By Angela Stephens
The idea of starting a school in Shepherd Avenue in Bryanston, Johannesburg, Gauteng, was conceived in 2010. Little did we know what a long and arduous journey we were about to embark on.
The owner of the school is Nadya Katz, who has been involved in education for the past 18 years. She started her first school with a couple of babies, and through the years she has expanded her numbers to include two nursery schools and two primary schools. She is passionately committed to education and plays a hands-on role in all her schools, giving staff and children the benefit of her years of experience.
Together with the founding team, Katz had done her research: no new government schools had been built in this densely populated area in the last 35 years, and there is a dire need for more primary schools in Sandton.
New ideas badly needed
My parents bought a house in Shepherd Avenue in 1961, when it was still a dirt road. I have lived and worked in the area my whole life, and was thrilled to be asked to become the principal of Sandton Junior School (SJS) by the school’s founders. I have been involved in education my whole life, and I relished the opportunity to start a new school where I could put different ideas that I had gleaned over the years into practice.
I have long felt that schooling has become a “one-size-fits-all” enterprise and that individual needs are generally not taken into account. Just because a child is a certain age doesn’t mean that the child should be stuck into a certain grade. Every child develops at a different pace. Having small classes (a maximum of 20 children per class at SJS) and enthusiastic, dedicated teachers means we are able to take different needs into account. I am passionate about inclusion, but feel that all too often it is about lip service and not about the actual practice. Being a smaller school means that we can actively practice inclusivity.
International ideas inspired SJS
We wanted to create a unique environment that was conducive to bringing out the best in every child who came to the school. We also wanted to create a school that made parents’ lives easier; somewhere where everything was available under one roof. To this end, an architect was engaged and so the process began. We attempted to take the best and most modern ideas from schools across the world and incorporate them in what was to become SJS. We felt there was a need for a school that would allow new and different ideas to be implemented in the school curriculum. We took advice from all over the world, focusing particularly on what is happening in Europe and Asia.
Building began at the beginning of 2011 and was completed by the end of that year. Due to a number of unforeseen circumstances, the school was only able to open in January 2015 – but the wait was well worth it, as we were able to allow children access to a very special environment.
Some of the unique features include having a purpose-built therapy wing, where occupational therapists, speech therapists and educational psychologists are available to all our pupils. We have toilets in each classroom, so that the teacher is aware of where the pupils are at all times, and to minimise any bullying. There is only one access point into the school, which is controlled via a security gate operated by the receptionist. All pupils enter and leave the building this way. We have a purpose-built dining hall, which is unusual in a day school. The nursery school children eat their meals here and the primary school children spend 10 minutes of every break eating their food before going outside to play.
Diversity, teacher choice and class teaching all crucial
Diversity is a very important part of our school. Many of our children come from beyond South Africa’s borders, including Mauritius, Nigeria, Ghana, Germany and India. We have pitched our fee level between those of the more established independent schools and older, thriving government schools in Sandton. We believe we are affordable for working parents.
Our diverse student cohort enables us all to be exposed to a rich variety of cultures, as well as making for interesting and relevant geography lessons. Our staff come from diverse backgrounds – for example, the UK, the Middle East and various African countries. They each have a different way of dealing with the children, which exposes the students to different ways of thinking and doing things.
Our key philosophy at SJS is that every child is unique and deserves to be treated as such. The main reason that we have small classes is so that the teachers are able to focus on each child’s individual needs. Class teaching means that one teacher teaches the class all subjects, enabling more purposeful, intimate relationships. Our school motto is “Soar to excellence”, and we feel that this approach enables us to live up to our motto. Children are taught to be independent and to foster a love for learning. They are encouraged to challenge themselves and to strive to be the best that they can be.
Like any other new venture, we have faced a number of challenges. A key one was getting the balance right when it came to staff and students. Many of our students only enrolled the week before school opened, and we suddenly found that we needed to employ more staff. We were very lucky to find teachers who had relocated from the Middle East who were able to start at the beginning of the first term.
Creative material sourcing and class combinations
Another challenge was how best to fulfil our students’ needs in each grade. To this end, we deliberately do not rely on textbooks as our only resource. Teachers create each lesson themselves, using a wide variety of resources. Lessons are prepared to encompass the individual needs of each child in the class. This puts a lot of pressure on the teachers, but it is vital for each pupil’s development and enables us to create the best environment for every pupil.
We have also combined our Grade 4 and 5 classes and our Grade 6 and 7 classes, and it is to the teachers’ credit that they rose to the challenge of combined classes and that the students thrived in this classroom environment. This also enabled students to work at their own pace – they were able to forge ahead in certain areas and were given individual help in areas where they were struggling. We are looking at further developing this model, as it has great benefits for both teachers and children.
We have installed state-of-the-art Smart Boards, which means that teaching can be done in real time – for example, if there is an earthquake in Japan, the teacher can get the information to the pupils immediately. We are mindful of the dangers of an over-reliance on technology and are striving to find the balance. We are investigating using iPads, but have observed that in many schools they just replace textbooks. Nothing can replace human interaction in the classroom.
The other main challenge that we faced was in the sporting area. Having a limited number of children in the school meant that we were not able to field full teams for soccer and netball
in the leagues. We are in the process of overcoming this, with friendly “six-a-side” matches with schools in the area that have similar issues. This gives our students exposure to team sports and helps us to foster relationships with local schools.
We have many future plans for SJS. We are growing the school by acquiring more property. We would like to have more playing fields and sports facilities to enable us to be more competitive. Student numbers increase almost daily, as we receive calls and visits from parents whose jobs have meant a sudden relocation to Sandton and they need their children to start schools immediately. This has been a surprising aspect for us: we expected children to start school at the beginning of the term. We have had numerous requests for us to start a high
school, which is something that we are considering.
ISASA and independence
We joined ISASA because membership enables us to benchmark ourselves against schools in the same category as us, as well as giving us access to all the current developments in education in South Africa and beyond. Our staff benefit by having access to a wide variety of relevant workshops, and to ongoing training. Membership also gives us credibility with prospective parents, who feel more comfortable that the standards they require are being met.
Being an independent school is very important to us. It enables us to put our systems in place that benefit our students. It also gives us a degree of flexibility in working with the curriculum and allows us to extend our students to reach their full potential. The other advantage of being an independent school is that we can limit our student-teacher ratio at a level that maximises teaching.
We have been very excited about the journey that we have embarked on with SJS We are looking to the future with great excitement, and relish the challenges that we are positive that we can overcome.
Category: Winter 2016