School with a view

| September 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

Dihlabeng Christian School

By Margaret Grant

It is an extremely picturesque town in a semi-rural setting, about 20 minutes’ drive from the Lesotho border, with a resident population of around 6 000 people, 5 000 of whom are Basotho (people originally from Lesotho who speak Sesotho). The town – popularly known as ‘the jewel of the Free State’ – is a popular weekend tourist retreat for people from Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and further afield.

The school stands on Saron Farm, which is now owned by the municipality, and overlooks the mountains. The name ‘Dihlabeng’ means ‘Highlands’ – fitting, as the school is on a hill and holds a prominent position in the community.

A diverse staff changes children’s lives

For some time, there had been two government schools in the area, struggling with large classes, too few resources and not enough teachers. Believing there was room for another school of an independent nature, I started Dihlabeng in January 2000 with nine children in the garage of my home, using an old door as a table and plastic crates as seats. My dream was to bring hope to the hopeless through the gospel of Jesus Christ. My vision was to break the cycle of poverty in this area, and change children’s lives by providing them with an excellent primary school education in an intimate, family setting.

The school is growing consistently, and 143 children are currently enrolled. We keep our class sizes small and seek to educate children for life with godliness, so that they grow into confident, life-loving adults who are able to think for themselves and contribute proactively to their local community and the world at large.

We have on our staff local South African teachers, volunteer qualified teachers from the United Kingdom and local Basotho people, who act as assistants in the classrooms and as translators, as the majority of the children come to the school speaking no English at all. Two Basotho assistants have completed their teacher training, paid for by the school through donations – one through the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the other through the University of the Free State. One of our ex-pupils has also come to work at the school this year as an assistant to a young cerebral palsy child in the Grade R class.

A growing number of our young pupils are orphans, due to the high number of deaths among young parents as a result of the HIV/Aids pandemic. The school provides a safe, familytype environment for these vulnerable children, and a sense of belonging and worth. We run a daily feeding scheme for children who do not regularly get a nutritious meal at home.

Sponsorship helps keep this low-fee school afloat

One of the biggest challenges Dihlabeng Christian School has faced is finding the necessary financial resources to pay teachers, build and resource classrooms and ablution blocks and provide for general day-to-day running expenses. When we approach companies and corporate bodies from bigger towns for funding, they usually consider it more suitable to support a needy cause in their own areas. Donations received from friends in churches in the UK have enabled Dihlabeng to achieve what it has. Voluntary teachers do not draw any money from the school and the rest of the staff earns the minimum. It is their generosity and largess of spirit that enable us to fulfil our mission.

School fees are worked out according to parents’ income and family circumstances, and range from R7 260 per year for those who earn over R6 000 a month to nothing for orphans and the most vulnerable. The majority of the children at the school pay R3 575 per year. To keep the school afloat, it has developed and runs a most successful sponsorship scheme whereby people in the UK and South Africa are able either to fully or partially sponsor a child’s fees for the duration of their primary school career while at Dihlabeng School. The sponsorship scheme also offers sponsors the option of contributing towards the feeding scheme, the general running of the school or the newly opened Grade RR class.

Water: a challenging resource

For five years, another serious and ongoing challenge was to get the school’s toilets connected to the town’s mainline waterborne sewerage so that we would no longer have to rely on an inadequate septic tank system, which caused countless problems. A large donation from overseas finally enabled us to finance the pipe installations, drilling under the road and the connection fee to the municipal sewerage works.

Like toilets, running water and electricity are things many of our pupils experience only at school. At home, they are required to fetch wood for fires, and water. This, therefore, poses a challenge when thinking of setting homework. Furthermore, many parents are illiterate, so there is limited support available from home. In some cases we know of, children in the upper grades at Dihlabeng School help their parents with the homework they have to do when attending adult night school!

Like toilets, running water and electricity are things many of our pupils experience only at school. At home, they are required to fetch wood for fires, and water. This, therefore, poses a challenge when thinking of setting homework. Furthermore, many parents are illiterate, so there is limited support available from home. In some cases we know of, children in the upper grades at Dihlabeng School help their parents with the homework they have to do when attending adult night school!

Busy, happy days I’d like to share with you a typical day at Dihlabeng. Children and staff arrive from 07:00 and the bell rings at 07:50. The day starts with Bible time and class worship assemblies.

Accompanied by my black Labrador, Mohlodi, I visit all the classrooms to say good morning. If it is winter and all the heaters are turned on in the classes, the electricity trips several times, so working in hats, scarves, gloves and blankets is the norm. It is quite usual to see classes working outside, soaking up the warm rays of the sun, until their classrooms warm up later in the day. The water in the taps is usually frozen until 10:00, so flushing toilets and washing hands are not possible. Water is kept in large bottles in the kitchen so that the kettle can be boiled and cooking can continue, ensuring that breakfast and lunch for children on the feeding scheme still happens. During break times, children run around and play soccer and as the day warms up, hats, scarves and jerseys come off. School ends at 13:00 for those in the Foundation Phase and after being escorted across the road by the teacher on road crossing duty, most of them amble home. Intermediate Phase children end their academic lessons at 14:00 and then for an hour on three afternoons each week participate in sports such as soccer, netball, tennis or cricket. This year several of the Grade 7 girls have offered to train the U9 and U11 netball teams, and this has proved to be very successful indeed. Practical life skills are taught through afternoon clubs such as knitting, gardening, sewing, making wire cars, recycling, playing chess, guitar and recorder playing and cooking.

The school follows the South African national curriculum, with many of the skills taught through cross-curricular activities. All lessons are taught with an awareness of the different learning styles – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic – to ensure that children fully understand what they are learning.

The school encourages the Grade 7 children to get involved in their local community and provides opportunities for them to do so. This year several of them are helping one afternoon a week at a homework and care group for other vulnerable children in the community.

Learning sustainability from ISASA

The school became a member of ISASA in 2009 and has found that there are many benefits to belonging to such a dynamic organisation. Having a large pool of expertise to draw on in areas such as legal advice, governance, management, training, curriculum and policy-making, and being able to share challenges and triumphs with other members of the teaching profession across South Africa and beyond, has lifted the school to a new level. The school has benefited greatly from some of the workshops and conferences that are available to ISASA member schools. For example, the workshop we attended in 2011 on school sustainability made us realise the importance of marketing ourselves properly. As a result of the discussions held at this workshop, the school decided to have an Open Day for prospective parents, increased our publicity by creating a Facebook page and worked on creating a school promotional brochure.

IQAA helps set goals

The compulsory Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA) audit,1 undertaken early in 2011, focused both management and teachers on the achievement of a specific set of criteria and targets. One of our chosen areas for development is to improve pupils’ reading and writing in Sesotho and, as finances have allowed, to continue to extend the range of English reading materials available to our learners. To this end, we have been helped by our IQAA mentor, Bridget Walton, who has sourced reading books for us from other ISASA schools. She has also secured several laptops for us from other ISASA member schools. Because we also believe fervently in very early childhood education – an absolute necessity if children are to be given the best start to their schooling careers – we started a Grade RR2 class for children aged between three and five years old in January this year.

Global partnerships Dihlabeng has many links with those in the wider sphere of education. It had a very successful global partnership with a school in the UK for three years, which was funded by a Department for International Development Joint Curriculum Grant.3 This allowed staff and pupils from Dihlabeng School and staff from our partner school at the time to visit twice yearly. The link was the catalyst for other Clarens-based schools to form international school partnerships.

Today, Dihlabeng has close links with Red Oaks Primary School in Swindon and with Christchurch Junior School in Bristol. At the end of 2011, the head and a member of staff from Red Oaks participated, along with another school in France, in an art competition with our Grade 6 and 7 pupils. In April this year, a teacher from Red Oaks joined us at Dihlabeng for a week. She worked with both Grade 4s and Grade 7s, creating art through textiles. In February, we had a visit from a governor and his wife from Christchurch Junior. They painted a colourful mural on our new Grade RR class wall!

The school also has ties with a school in Russia, which came about as a result of the two heads meeting at an International Education Forum run by New Frontiers International4 in 2007. Regular correspondence, curriculum links and visits between the schools takes place. As a school we have found that international school partnerships have many benefits for all concerned. Bringing a global dimension to lessons helps children explore the links between their lives and those of people in other parts of the world, and teaches staff and pupils alike about cultural diversity and interconnectedness.

Interconnectivity is also part of our long-term vision at Dihlabeng. I want to help others start up small, family-type Christian schools in high-poverty areas in both this nation and elsewhere in Africa. I envisage that we will be able to share with those who wish to start similar schools both our successes, such as the training and empowering of local people, and the many challenges we have faced, such as learning to work on a very tight budget.

Dihlabeng also has more recently been approached by a group of farming families in a nearby town, who are keen to set up a small Christian school on one of their farms. Our Foundation Phase leader has been able to share ideas, expertise and resources, and provide moral support and encouragement to these founders. Dihlabeng has also been approached by those interested in starting schools in conjunction with churches in rural areas in other nations in Africa, namely Zambia, Burundi and Zimbabwe. To this end, the chairman of the governing body of Dihlabeng and I went to Ryarusera village outside Bujumbura in Burundi in February this year on a fact-finding mission. And, just last month, Dihlabeng was visited by a couple from Ndola in Zambia looking to open their own school in 2013.

School with a view

I feel Dihlabeng is at a very exciting juncture. We may be a small school, but what we have to share is limitless. We stand on a hill, with a view not only of the Maluti mountains, but with our gaze turned firmly towards the future.

References:

1. Once a school is accepted for ISASA membership, it must undergo a regular quality assurance process every six years. This is undertaken by an independent organisation, the Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA), which ISASA has contracted to fulfil this specialised purpose. (Source: http://www.isasa.org/content/view/311/185/.)

2. South Africa has an inclusive concept for the education of children from birth to nine years of age, namely early childhood development (ECD). It includes learners who are in pre-Grade R programmes, Grade R (reception year) programmes and Foundation Phase (Grades 1–3). (Source: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001472/147241e.pdf.)

3. See, for example, http://www.dfid.gov.uk/get-involved/inyour- school/global-school-partnerships/develop-good-practice-inyour- partnership/apply-for-a-global-curriculum-project-grant1/.

4. See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newfrontiers.

Category: Spring 2012

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