Rural kids ‘just the best’ — principal

Maniototo Area School principal Melissa Bell is passionate about making sure the school is...
Maniototo Area School principal Melissa Bell is passionate about making sure the school is punching well above its weight and "not just a plan". PHOTO: ALICE SCOTT
Melissa Bell is almost a year into her role as Maniototo Area School principal and she smiles as she contemplates the differences between her rural students and their urban counterparts she used to teach in Dunedin.

"A recent lesson our seniors were in sums it up pretty well. The teacher referenced AI and most of the students thought that was referring to artificial insemination, when in fact it was artificial intelligence. That’s rural kids for you, they are practical and much more interested in what’s going on around them, not on a screen."

Ms Bell was principal at St Hilda’s Collegiate for seven years before receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2013.

"I decided to step down. I wasn’t sure what the future held, and I wanted to enjoy my family and be there for my two boys who were just heading into their intermediate years," she said.

Ten years on, Ms Bell is cancer-free and her two boys are now young men that have flown the nest.

"I felt I had another principalship in me, but it had to be the right school; Maniototo ticked so many boxes. It was a very deliberate move."

Having grown up in a small Canterbury town she liked the similarities it shared with her own school years.

"It was just an idyllic upbringing; keeping active and being outdoors, just like the families that live in this area. I like that technology doesn’t feature a whole lot in the lives of the students that come here; conversations after a weekend often involve farm work or hunting or horse riding. It’s very refreshing. Rural kids are just the best."

Her husband, Nigel Pacey, also teaches at the school.

"He is a keen fisherman and very much in his happy place living here," she laughed.

When Ms Bell started, the first task she set herself was to meet each family and gain a better insight into where families wanted to see improvements.

"Lifting expectations around behaviour was a common thread that came through and that has probably been the biggest challenge. It can be quite unsettling, but every student deserves to come to school and feel safe.''

The school has a roll of 158 and teaches years 1 to 13. For many families in rural areas, boarding school after the intermediate years is often considered the best option and Ms Bell has taken it upon herself to challenge that mindset.

"I don’t want this school to be a plan B. I want families to feel excited about the prospect of their kids coming here and what that will bring them in terms of opportunity. My focus has been about creating a point of difference."

Ms Bell was a driver of a new community orchard which is soon to be unveiled in the Ranfurly township. A large vegetable garden is also in the building stage and students will learn the process of growing, harvesting and cooking produce through their classroom subjects.

With many students keen on agriculture, the school is also focusing on developing this course to broaden it into agricultural business. Smaller classrooms and opportunities for leadership, personal development and scholarships are some of the benefits she says area school pupils have better access to.

"We have conversations with our seniors about dreaming big, having the courage to be bold and take risks. Don’t just learn to be a builder, aspire to own the company.

‘‘It’s about showing our students they have a choice rather than settling on a career by default," she said.


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