A school forged from stone

| September 13, 2018 | 0 Comments

BY SANDY WEBSTER

It takes an intrepid traveler with a pioneering spirit and a passionate heart to choose the road less travelled. A road that leads to one of the more remote corners of South Africa and then… to start a school!

As they say, love conquers all and this was certainly true of Debbie Cloete when she embarked on a new chapter in her life. After losing her heart to an Eastern Cape farmer, Cloete packed up her life in Somerset West in the Western Cape where she was a teacher at Somerset College Preparatory and moved to a sheep and dairy farm outside the small town of Elliot in the Eastern Cape – a beautiful small town overlooked by some impressive monolithic mountains.

Transformation the key from the start

This is a rural part of the South Africa and quite some distance from any urban areas – the closest city is East London and to reach it one must take a four-hour drive through some tough back roads in what was the former Transkei. Cloete was never one to let the grass grow under her feet and to sit idle. Before she departed for the Eastern Cape and her new life, she had already started to dream of opening a school of educational excellence, that would help to transform young lives. It would embrace diversity by offering superior education to many children from varying social backgrounds. David Wynne, the retired founding principal of Somerset College in Somerset West, was Cloete’s mentor and inspiration when it came to making this dream a reality. His experience and support gave Debbie all the motivation she needed to plan and eventually start the school. In the start-up phase he was particularly active in guiding and mentoring her.

“Those who chose to embrace diversity stayed.”

A hotel transformed into a solid stone school

The tradition amongst the farming community in the Eastern Cape is to send their children to boarding school from a young age. Cloete felt there was a pressing need for a school in her local district where young pupils could remain with their families for longer and gain a good, solid education before enrolling at one of the well-known secondary boarding schools in the province. At the same time, it was also her desire to provide an education to children who may never have been able to access their right to a school offering academic excellence. Once Cloete moved to Elliot, it was not long before she identified the perfect location for her school, an old hotel a few kilometres outside Elliot. The farm is now owned by Crossmaloof Trust and as part of its commitment to the local community, has agreed that the land can be used for educational purposes. Cloete, together with husband Ray and his son Andrew, set about turning her dream into a reality and Stone House Independent Preparatory School was born.

Some parents initially not prepared to embrace inclusion

The name Stone House was born from the old stone buildings used to refurbish the school. The logo showing three children of different cultures depicts the diversity of the pupils while a butterfly embodies the school motto: “Free to be Me”. It is never easy to traverse the road less travelled and there have been some challenges along the way, apart from the usual financial constraints. Starting a school that embraced the whole community was never about being an enforced transformation – this school had only one priority: it existed for anyone who wanted a high standard of education. The school attracted its first pupils, whose backgrounds and cultures were diverse, but they all shared the dream of a better education. Transformation in the far-flung corners of South Africa is slow and this quickly became apparent at Stone House. Children from the local town and farming communities were enthusiastically enrolled into the new school as were children from the less advantaged areas surrounding the town. In the ideal world, this would have been the perfect story of transformation in education within the ‘new’ South Africa. However, initially, this was not to be. Cloete says: “From the start inclusion and diversity were natural, and those who could not see the benefits of a high standard of education being offered and perhaps only saw colour and language and viewed them as obstacles, left the school.” It was a hard and bitter pill to swallow but those who chose to embrace diversity stayed.

Fighting the good fight

They not only stayed, they fought. The parents of children from the disadvantaged areas around Elliot overcame whatever obstacles it took to make sure their children received the best education they could get. Says Cloete, “Families clubbed together… impoverished gogos (grandparents), aunts, uncles and parents made sure there was enough money to enrol their children. Alongside them, children whose parents are local doctors, teachers, lawyers or business owners also eagerly enrolled their children.” As a pioneering and passionate teacher, Cloete did not let any setback deter her from the course she and her staff had set for the school. Her staff may be small – four, including Cloete and three support staff members – for the 52 children at present, but their commitment and devotion to their pupils is gargantuan. They have all worked hard to bring the community together, not only through education but by respecting and cultivating relationships across all the cultures.

A visit to Stone House reveals a collective consciousness at work

I recently had the privilege of visiting Stone House with one of Cloete’s long-time teaching training college friends. It turned into one of the happiest days of my life. It was a Monday and from the moment the pupils arrived on that chilly winter’s morning, I was caught up in the energy and magic of this little school tucked away in a serene, quiet corner of South Africa. While the pupils were in their classrooms, I had the opportunity to wander around the school. What particularly caught my eye was pupils working quietly from iPads with educational apps and then writing their answers in books provided to complement the app data. This seemed so sophisticated for such a small school! I asked Cloete how a school that faced financial challenges could afford to buy 10 iPads and she told me an interesting story, which showed the depth of respect she has for parents with children at the school. She said she and her staff had really listened to the parent representatives when it came to fund raising at a school that needed so much. They were acutely aware that many of the parents were scraping money together for school fees, and that fund raising was not possible for many families. Collectively, it was then decided that instead of having traditional fund raisers throughout the year, once a year each family would donate R500 in June. Through this initiative Cloete and company have been able to purchase ‘extras’ for the school, like iPads, beautiful books and a smart TV (a television set with integrated internet and interactive Web 2.0 features.) A library with a teepee tent for quiet reading, along with a bucket on which are inscribed the words: “Are you a Bucket Filler?” were just some of the inspiring ideas I saw at the school. The bucket filler concept particularly interested me as it encourages children to fill their personal ‘buckets’ with kindness, by being nice, sharing, smiling, complimenting others, hugs, helping and being a good friend. It is this kind of ethos that underpins the spirit of the school.

A transformed playground

The playground at Stone House is endlessly fascinating – an old palm tree stands sentry over this outdoor play area, which is filled with all sorts of diverse and colourful materials, such as an old paddle ski hoisted off the ground by ropes and attached to poles, a mud pie kitchen, a music wall and a bike track. What makes this delightful area so special is that none of the equipment is new. The staff have an extraordinary talent for seeing the value in everything that others wish to discard and then recycling them into something useful in their school. Once a year the parents come and help to improve the school buildings and playground, with an impressive 90% turnout. This has proved to be a non-threatening way of bringing parents from different backgrounds together and the staff reward them by making breakfast. What a win/win situation! Something that particularly interested me in the play area is that the children are given an hour-long break mid-morning, which gives them time to really play. Learning through play is considered extremely important for all ages at Stone House. I wandered around the playground watching the children play and found a quiet corner, behind a wall, filled with ‘doctors’, ‘nurses’ and ‘patients’. I quietly observed a fantasy game of a hospital situated under a large tree with various size logs lying horizontally – these were examination and theatre beds! I was fascinated to see the practice of triage at work: the doctors and nurses in the ‘casualty area’ discussed who was the sickest ‘patient’ and thus needed the most urgent attention. Once that had been established, the ‘patient’ was moved to another log on the other side of the tree, which was the operating theatre. Sticks became scalpels and leaves became bandages. It was so good to see these children caught up in fantasy play, something rarely seen today because children watch TV instead of playing outdoors.

Plastic and pancakes

On the day I visited Stone House, Cloete had organised a special celebration of Earth Day. This started in the library with a talk given by one of Cloete’s teaching colleagues on plastic pollution, followed by class time. Before the mid-morning break, all the pupils were involved in a tie-dyeing exercise, using colours found in nature, to make squares that were then sewn together to create a wall-hanging as a reminder to look after our planet. The day culminated in pancakes for all the children (who paid R5 each) and that money was donated to an organisation that cleans up the ocean. The finale was a heart-warming song, sung by all the pupils. Called “I am the Earth”, this is a song for children about the planet and the environment. Seeing all these beautiful, intelligent little faces, looking at us while singing this beautiful song, proved to be an emotional moment for all of us. Before my departure from the school, I spoke to two little girls with bright eyes and dreams of both becoming doctors. One told me she was doing it to help sick people, while the other told me quite honestly that she was doing it for money… and then added as an afterthought that she also wanted to help the sick! These children are our future and, in a school, where the motto is “Free to Be Me”, they truly can be anything they desire to be!

A special rapport

Why did I say that my day at Stone House was one of the happiest days of my life? It is because in this school, I saw the hope and dreams of all South African children. I saw a tolerance from the staff who are colour-blind to race and who respect, love and care for the children they teach, and a respect for all parents and guardians who support the school. I saw a passion for education and the special rapport that exists between the teachers and the children. Those that chose to leave this remarkable school because they were uncomfortable, missed a valuable opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their children and the children of their community. They lost the opportunity to support a school that embraces diversity, uniqueness and transformation and one which fulfilled a promise made to Madiba, whose passion for children is well-documented. Many years ago, when Cloete was teaching at a school in Johannesburg, she and a colleague, Daryl Webb, organised a visit to the school by Nelson Mandela. This was no mean feat and shows Cloete’s determination! In thanking him after his visit, she made him a promise that one day she would do something for education as a personal honour to him. He gently touched her cheek and in answer to her promise he said, “Yes, you will”. Stone House is special because it is the tangible evidence that Cloete was able to fulfil her promise to Madiba and it is particularly fitting that this school in the Eastern Cape is not far from his birth place. Having received a strong foundation in education, Stone House children are academically and socially able to go on to any secondary school of their choice when it comes time to leave Stone House. How proud Madiba would have been to see the pupils who pass through this unique and special school.

Sandy Webster is a freelance writer.

Category: Spring 2018

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