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Divine purpose in a green valley: Holy Cross School joins ISASA

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

To tell the history of Holy Cross School, says Brother Robert James of the Order of the Holy Cross (OHC), “we need to go back to the arrival of the OHC in South Africa.”

He continues: “We are an Anglican Benedictine community of monks founded in 1894. Presently we have four monasteries. Our motherhouse is located outside of New York City in West Park, New York, in the US. We also have communities in Santa Barbara, California and Toronto, Canada. At the invitation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we began exploring locations for a foundation in South Africa. In 1997, Mariya uMama weThemba (Mary, Mother of Hope) was founded on the grounds of a retreat house, seven kilometres outside of Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape, run by the Community of the Resurrection of Our Lord. These Anglican sisters were founded in Grahamstown. The intention of the monks was to be a praying Benedictine presence, trusting that the work that needed to be done would be revealed.”

Closure kicked off new classes

It soon was, recalls James, when the school located on a farm adjacent to the monastery was closed by the Eastern Cape Education Department due to a lack of facilities. This left a number of children without access or transport to other schools. The OHC brothers started a transport scheme, but when they discovered the dismal conditions in many township institutions, the Holy Cross Scholarship Fund was started to raise funds to support the education of children at better local schools. “In addition,” says James, “an after-school programme, staffed by professional teachers, was started at the monastery in August 2005. Children came directly from school to a small house on our property equipped with two classrooms, two computers and a small kitchen, to be fed, to receive extra help with their homework and to obtain basic skills they needed but had not learned before.”

The attendance showed the brothers that the individual attention the children were receiving meant a concomitant growth in confidence and the ability to learn. “After six years, we realised that the young pupils deserved a solid foundation phase education and, in 2010, we began Holy Cross School. Having served as the director of the scholarship fund and coordinator of the after-school programme, I was appointed principal of the new venture.”

A no-fee, foundation phase, Xhosa-medium school

The brothers practised patience while it took two years for the school to be registered and built. “In 2012, we moved into the new school building, catering for a Grade R and Grade 1 class. Our Grade 2 class began in January this year and Grade 3 will be offered in 2014. We are a no-fee, foundation phase, Xhosamedium school, serving rural poor children from the surrounding farms. We transport the children back and forth, as many live more than 10 km away.”

Keeping matters small and simple meant everyone could focus on excellence, says James, explaining that class sizes do not exceed 14. “We have been blessed to have the services of two dedicated and qualified Rhodes University graduates as our teachers, with an assistant teacher in each class. Our Grade 2 teacher is a former recipient of the scholarship fund and also attended Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Prior to joining us, he had been teaching at Get Ahead School outside of Queenstown for two years. “We now have three teachers, three assistant teachers, one youth and child care worker, and 42 students.”

Inclusivity, diversity and respect in difficult surroundings James is adept at describing socio-economic conditions in the area. “Grahamstown is a microcosm of South Africa. BMWs and donkey carts are parked side by side on the High Street. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow here. The majority of the population lives in the outlying townships, where unemployment is extremely high and the conditions in public schools are generally dire. In dramatic contrast, Grahamstown is also the location of some of South Africa’s best independent and private schools in the town itself.”

This part of the vast Eastern Cape is also farming country. Says James: “The farms surrounding Grahamstown are isolated, and incidences of alcoholism and physical and sexual abuse of women and children are frequent. There is also a high rate of HIV/Aids infection. Because of the complex social issues the children experience in their homes, the school employs a full-time certified youth and child care worker.”

These complex social issues caused the brothers to consider their mission carefully, and their aims and values are clear in their founding statement:

Holy Cross School is an independent Anglican school committed to our Anglican tradition of inclusivity, diversity and respect for all. Our mission is to provide a free, quality foundation phase education to rural children. Our goal is to foster the growth of healthy and integrated children by addressing the needs of their bodies, minds and spirits. Our hope is that this will maximise their potential for future learning and becoming responsible and productive citizens of South Africa.

The commitment to “fostering the growth of healthy and integrated children” means that hearing, vision and HIV screenings are done regularly at Holy Cross, as well as educational assessments to address any physical or learning challenges. “School outings to museums and places of interest are also regular features of each term,” adds James.

Immelman invaluable

Like all schools that have joined ISASA in the Eastern Cape, Holy Cross met the organisation’s regional director Jan Immelman shortly after registration and the move into the new building. “It was the first of a series of meetings as he guided us through the documents required to become members of ISASA,” recounts James. “The decision to join was instant. Immelman’s advice and expertise was much appreciated, rendering the actual application process painless.”

Advice and support on hand

As Grahamstown is known for its many education institutions, Holy Cross was able to form important relationships with other ISASA schools. “We have an excellent relationship with St Andrew’s College and the Diocesan School for Girls. The latter has adopted us. They make regular visits and have made Holy Cross the recipient of a number of their fund-raising efforts. Shelley Frayne, the headmistress, was a source of encouragement and practical advice during the registration process.

Paul Edey, the head of St Andrew’s College, serves on our governing board.” Public schools are also important allies for Holy Cross. “Another member of our board, Madeleine Schoeman, is principal of Ntsike Secondary School. Through her and others, we learn a great deal about local and national efforts to improve public education, as most of our children will be part of the public system in the future,” observes James.

Sensitive social issues

Those of us in urban areas don’t often consider the pitfalls rural schools must face, like poorly maintained roads. Says James: “Among our challenges are the costs of transport, the toll bad roads take on our vehicles and the long distances we must travel. As much as possible, we try to consolidate the use of our vehicles.”

Social conditions in pupils’ home situations are another cause for concern. “Relationships are often fragile and require sensitive interventions and family conferences. The need for referrals is ongoing. We have cultivated relationships with the Department of Social Services and the South African Police Service. We have also been proactive in offering workshops for parents. We are very proud of the fact that we have established trusting relationships and a safe place for the children to name the situations which threaten them.”

Independence and ISASA services

Much of the important work done by Holy Cross happens because it is an independent school. “We value our independent status. It allows us greater latitude to promote our holistic approach to education, which best suits the needs of the children who come to us. It also minimises the bureaucracy, which so weighs down the education system in the Eastern Cape,” says James.

Support also comes from ISASA. “Membership enables us to keep up to date with the legislative and political changes affecting us as independent schools. There is also strength in numbers when advocating for national policy change. Our teachers have benefited greatly by interacting with their colleagues in other member schools, sharing resources and attending training sessions. I attended my first Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) meeting in November 2012 and was warmly welcomed.”

Prayer and learning go hand in hand

Driving towards Grahamstown from Port Elizabeth, one will come across the serene valley, home to Holy Cross School and the Mariya uMama weThemba monastery. You may even hear the calming sound of the bells calling the community to prayer. The tranquil vista belies the many hardships faced by those who worship, teach and learn here, but: “If you came this way, taking any route, starting from anywhere, at any time or at any season…: you would have to put off sense and notion… You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.”1


1. Eliot, T.S. (1968) Four Quartets. New York: Mariner Books.

Category: Autumn 2013

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