By Pat Brink, with Mark Godfrey, Donna Marucchi, Gina Marucchi and Felicity Bowman
“The school is alive with the sound of music” is a thought that springs to mind as you walk the shaded byways of Thembelisha Junior Preparatory School.
Not only does the choir comprise the majority of the pupils, but youngsters sing in French on their way to Mademoiselle’s class, and in SiSwati as they hurry to enjoy the interactive learning experience that awaits them in that class. During the break, the lively sounds of recorders, marimbas and percussion instruments fill the corridors.
Felicity Bowman, dynamic and creative Head of Department (HoD) of the Junior Preparatory section of the school, imparts her love for music to the children on the hour-long journey between the campuses. A programme of singing – including THRASS (a wholeschool synthetic phonics programme) ‘raps’ and songs, reading, spelling and story tapes – is in place to use the time spent on the bus most profitably. These are just some of the ways in which the school leadership has responded to the challenges of the three-campus phenomenon.
A school as sweet as sugar
Thembelisha Preparatory School was established in 2006 with the merging of Simunye Preparatory School (founded in 1980) and Mananga Preparatory School (founded in 1958). A company school, Thembelisha is situated on the Royal Swazi Sugar Corporation Estate (RSSCE) amid green cane fields and nature reserves, tucked away in the north-eastern corner of the Kingdom of Swaziland in the Lubombo Lowveld. After their Grade 7 year, pupils proceed to local high schools, including Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa. A significant number also attend senior boarding schools in South Africa.
In 2006, Barbara Taljard effected the amalgamation of Simunye and Mananga primaries into Thembelisha – a school that epitomises its name in Siswati: ‘Dawn of New Hope’. This was a challenging task, as each phase is on a separate campus spread over a 45 km radius, but the HoDs Donna Marucchi (Pre-Preparatory) and Gina Marucchi (Senior Preparatory), along with Felicity Bowman and Principal Mark Godfrey, create an unexpected haven of excellence in this isolated setting.
IQAA united the campuses
Godfrey’s role in uniting the campuses cannot be underestimated, as he has instilled a sense of calm and normality into a challenging environment. However, it was not until the school undertook its internal Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA) evaluation that teachers visited each other’s campuses. Gina Marucchi elaborates: “It was a valuable experience for the team members to spend an entire day being part of the different learning environments, and to see the learning progression that is made by the Thembelisha students. It also gave the teachers the opportunity to show/explain/be heard/boast about/express difficulties and concerns in his or her area of expertise. This internal evaluation has brought all the stakeholders closer together.” The HoDs and teachers are determined to continue this practice, to ensure that the pupils’ sense of continuity through the three phases is as seamless as possible.
A feature common to the three campuses is the involvement of the children in their own learning. Little is achieved sitting at a desk and listening; instead, the children work regularly in groups, and sing and act as they learn vocabulary and practise sentences in the second languages. This has proved to be an ideal way to maintain their concentration, and to cater for those with a wide range of ability in different languages.
Sound foundations are laid in the Pre-Preparatory phase, where music lessons include playing home-made traditional instruments while the teacher reads a story, or the youngsters sing. The wide variety of outdoor activities, set up each week by a different teacher, ensure that the preschoolers’ gross motor skills are fully developed while they have fun and play under the shady trees and in the genuine Swazi hut built to encourage pride in their heritage. A visit to the local snake education centre epitomises integration of local interactive learning experiences.
Students keen on stories
Senior Preparatory pupils are exposed to an advanced course in English through the dedication and insight of Gina Marucchi, who believes in teaching the first language through the medium of literature from Grade 4. Each grade enjoys a selection of interesting stories: from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, moving on to Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting; Charlotte’s Web; The Sheep Pig; Journey to the River Sea; and The Cay.
Walkabout and I am David are some of the titles they read with relish in Grade 7. Not only do the children approach stories with eagerness, but they also learn about theme, plot, character, setting and mood, while they increase their vocabulary, hone writing skills, delight in figures of speech, and learn the rules of grammar.
Incorporating surrounds into school
A recent Grade 6 Science outing, arranged by innovative Science teacher Mduduzi Nhlengethwa, took the learners to the Royal Hlane Game Reserve, where they skinned and dissected an impala killed by poachers, and finished the day with a venison braai. They also keep daily records of maximum and minimum temperatures and rainfall, which are reported in the weekly school newsletter. All the other senior grades have been involved in physically rooting out the invasive alien shrub Chromolaena odorata in the vicinity of the school, and cleaning up litter along the national road where it passes through Hlane.
Thembelisha teachers with extra-special skills are encouraged to offer workshops to the local state schools: ‘Making Maths Fun’ by Yvonne Dlamini and ‘Setting Multiple Choice Questions’ by Nhlengethwa were two such workshops given in 2010. In fact, the RSSCE sponsors and assists seven local state schools that are on the sugar estate, so opportunities for such ‘outreach’ initiatives are readily available.
Training benefits everyone
In January 2010, Thembelisha sponsored a Stephen Covey ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ workshop and invited representatives from all the local schools to attend. Then, after reading Covey’s The Leader in Me, the Senior Preparatory School decided that it would like to ‘inspire greatness, one child at a time’ – so very slowly it began to explore ‘The Seven Habits…’ with the learners.
They began with ‘Be proactive’. The challenge was presented to the pupils via assemblies, role plays and displays on the notice boards, and Habit 2: ‘Begin with the end in mind’ was reached. Although the school management team consists of expatriates
at present, the aim is for Swazi citizens to be trained for these positions. A number of local teachers on the staff have received training in South Africa – including Hannah Nhlabatsi, a Grade 2 teacher, who completed her degree at the University of the Witswatersrand and an internship at Kingsmead College. Two Swazi ‘state teachers’ also assist in the Junior Preparatory classes, ensuring individual attention for pupils as they develop their reading skills, and two other such teachers are enjoying this skills extension in the Senior Preparatory phase.
Besides being blessed with well-qualified and enthusiastic teachers, Thembelisha pupils enjoy a resource-rich learning environment. Godfey manages a generous budget provided by the RSSCE, with the result that classrooms are festooned with colourful charts, and a variety of books and other learning materials are available in all grades. CDs are used extensively in the Pre-Preparatory classes to ensure that correct pronunciation and vocabulary are acquired.
Godfrey took 18 teachers to the most recent ISASA ‘Proudly Preparatory’ conference in Kloof, generating amongst them renewed interest in innovation. This opportunity to interact professionally – shortly after the evaluation experience – has contributed to the feeling of unity four years since the amalgamation.
The time spent by learners and teachers daily on the school bus, and all the other challenges of being a far-flung school, are outweighed by the beautiful environment and the air of excitement that is part of every child’s learning experience at Thembelisha.
Category: Winter 2011