Building on success: expansion and pride at Waterfall Schools

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

BY HAYLEY DENNYSON
Waterfall Schools was established in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal in 2016.
At the start of 2018, for the very first time, Waterfall welcomed children
to every grade from Grade R to Grade 12.

One year on from this important implementation, this educational hub is the coming together of many minds, where the focus is on age-appropriate systems and structures, allowing every child to feel valued and supported. There is a natural progression from the pre-primary phase to the preparatory phase and then on to the college.
Initiated by the team behind Focus on iThemba,1 the model is unusual (perhaps unique) in that it brought together two established independent schools (Waterfall Pre-Primary and Waterfall College) and a new preparatory school. Located alongside Waterfall Schools, Focus on iThemba is a non-profit organisation (NGO) with a vision to “Grow Hearts and Minds” by investing in children through quality education, resulting in life-altering positive change. These initiatives include early childhood development (ECD) and the iThemba Scholars Programme, which offers two children donor-funded scholarships to Waterfall Schools every year.
Waterfall Schools is an innovative approach to ensuring the sustainability of these initiatives, with the schools benefitting from the facilities on the beautiful iThemba Campus (including classrooms, sports fields, a basketball court and a cross-country trail) and the NGO securing a long-term income from the schools. The management teams share overlapping philosophies of prioritising growth through education.

Passions aligned with goals
Key to Waterfall Schools’ development has always been the ideas that numbers would be capped at 48 per grade and that fees should be relatively affordable – making an independent education attainable to a broader spectrum of the local population.
When discussions to expand operations first began, the goal was to have 800 students on the iThemba Campus by 2025. At the start of 2019 (just three years into this adventure), the school welcomed almost 700 students. This growth has far exceeded expectations and with that has come a steep learning curve.
Since moving to its spacious American-designed facilities in 2016, Waterfall Pre-Primary has established itself as one of the most sought-after pre-schools in the area. “We are passionate about children learning to make sense of the world around them and believe that children should be children for as long as possible,” says Paula Mason, principal of Waterfall Pre-Primary.

“Our teachers and staff are equipped to develop each little person’s confidence, concentration and age-appropriate life skills within a contemporary ‘home from home’ environment.
“We like to think of Waterfall Pre-Primary as a family. As we continue to grow as a school, I have learned to see the importance of listening and not being too proud to take advice. One must have faith and learn to trust.”

Bringing in the best
Renowned ECD specialist Sharron Lane was
instrumental in setting up both the pre-primary
and preparatory sections. Caitlyn Stevens was
employed by Focus on iThemba in October
2016 to set up the foundation phase of the
preparatory school. “We were blessed with a
generous budget to start with, which meant we
were well-equipped, both in terms of facilities and the other elements that enhance the learning experience,” says Stevens. “Generosity is the theme of our journey so far – generosity of spirit, time and money from teachers, families and the Focus on iThemba board.”
The preparatory phase started in January 2017 with 35 children from Grade 1 to 3 and five teachers. By December that year, the number of pupils had grown to 90. “We made up the rules as we went along,” says Stevens, “tackling each issue as it came up. Every achievement was so satisfying – every one a first. We were so excited when we had our first cake sale, even our first fire drill! We had our first sports day on the same day as the Waterfall College Sevens Rugby Festival and the Prep pupils made a tunnel for the College first team to run through. It was thrilling to be part of something bigger than our little school!”
Brad Cooper first visited the Prep for the opening of the foundation phase in February 2017, considering it as a potential host for student teachers from the institute where he was head of teaching practice. He remembers being “blown away by how ‘real’ the school was and the spectacular view of the Valley of 1000 Hills.”

One thing led to another and, just a few weeks later, Cooper agreed to join the team as headmaster.
“Eight people attended my first staff meeting. We were always clear that we needed to know who we wanted to be.

Once our identity was secure, we could move on confidently. Caitlyn called it the ‘Why way’ because we had the privilege of questioning everything that we have come to expect in a school,” remembers Cooper.
How the “Why way” works
For example, Waterfall Prep does not have a bell to signal the end of a lesson. This allows teachers to lead their class organically, ending a lesson when it reaches its natural conclusion and encouraging their pupils to pursue topics that inspire them.
“At first, it was difficult to question everything we had learned, but once we started, it brought such freedom,” says Stevens.
Lorraine Benn, head of the intermediate phase at the Prep, started working at the school on a voluntary basis towards the end of 2017, appointing teachers and setting up classes. “That was the hardest I had ever worked, but there was such a sense of peace and hope on the campus, you could feel it. Because everything was new and because we choose to challenge ourselves at every turn, it was exhausting. We prayed a lot during those days and learnt so much!
“Culture has to be massaged in. Don’t force it on people. Let

Celebrations at the opening of the Foundation Phase in 2017
One thing led to another and, just a few weeks later, Cooper agreed to join the team as headmaster.
“Eight people attended my first staff meeting. We were always clear that we needed to know who we wanted to be.
it grow and develop, especially if you are doing something a bit different.” On a practical note, adds Benn, “Buy good shoes – your feet will get sore!”
“We had to adapt quickly to accommodate the influx of families, and we had to invest many hours to ensure that all aspects of our admissions and enrollment process were covered,” says Cooper. “It’s a privileged position to be in and we are grateful to every family that has chosen to walk this road with us. We are still learning, finding our path, but we know that we want to create a space free from fear, anxiety, pressure and stress, and that helps guide every decision we make.”
That thinking extends to the schools’ interaction with parents, aiming always to minimise stress and maximise family time, when children and their parents can connect. That, in turn, gives pupils the security they need to move forward with confidence.

Piecing the puzzle together
2018 was a milestone year for Waterfall Schools, beginning with the opening of Grades 4 to 7 at Waterfall Prep, completing the education pathway from 12 months to Grade 12. “I will never forget that first day of Term 1, 2018,” says Cooper. “The children arrived, and the building became a school. There was no apprehension, just bubbling laughter in the corridors and the playground.”
“We have been humbled by the community’s response to what we are doing,” Cooper continues. “We are committed to being a school that focuses first on progress and development, ahead of achievement and performance: where we allow children to discover their inner treasures without fear of being measured against each other.”

Teachers have been chosen for their ability to create an environment where children are excited to learn and develop the necessary skills to launch into the College experience. “The people who work within the structures of a school – the teachers and support staff, who interact with the children on a daily basis – define the ethos of the school,” says Lane, now director at Waterfall Pre- primary and advisor to Waterfall Prep. “Thus, finding the right team to embark on the challenge of working in a developing school with enthusiastic energy was a priority.”
For schools both new and established, communication is vital – internally, to ensure that staff practice the same culture, and externally, with the wider community to secure your space in the marketplace. “There was a risk that we would be seen as “the strange school on the hill”,” says
Stevens. “We had to get our message out there, to encourage people to visit and see that we were serious, that we had the facilities and that our children were learning.”
This year (2019) has already seen several projects continue to succeed. There is even more growing interest from the local community as eight new classrooms are currently under construction. As an established Independent Examinations Board Centre for matric examinations,2 Waterfall College prepares its students for life after school, with skills beyond subject-specific knowledge.

Sound advice
To anyone setting up a school, Waterfall College principal Jeanette van der Merwe gives the following advice:
Do your homework and connect with the right people. Join the IEB for the most efficient, prompt support on all academic matters, administration and assessments. Join ISASA for insight into the best practice at South African independent schools, and for support from and collegiality with other principals. Commit to both Umalusi3 and IQAA4 evaluations to raise every aspect of your school’s standards. This will help guide the establishment of a clearly defined code of conduct for
Paula Mason (principal Waterfall Pre-Primary), Brad Cooper (headmaster Waterfall Prep), Jeanette van der Merwe (principal Waterfall College)
both students and teachers, as well as fundamental school policies.
Do not underestimate the value of a strong team of administrators and finance staff members and take the time to recruit carefully.
Finally, never forget that for some people education is a service, rather than a business. Appreciate that and never take it for granted. It is these people who will transform a school from good to great.”

Hayley Dennyson is the marketing manager at Waterfall Schools.

References:
1. See: http://www.focusonithemba.org/
2. See: https://www.ieb.co.za/pages/assessment
3. See: https://www.umalusi.org.za/
4. See: https://iqaa.co.za/about/iqaa

Category: Autumn 2019

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