terrance says the difference between Chicago and Auckland is that in Chicago—a city with nearly 3000 shootings so far this year and counting—it’s a matter of life and death. In New Zealand it was also a lot easier to establish networks and find people who were willing to help financially and in other ways to build a successful formula.
And succeed they did. Almost all of the In Zone participants went on to tertiary education, some did trades, or got into sports, or the medical field. Antonio was the first person in his family to go to university. He is now a lending security officer at ASB’s head office in Auckland, and is on a development contract with Auckland rugby.
He's not sure what his life would’ve been like if not for that fateful meeting with the principal all the way back in 2010. “A lot of scenarios could’ve played out differently if mum and dad didn’t send me to that interview on the last day of school. I get a bit emotional thinking about it.”
At the time, Antonio never really considered the enormity of what Terrance had done for him. That has since changed. “Now I can comprehend how massive it is in terms of for him, someone who is willing to give that much for someone to better themselves is massive.”
Of course, in an ideal world children would have access to great schools whatever neighbourhood they grow up in. Terrance says it's not uniquely a schooling problem he's addressing—he believes the quality of teachers is the same in less affluent areas as affluent areas—but the In Zone model has the ability to distance students from disruptive factors outside the classroom.
"If we’re addressing anything it’ll be mainly what happens after school time and the violence and the gangs and the drug access within those communities that really affects the kids education," says Terrance. "If a family is living in poverty, chances are that if they’re working or trying to work putting in heaps of hours. Kids aren’t having the supervision they need so they can excel in their education and that’s anywhere from tutorial support and after school programming. In some cases you have two bedroom homes with five or six kids living in it. In Zone is much larger than education, it’s housing, it’s poverty, it’s child poverty, that we are addressing."
In the Zone is in New Zealand cinemas now.
Follow Zahra on Twitter.