Opinionista Heather Robertson 5 December 2020

Let’s galvanise our schools into lighthouses of knowledge

The five years our children spend at high school are their most at-risk years, adolescence, that turbulent interregnum between childhood and adulthood. Surely this is a time when adolescents and the schools we send them to need more support from parents, not less?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

On Monday night this week I sat in an empty hall with just more than 20 other parents at my son’s high school governing body (SGB) annual general meeting. About 40 of us sat at the same time in the same school hall last week, but because we did not make the quorum of more than 100 parents, the meeting had to be rescheduled.

The school is a largely middle-class, fee-paying public school in Pretoria East, where many parents are civil servants working for government departments in our country’s administrative capital.

The SGB made every effort for parents to participate safely at this meeting during the Covid-19 pandemic, ensuring adequate social distancing, hand sanitising at the entrance, mask-wearing, and all the doors were wide open for adequate ventilation. SMS and email reminders were sent out to parents giving them the option of physical attendance or to attend remotely through Microsoft Teams. Only 14 parents availed themselves of the latter opportunity. This year was arduous for learners, teachers, school governing bodies and parents. Our children left school at the end of March and only returned at the end of August. On their return, they alternated one week at school and one off, having to do term three academic tests for subjects they for the most part had to teach themselves.

Teachers who had no clue about digital or e-learning had to improvise WhatsApp or Google classroom lessons. SGBs battled to get parents to pay school fees when they were at home during lockdown, while ensuring SGB-funded teachers had to be paid.

We were unprepared. All of us. I would have thought that by coming together to reflect on our shared experience, we could discuss ways we could better cope as teachers, learners and parents during the pandemic.

I find this lack of interest, this apathy of the majority of parents at my son’s high school, very disconcerting. High school is the last stretch of the 12-year marathon of basic education. The five years our children spend at high school are their most at-risk years, adolescence, that turbulent interregnum between childhood and adulthood. Surely this is a time when adolescents and the schools we send them to need more support from parents, not less?

The aim of SGBs, according to the 1996 Department of Education White Paper, was to foster democratic institutional management at school level. If the law gives us the opportunity to participate in our children’s schools’ future, why is there so little enthusiasm for active involvement at my son’s school? Are parents too busy? Do they think if they pay school fees, it’s the job of  the principal and teachers to be the primary caregivers and navigators of their adolescents’ rite of passage into maturity? Or could it simply be that SGB AGM meetings are boring imitations of bureaucratic government or business meetings, held to get a quorum of votes for fees and financial decisions?

If this is the case then maybe much more imagination and conversation is needed to make schools more than buildings that have to be maintained, codes of conduct enforced, salaries that have to be paid, rosters that have to be arranged and curriculums completed.

There are schools that are breaking the mould, reimagining schools as centres of service and life-long learning for the entire community and co-creating a vision with learners, teachers and parents that is adaptive to their needs, their assets in terms of skills and resources and aspirations.

When I worked and lived in Port Elizabeth, I encountered the inspiring director of the Centre for Community Schools (CCS) at Nelson Mandela University, Dr Bruce Damons, when he was principal of Sapphire Road Primary in an impoverished part of the city’s northern areas. Damons pioneered the concept of a community school – inviting community members and parents to assist the school. Some parents helped with security, some with planting food gardens, some did cleaning, and others ran a clinic and counselling centre for learners. Whatever their socioeconomic circumstance or educational background, this spirit of volunteerism made parents deeply invested in the school. Damons’ successor, principal Alicia Baatjes, continues this approach, which led to active parent volunteers identifying needy families and distributing food parcels during the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, inspiring other schools in the area to follow suit.

The Manyano network of community schools, spearheaded by the CCS in Nelson Mandela Bay, is doing a fantastic job of ensuring parent participation by turning schools into centres of hope for the entire community they serve, not just places of curriculum administration. All of these schools are located in poorer parts of the Eastern Cape’s metro, now sadly the hotspot of a Covid-19 resurgence.

If parents, principals and teachers in these poorer suburbs of Nelson Mandela Bay can work together to galvanise their schools into lighthouses of learning and positive change, is it perhaps a middle class or civil servant malaise of ennui that prevents schools like the one my son attends in Pretoria East from doing the same? DM168

Heather Robertson is editor of DM168. She was editor of The Herald and Weekend Post in Nelson Mandela Bay from 2010-2015.

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