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WORDS Liam Stretch PHOTO Sarah Rowlands

There’s something special in the city centre. Standing tall on St Asaph Street, on the edge of the South Frame rises one of the latest editions to Ōtautahi’s cityscape.

Ao Tawhiti is Unlimited and Discovery schools’ new home – reborn in a creative hive of energy, life, and freedom. Spread across three floors, the vertical school hosts years 1 to 13 – the campus is a designated special character school.

The campus and curriculum is designed for children and teenagers who have a deep curiosity for learning, and this is fostered in whatever way is deemed appropriate for the student.

At Ao Tawhiti, children are encouraged to be themselves and they, along with their families, have a lot of involvement in the direction of the courses that they embark on.

Each student is catered to individually, with classes determined by curriculum level, not age.

This means that teachers will get together with whanau to assess what the child’s strengths are, and what level they sit at, in a manner of various subjects.

The school meets NZQA curriculum standards, but the collaboration between staff, students, and parents helps to build an IEP or ‘Individual Education Programme’ that acts as a framework for the education of the student.

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Acting Principal, Duncan Woods loves his job, and having previously been employed in the traditional education system for a number of years, he values the importance that Ao Tawhiti holds.

“As a school we are enablers of dreams,” acting principal Duncan Woods says.

The activation of dreams is evident at the school with art throughout, thoughts scribbled on glass panels with whiteboard markers and one student (a coffee connoisseur) has been given the freedom to set up his own café and is receiving training through partnership with a barista at Supreme Supreme. This is just one of the ways off-site locations are used in the development of the education of Ao Tawhiti students.

One of the hallmarks of the campus is its accessibility to the community. There is no need for a library, when Tūranga is just around the corner – and the art gallery and other central city services are also right on the doorstep.

Internally, the design is striking. A bold laminate wood staircase forms the spine of the structure, with each floor holding a different syndicate. There is a noticeable change in volume when one ascends to the junior school (suitably placed on the top level), and balconies provide access to the elements, hosting everything from a pottery kiln to lunchtime seating – all the while, framing the views of the city in unique and quirky ways.

Vertical windows bring light into the segmented spaces, with Duncan’s favourite overlooking the Port Hills on the southern side of the city.

When questioned as to what he loved most about the place, Duncan applauded the community.

“When surrounded by such great colleagues, families, and students... inspiring stories happen all the time; it’s just contagious.”

FeaturesJoshua Brosnahan