In 2004, I left Johannesburg, having fallen in love with the tiny rural town of Wakkerstroom, the second-oldest town in Mpumalanga. Within four years, my daughter Tammy and her family also moved to Wakkerstroom
Quickly the locals, aware of our experience in early childhood education,1 asked if we would start a preschool. Our stables were converted into classrooms, and Country Kids was born.
As we went along, we discovered a great demand for English-medium schools in this rural area. The two local government primary schools that offer English medium education were at capacity. Many young children received a three- to four-year English pre-primary education, but had no choice other than to go back to local community schools to be taught in their mother language for formal primary and secondary schooling.
In 2013, things came to a head. More than 50% of little ones in our reception year (Grade R) class could not get placed at the primary school of their choice. Five children could not get placed in a local school at all for Grade 1.
Said my daughter, “Mom, we have to do something.”
Thus, Country College was born. We (very) quickly converted dilapidated outbuildings at Country Kids into a Grade 1 classroom and, in January 2014, started a pilot project with 13 Grade 1 pupils. During the course of 2014, we scouted for more suitable premises. In the second half of the year, we were fortunate to acquire a huge stand with a beautiful, but seriously neglected, 120-year-old house (with quite a history), set in the middle of a municipal park. Frantically we looked for suitable staff members and purchased classroom equipment.
We opened on 14 January 2015 with 48 pupils, from Grade R–3. We are so proud of our school! It is simply beautiful. The old house will always remain our foundation phase classrooms. Our grounds allow for at least two blocks of double-storey classrooms and a science/maths centre – plans all drawn up and ready to go!
All available resources
We plan to use digital tablet technology in our senior primary classes so that our children have every advantage that they need to excel in today’s world. We have employed young, passionate teachers who feel the same way that we do about children and education. We will continue to give local matriculants in
our area opportunities to become teacher’s assistants while they study further (two started with us as assistants in 2015). Our property is large enough to add a high school block if we choose to in the future.
We believe that every child must have the same opportunities and start on an equal footing. Therefore, all Grade R–3 pupils enjoy Playball2 lessons and computer classes. These little ones have to be ready for their technology-based education. We realise that sport will take some time to develop. We are just too small even to field a team. But that does not mean that we aren’t actively incorporating sporting or technology activities into our weekly curriculum.
Tammy takes care of day-to-day educational matters and I take care of financial and administrative matters. There’s a healthy amount of overlap! We cater for the middle-to-lower income market: these parents – mostly government officials – are as passionate as we are about their children’s education. All our parents are quite simply ready to make whatever financial sacrifices they need to, even though unemployment levels are as high as 87% in our surrounding areas.3 Many children live with Granny (‘Gogo’) whilst their parents work in bigger centres such as Ermelo, Newcastle, Durban and Johannesburg. This can be problematic, but in this electronic era, we can communicate with absent parents. We were thrilled to have 100% attendance at our second-term parent/teacher evening – this proves our parents’ commitment.
Even our uniform was carefully chosen, taking cognisance of our parents’ financial situation and our specific weather conditions. Most of the uniform items can be purchased at any local chain store. Items such as jerseys and jackets have been made for us, again using local suppliers where possible. The heavy winter jacket is essential for the many frosty winter mornings where temperatures are well below zero. We are thrilled with the final results.
We follow the national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS)4 curriculum to allow our pupils to move between the limited numbers of schools in our area that all use CAPS. But we also want our teachers to have the freedom and flexibility to change what they want to in order to meet our particular children’s needs. We want teachers and children to be excited to come to school each day: to take their lessons outside into our beautiful grounds, to listen to the birds and watch the occasional cow pass by. How better to learn than through having fun?
Our teachers were handpicked. Passion was the first criteria. We are a small, young group. We have lots of growing up to do together. We have good times, a few tears – but our core value, love, is always present. Our circular motto is: ‘Love to learn to live.’ It’s a predictor, we believe, of success. Future staffing might pose problems: it’s a very small community, so there is a limited pool of resources and funding. But already people are approaching us about possible employment in the future.
The Country Kids nursery school will always remain a vital part of our business. Its importance cannot be underestimated. From as early as three years old, our children will learn what this particular family is all about, and we so hope that most little ones will continue their formal schooling with us. Having this established base has allowed us to spend the time needed on our new venture, with complete peace of mind that our pre- schoolers are more than adequately looked after.
ISASA support an essential ingredient
Becoming an ISASA member was always a priority. We need the guidance and mentoring, and we know we can’t do this on our own. We need to chat to like-minded staff in other schools. We have to know what is going on in the educational world out there (even though, in our little bit of rural paradise, we like to pretend that the outside world does not exist!).
SASA will provide everything we are looking for, and we wish we had sought the valuable support sooner, as our teething challenges have been many. We are still ploughing our way through all the government red tape required of new schools seeking registration. But we won’t give up, no matter how many times our documents are misplaced.
Money is another challenge: financial institutions are reluctant to support new businesses in this economic climate. Our financial requirements slip between the cracks – we are too small for the
business sector, and home loan companies won’t finance us as we are a business property, not residential. So, funding the acquisition and restoration of the Country College has been extremely tough. The past year has been rigorous, but we remain focused and 100% committed to our dream – even though to say we are sleep-deprived is not exaggerating. (Our standard joke is that we can fit you into our schedule between 02:00 and 03:00 on any given morning!)
The number one question we still get asked is, so who is the principal? We always just look at one another and laugh. Who is the boss? We both are. No one can take out this mother/daughter team!
It is worth it? Every step of the way. Our vision statement states in the first line: “Country College is a family.” Watch out for the next generation.
1. JanetRowseandherdaughterTammyleRouxstartedworkinginearly childhood education in 1996 in Johannesburg. To read their full story, please visit our website at: www.ieducation.co.za.