Oasis Preparatory School: building a school culture that awakens students’ hearts

| November 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Matt Hogarty, Angus Van Niekerk and Shanelle Van Niekerk

If we were to be honest with ourselves, I’m sure we would all agree that the most prominent memories of our school days are not Pythagoras’ theorem, or grammar rules we painstakingly learned, but rather the experiences that tugged at our hearts.

We recall laughter, creativity, focus and determination and, of course, the joy of victory and trial of defeat. These experiences are what we provide for our students at Oasis Preparatory School (OPS), and they shape our school culture.

OPS was founded in 2008 by a naïve but passionate young team of teachers, led by Matt and Doni Hogarty, who had a dream to create an environment in which every child could thrive. They believed that the school day was not merely to be endured but rather enjoyed, and so took a risk and launched a school that at its core was counter-culture. With a dedicated parent body, enthusiastic students and probably more energy than resources, the 22 students and six staff members became part of the quality independent education landscape in Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Midlands.

An active school culture the main intent

“The journey to get to this point has been a remarkable one,” says principal Matt Hogarty, “and we are confident that what Oasis offers every student is a well-balanced, dynamic learning environment that will set them up for success in local high schools.” Offering small classes, a focus on developing individual learning styles, tuition in international programmes such as Singapore Maths and Science1 and Keys to Reading Success,2 a diverse extracurricular menu, mentorship classes aimed at fostering emotional growth, aftercare options and a team of experienced teachers all make for a positive school experience. We believe in each child’s potential and count it a privilege to provide the KZN Midlands area with an accredited and affordable option for private primary school education.

One of the key ingredients to consistently creating experiences that develop the whole child is the intentional pursuit of a dynamic school culture. The term “school culture” generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions. Like the larger social culture, a school culture results from both conscious and unconscious perspectives, values, interactions and practices. We quickly found out that the key to ensuring sustainable success was not merely in investing in resources and curricula, but also in establishing a school culture that described the kind of values we hoped to instil in every student. These cultural values have quickly become the buzzwords on the playground and in the classroom, and continue to be the biggest influencers on our education practice. They are the type of values that we, as teachers and parents, aspire to see in every student who leaves our school gates and embarks on their life journey. Simply put, they are the values that make us valuable! So, what are they?

The value of being extraordinary

Definition: “Beyond what is usual, ordinary or regular, exceptional in character, amount, extent and degree; noteworthy; remarkable.”

We educate students who have no desire to settle for normal, but who are spurred on by an intrinsic motivation to push the limits, remove boundaries and reach for the stars. We aim to establish learning experiences that draw on the unlimited potential in every student to do extraordinary things. As a team of educators, we build this culture by following three key practices:

1. Inspiring stories: An enormous amount can be communicated through stories. One of our key instructional methods is consistently to tell students stories of people who have defied the odds to become extraordinary. Our staff constantly draw on their own stories, examples from the Bible, biographies and more.

2. Crash the box: For students to move towards being extraordinary, as educators we have to see them according to their potential and not their personal history. This means learning to truly see them (their qualities, unique character, victories, etc.) and not jump to a preconceived identity statement based on their previous bad behaviour. This is often hard to do, but we persevere so that students do not get stuck in the “box” of yesterday’s mistakes.

3. Solution builders: We encourage the use of imagination to discover and test out new solutions to problems students face. Helping them develop the muscle of resilience with every setback they encounter is the key to journeying towards the extraordinary.

The value of faith

Definition: “Believing, possessing unreasonable hope in the goodness of God and His ability to accomplish what He promised.”

As a Christian school, we seek to help each student to develop their own personal relationship with God. We aim to answer some of the big questions of life from a Biblical worldview, ensuring our approach is relevant, fun and respectful. To create this culture, we focus on the following two key practices:

1. Daily discipleship programme: These sessions are aimed at teaching students about God’s ways and leading them into a practical application of what they have learned.

2. Weekly faith-based messages in assemblies: Awakening curiosity and leading students to a discovery of Christian principles is a priority in our weekly assemblies. Here, staff and guest speakers use a variety of creative modes to communicate with students.

The value of family

Definition: “A relational unit consisting of healthy authority, boundaries and honour that allows every person to belong, feel accepted and discover their identity and purpose.”

We all know that the healthiest organisation that ever existed is the family (when working well!). We aim to replicate this nurturing, relational framework in the way we organise our classrooms and timetables. Time is given for students to interact across ages, with coaching provided when students encounter relational issues. To sustain this culture, we focus on the following key practices:

1. Leadership programme: Our senior students are each allocated a group of younger students to mentor and meet with periodically. Student mentors are also involved in daily leadership responsibilities, and create portfolios to grow their leadership abilities. Various life skills programmes run throughout the year, with a leadership day being the high point. On this day, students get the opportunity to interview and learn from a key leader (in business, government, medical, etc.) in our community. They are also coached by leadership experts and involved in various workshops to hone lifelong leadership skills.

2. Family fun days/events: Each quarter, we host various events to encourage participation by parents/families. We believe that parents are the most significant contributors to child development and so we do a lot to equip, engage and envision our parents. After all, when they thrive, we thrive!

The value of being unique

Definition: “Having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable.”

One doesn’t have to look too far to realise the uniqueness of every individual. Unique appearances, character traits, likes and dislikes, talents and aspirations all work together to make our world the colourful place it is. It is often these attributes that get hidden in the classroom as we try to deal with group dynamics. To ensure that this value remains a key part of our culture, we do the following:

1. Limit class sizes: Our classes are smaller than the average school, to allow space for individual teaching and one-onone attention. We are also able to take in one special needs student per class as part of our inclusion policy, and we have seen the most amazing results as students learn various skills to help peers with barriers.

2. Learning styles integration in classroom: We partner with an organisation that specialises in carrying out learning style assessments, and organise workshops and parent evenings to empower students to learn via their optimal learning style. One of the benefits of this is that parents, teachers and students receive comprehensive strategies for each child. This enables the learners to know and operate according to their optimal learning style; it assists the teacher with how best to introduce concepts and it enables parents to assist with homework/studying in a way that ensures learning is taking place. Students love the freedom of knowing how they learn, and are encouraged to use the skills and strategies they are taught.

3. Hobbies: Weekly participation in a wide array of hobbies aims to help students discover and nurture their talents. They can enjoy chess, be part of the environmental club, the innovation club, design, drama, home economics, board games, coordination development, volleyball and more.

The value of love

Definition: “Selfless, unconditional brotherly affection that considers others better than oneself.”

We believe that most destructive behaviours can be traced back to a child’s basic need for connection not being met in a healthy manner. With the increase of single-parent households, demanding schedules and a breakdown of family values, we are witnessing an increased number of students arriving each day at school with their emotional tanks empty. This contributes to a lack of motivation, disruptive behaviour and poor self-esteem. The only way we can rectify this trend is to create an environment that promotes connection and communicates love.

We do this by:

1. Speaking life: You will hear this phrase echo down our school corridors, as our teachers lead the charge every day to encourage students publicly and remind them of how valuable they are through notes, honour slips, merits and rewards. Our teachers “practise calling out the gold” in each child throughout the day and use day-to-day moments to communicate “I see you, and you are good enough”.

2. Encouragement sessions: At specific times, we pair up students and get them to think of one thing they absolutely love about the other person. This may be verbalised, illustrated or conveyed using another creative means to communicate love and care. Students’ responses during this time are always positive, especially when this exercise is done consistently.

The value of generosity

Definition: “Readiness or liberality in giving, readily available to receive and release God’s abundance, freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character, largeness or fullness.”

In a very self-centred society, we are constantly bombarded with the message that “life is all about me”. Our language, actions and attitudes all point towards self-indulgence, and so there is very little space left in our lives for placing others’ needs above our own. We have an obligation to offer our children a different message, by sharing experiences with them that communicate the need to value others. This goes beyond placing our last few 20-cent pieces in the collection tins strategically located at the local supermarket. It takes an intentional effort and a system that rewards acts of service/contribution:

1. Community outreach: Each class is involved in a termlong outreach project where students are involved in planning how they are going to reach those in our community who are vulnerable and/or lonely. These outreaches are so important in teaching students the importance of looking beyond their own needs. We have seen the importance of students actively participating in these trips, rather than merely sending a donation or taking up a collection, as the personal experience lives on in their hearts long after.

2. Dream Builders: Each year, we run our Dream Builders Campaign to give students the opportunity to experience the joy of making someone else’s dream come true. They get to pick a person in their sphere of influence who is going through challenging circumstances and, with the help of adults, they get to plan how to make that individual’s dream come true. Students are responsible for surprising their “dream target” with a day they will never forget. This day usually involves a lot of tears, as students engage with the raw emotion of reaching out to others.

3. Rewards system: To communicate the value of generosity, we reward good character and citizenship. Our philosophy is that “what you honour you get”, and so in this way we see a great many students setting goals to enhance their lives and the lives of others, rather than competing for position and prestige.

The value of excellence

Definition: “Possessing outstanding quality or superior merit; remarkably good.”

1. Staff appraisal twice per year: Excellence is not taught, but rather caught. Our staff are the key champions of this culture, and so we spend a lot of time empowering them in various staff development seminars and our monthly “think tank” meetings. The entire staff (from interns and support staff through to senior management) is involved in an appraisal process comprising both self and peer evaluation to ensure excellence is enhanced.
2. Student development reports: These regular reports are designed to give students feedback in all developmental areas, and suggest strategies for growth.

To help our school community remember and live out these cultural values, we decided to make an acronym from the first letters of each of our seven values – and out popped the word “effulge”. It perfectly sums up our mission as a school.

Effulge

Definition: “To cause to shine with abundance of light, to radiate, beam, shine forth.”

This word morphed into a school mascot called Captain Effulge, which continues to inspire students to live out these cultural values. I think that with all the busyness of our school programme and the constant temptation to get overwhelmed by our to-do lists, Captain Effulge is consistently calling us to stay focused on the big picture and give ourselves to the important task of moulding students’ characters.

References:

1. See: http://singaporemaths.co.za/.
2. See: http://keyslearning.com/.

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Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2016

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