The Amanaki STEM Academy (ASA) is based in Palmerston North. Their vision – to nurture and develop successful Pacific youth by prioritising work ethic and normalising excellence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). While there is an increasing number of Pasifika students taking STEM subjects and following a STEM career path, Pasifika young people still have the lowest uptake and achievement in STEM subjects nationwide.

The ASA project was created by Viliami Teumohenga and partner Tanya Koro. It began as a homework group with their children and their friends studying around the kitchen table. Today, ASA has 31 registered students from a variety of Pacific communities such as Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau, PNG, Niue, Tuvalu, Rotuman (Fiji) and NZ European. They attend weekly study sessions which run on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school term. They can also take part in four 2-week-long study programmes that are run during inter-term school holidays. Computers and resources are provided. All of the volunteer tutors hold tertiary degrees, masters and doctorates in various fields of study.

The Academy spreads its net wide: They have built relationships and work in collaboration with local groups such as Tai Wananga Tu Toa, local Pasifika church groups and other providers. And of course they have close relationships with the local secondary schools and intermediate schools in Palmerston North. The plan is to continue to strengthen these networks and relationships, drawing more Pasifika families into the programme and at the same time creating what they call a Pasifika-centric local ecosystem across the region so that children have clear pathways into tertiary/vocational education and the workforce.

The Academy has measured the impact of parent support on the success rates of children and the overall quality of learning in Pasifika families. Their findings show that parental involvement in Pasifika children’s education matters. Florence Malama, who is the Secretary of the ASA, says “Some of our parents find it hard to get involved in their children’s education. In Palmerston North only 4 percent of the population is Pacific. Pacific culture is all about family and community and while they are connected naturally through their churches they are not generally connected to education.”

So the ASA has always held events for parents. This year, however, a professional development grant from ACE Aotearoa has helped them fund and extend this important part of the programme.

They hold three types of events that include parents: Family Welcome Days, Holiday Programmes and Parent Talanoa sessions.

At the Family Welcome Days, which are held each term, the parents hear about the Board’s strategic direction and they are asked to make a commitment to be actively involved in the academy. It is also an opportunity for parents to talanoa about what’s working and what could be improved. “We stress that it is not just a homework club,” says Florence, “and that their involvement is vital for their children’s education. We know it can be difficult. Many of them have two or three jobs and younger children, so we plan the year around when at least one parent can come, and if necessary we can find a student to baby sit.”

The Welcome Days also give parents a chance to identify and share good practice about things like providing a positive environment for their children’s learning and discuss ways they could support each other, like sharing transport to take their children to sessions.

As well as tutors talking about the plans for the students, the event includes speakers who provide information about study options for adults – inspiring whole families to aim for excellence. “We tell them,” says Florence, “that adult learning is never too late. We want to inspire you and support you to get started. We are building up our networks with tertiary providers so that we can do this well.”

One way the parents support the academy is by providing the food for events like the weekly sessions and holiday programmes. But they don’t just prepare the food, they get involved in running an activity for the children such as menu plans that match the budget and scoring meals out of 10 on nutrition, logistics and budget.

And while they are there to make the food, they can also go on the visits to workplaces such as Weta, Fonterra and Xero. This exposes parents and adults to STEM opportunities and education information and builds their child’s learning as well as their own.

The final event, the Parent Talanoa, is a professional development training session specifically for parents and adults in the community where adults can learn more about STEM subjects, get practical tips to use as parents as teachers in the home, and be connected to the ASA academy for ongoing support for their children’s learning – and their own. Over 200 people attended the last Parent Talanoa.

Florence says that she has definitely observed positive changes: “Families are coming closer together and growing in confidence. They are learning to trust each other and become more active members in their community. I think their involvement is driving them to reach out to others – and that must be good for their mental health. The events for parents are creating a safe place for them to discuss what is happening daily.

“The intergenerational learning is also creating positive connections in families. At one of the visits we took the students and parents to Te Papa where a senior curator showed them around the Pacific collection. Many of the parents said that they did not realise how important Pacific history is – and the visit created a lot of conversations between kids and parents – talking about history, stories, ancestral wisdom and knowledge. It was a beautiful learning environment.”