CHRISTCHURCH — Earthquakes have plunged Christchurch into a city of contrasts, from badly damaged to almost normal, a situation reflected in Catholic primary schools.
School is not usually a better place than home, but that’s the reality for some anxious children, some of whom still sleep with their parents. When you’re stepping over holes and the kitchen floor slopes, a solid playground and boisterous companions at school are lifegiving.
Continuing seismic upheaval has ongoing effects. Three schools — Sacred Heart Addington, Christ the King, Burnside and St Joseph’s, Papanui lost parents in the February quake.
“It was our most difficult time, and still is,” said Papanui principal Mark Gregory. Such tragedy resounded throughout their parish communities.
Dozens of teachers put aside their own anxieties to shepherd hundreds of children through an unnerving last 18 months. They shouted “turtle” to Dallington children who screamed as they saw and heard the cathedral fall right beside them in February. They have reassured littlies who were alarmed by the wild flapping of the marquees used for classes by some schools earlier this year. Woolston has had to break the news that there was no more adventure playground because recently it was placed in the fall-zone of the unusable church. And they have borne their own burdens, some are still awaiting outcomes for damage or a new home to go to. Many schools have had to terminate teachers’ jobs because of a drop in roll numbers. All of which affects the whole school.
As aftershocks keep coming, anxieties remain. St Teresa’s, Riccarton recently took 100 senior children surfing, but a number of parents withdrew their children because of the possibility of tsunami or earthquake. Papanui’s Mr Gregory has had Years 7 and 8 away on camp on Banks Peninsula. “It’s still in the back of your mind . . . what if we get another reasonable shake? There’s not good cell phone coverage there . . . but we have to keep on living.”
Christ the King at Burnside, a 13-teacher school with 340 children in the February quake lost their entire main block, “the hub” with five classrooms and all withdrawal areas including the hall, kitchen, ESOL space and more.  Last year, 150 children with teachers transferred to the Merrin state school site where there were classrooms available. Merrin principals Lesley Black and Lisa Dillon-Roberts outdid themselves in welcoming and facilitating this transition.
Now Christ the King has five prefabs, operate out of a lot of containers, the OSCAR after-school care centre, a converted tennis pavilion and do a lot of teaching outside. Their 22 February memorial in their own prayer garden, principal Mike Bonisch said, was the most poignant liturgy he has ever attended. Deceased parent Helen Chambers’ son was the school’s 2011 head boy.
All describe the children as resilient. Recently, while in marquees while strengthening work was being carried out, teacher Sue Spiers noted how absorbed was another group in the corner. When she went over to congratulate them she found them mesmerised by a worm that had come up through the hard plastic lattice flooring and was travelling.
Most primary schools had minor damage or liquefaction last year with more strengthening or safety measures now taking place. Generally children enjoyed their time in tents but two weeks was enough.  St Mary’s had to move to the Riccarton parish hall for a few months because of danger from a nearby building.
Roll numbers have remained near normal for south and west schools of Hornby, Beckenham St Albans, Papanui Bryndwr and Burnside though the latter lost all foreign students. For others who lost about 20 children — Mairehau, Sockburn and Rangiora — the rolls are steady. Families have moved all over Australia and New Zealand and to Canada. New families in construction have added to the Addington count, and after losing 40 children and two teachers Kaiapoi’s roll is growing as people move north.
Others are less hopeful, including Woolston and St Mary’s. Sumner parish community, hit badly by the demolition of the church, have lost 80 children and one teacher. In an area now less attractive with “broken houses and containers everywhere,” said principal Margaret Coleman, “we had to work really hard with the parents to assure them the children will not miss out . . . but they have stuck with us.” She describes the community as “fantastic”.
Hardest hit roll-wise of all Catholic schools is New Brighton, with a roll drop of 30 per cent from 202 to 121. Vanished too is a huge amount of funding for strategic planning and IT equipment replacement. As yet they have no sewerage and an emergency generator on standby. Principal Deb Daines says a very positive attitude keeps her going and emotional recovery for all is the big thing.
Chris Callaghan, St Paul’s, Dallingon principal said it is community support that has brought them through. “Our parent community has been outstanding . . . the staff have been amazing with their commitment to provide the best for the children.” It’s a fair bet that this thought echoes from every Catholic school.
Now for St Paul’s it’s business as usual, 60 children down, and they have two refurbished playgrounds. This is the school that lost its entire Dallington site in September 2010 and bussed to the cathedral site until that became too close to danger. This St Albans site in a peaceful street is their home till further notice.