Schools have always been influenced by and responded to various socio-political and historical events. We are not passive observers of these events but active participants in them.
The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has recently reminded us of this. It has also highlighted the incredible inequalities and lack of access to resources in our surrounding communities. Economic and technological solutions, political regulations or financial incentives from the state are not going to be enough.
What is needed is a partnership, and a fundamental change in the way that privileged schools engage with their surrounding communities, especially as they change and evolve. As independent schools we may understand that our privileged space comes with significant responsibility, but it is not always easy to turn empathy into action and a handout into a hand up. The article which follows shares a few of our experiences.
In the 1920s, when the demand for schooling outstripped the available schools, the Marist Brothers bought a piece of property on the outskirts of the city of Johannesburg between Yeoville, Berea and Houghton, high up on the ridge, in a place called Observatory, and Sacred Heart College was born.
In 2008, we were told by a prospective parent that we were ‘one street away from disaster’. We saw it differently, because Sacred Heart College has a long tradition of being an educational bridge between poverty and privilege, between diversity and transformation, activism, and action.
The birth of Three2Six
In 2008, in response to the increasing refugee and migrant crisis, Sacred Heart College used its high school classrooms, which were empty in the afternoons, to provide an educational programme that ran from 15:00 in the afternoon until 18:00 at night. The classes accommodated students in Grade R to Grade 6 and focused on three areas, numeracy, literacy, and life orientation.
Our Three2Six programme employed refugee teachers, and the goal was to provide a bridging educational opportunity to allow young students to transition into state education.
This programme has now extended beyond our gates and includes two additional campuses, one at another independent school, Holy Family College, and one at a state school, Observatory Girls School.
All our students at Sacred Heart College in Observatory play a role in engaging with the students of Three2Six, from celebrating important feasts days together with picnics and shared sports events, to designing and running sporting and cultural activities during the students’ life orientation classes. Instead of being ‘one street away from disaster’, we now have opportunities for authentic human endeavours where positive social experiments take place.
It was inevitable that the Three2Six students would need more than lessons, and our Sacred Heart community soon formed an informal feeding scheme, where donations of vegetables and dried food were packed for the students to take home to their families.
The Sacred Heart College parents who were part of this initiative came from diverse backgrounds: some took a morning off work to be part of this community that has resulted in long term friendships. The additional packs of food meant that we could provide some of our students and staff who were struggling financially, with food parcels.
This generosity continued during the past two years, but instead of packaging vegetables onsite, which was difficult during the various waves of COVID-19, our parents contributed to a food bank for our coaches, staff and three2six families.
This initiative has by now extended to two on-campus community vegetable gardens situated on the edge of our top fields and maintained by alumni, their parents, and some residents of Observatory. The vegetables supply the soup kitchens they support in the broader community as part of Observatory CAN.
Another community garden has been planted and maintained by five unemployed women who sell their produce to feed their families. In exchange for the use of a small part of our orchard area, these women give 10% of their harvest to Three2Six. The vegetables they are growing give families access to food that was integral to their diets previously, such as cassava leaves (Mpodu), sorel (Ngai ngai), okra, tomatoes, onions, and Mozambican sweet potatoes, the leaves of which are highly sought after.
Yeoville Police Station is five minutes away from our school. We have a long-standing relationship with their soccer team who use our fields for practices and home games. Their support of us and our community is invaluable. We have had buses with our refugee children escorted to safety by the police during xenophobic attacks. Should the need arise, their response to our concerns is immediate and onsite.
The soccer fields are also used by a young soccer club called Ekhayalethu Rising Stars, and their goal is to provide an opportunity for the youth in the Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow areas to play soccer in a safe environment and to receive education around drug awareness.
Our indoor basketball court is another space where human endeavor and social experiments are happening. Our coaches run a basketball academy for both boys and girls from Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow. Some of our students have joined in the academy practices and our own basketball teams are growing in strength as a result.
The Indlulamiti project
Through a project called Indlulamiti, six schools including ours, looked at how to make the routes that school children walked along much safer. The Johannesburg Development and Roads Agencies committed to creating safer and more attractive school entrances, as well as spaces for homework to be done on the pavements while waiting for taxis and school transport. The Yeoville police make a concerted effort to be a presence when students are walking home.
The other schools involved in the project also use our fields for sports events, such as athletics, which cannot be accommodated at their schools. Our hall, pre-primary school and chapel play host to nursery schools and preprimary schools which don’t have the space for their endof- year concerts. All of this is with the intention of building community.
We are all conscious that our country and our nation need us to educate ‘citizens committed to all cultures, colours, characteristic and conditions; that we can lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us.’ And to paraphrase Amanda Gorman again, ‘there is talent that has been honed, explored, and amplified by the opportunities that lie within and outside our schools.’ Our commitment to our communities is to continue to be part of this process.