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No ugly ducklings here

| August 29, 2012 | 0 Comments

Cygnet Preparatory School

By Gayle Harris

ISASA member Cygnet Preparatory School is situated in the residential suburb of Dawncliffe, Westville, about 20 minutes’ drive from Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal.

In the 1800s, the Westville area was bought by a German cotton merchant, Jonas Bergthiel. His family coat of arms featured a swan – from which our school derives its name.

Established in 1968, the school caters for children in the Foundation phase of learning. Enrolment averages 235 pupils per annum and our tri-sector campus offers a nursery, pre-primary and a junior primary school. There are 32 members of staff, which enables us to have small classes and ensures that we give personal attention to every child.

Expansion not without challenges

Cygnet was originally a pre-primary school – but in 2005 Jenny Manning, the former principal, together with the school board, had the vision and fortitude to take Cygnet forward on a new venture. The junior primary department was pioneered in 2006 with 10 children in Grade 1 and has now grown to five classes for 80 children.

The addition of a new department to a well-established school was not without its challenges. The school climate in pre-primary and junior primary schools is different and there was a concern that the ethos of Cygnet would change. The junior primary was initially seen by the broader community as a separate addition and not as a part of the whole school. Furthermore, it created the need for additional classrooms and resources. There was an understandable resistance from the pre-primary parents, who felt that they were being financially burdened by a department that their children would not necessarily attend. The introduction of computers and interactive whiteboards was a particularly ‘hard sell’. It was also a difficult time for the staff, as the nature of their job descriptions changed – they were all required to be involved in the academic programme of the junior primary.

During this time of transition, there was an unexpected change in management and a new principal was appointed from 2009. An intensive marketing programme was launched to rebrand, and all welcomed a ‘refreshed’ Cygnet Preparatory school. Other changes began as small achievable goals – such as planting purple petunias in the car park, smartening up the uniform, painting the school green and refurbishing the nursery. Some staff members were asked to teach different grades, and there has been a growing collaboration between the different phases.

Moving from cygnets to swans

The general development of the school over 44 years has been extraordinary. The school board, management, staff and parents have worked tirelessly over the years to ensure that the campus provides the very best resources to optimise the learning opportunities for the boys and girls who attend the school. At times, it has been enormously challenging, but the ‘never give up’ attitude entrenched in the school’s ethos has been rewarded with some amazing stories.

With steady growth in the school, it became apparent that Cygnet was in need of extra classrooms. We were most fortunate to be one of the winners of a competition hosted by a local shopping mall. Originally, we were only going to build a small library, but with some additional financial assistance, we ended up with three new classrooms, two offices and more ablution facilities. Cygnet has also been able to do a lot with the creative use of existing space, such as enclosing verandas, adding awnings, and converting and partitioning rooms to create extra learning, teaching and play areas.

Now we are satisfied with our campus, nestled below a tree canopy that hosts prolific bird life. The peaceful surrounds provide optimum conditions for the growth and healthy development of young children, who bring their J-boards to skate on our cycle track, ride scooters, play ball games, dig in our giant sandpit, spend many happy hours climbing on our magnificent jungle gym and suspension bridge, and experience our sensopathic area.

The Cygnet legacy

Pupils at this family-oriented school are kept just as actively engaged in indoor pursuits. The ‘Cygnet legacy’ of self-discipline and respect for the rights of others is firmly in place. Rules are few, simple, fair and not open to negotiation. When something does go wrong, a clear distinction is made between the child and the child’s actions. It is imperative to nurture self-esteem within firm but loving boundaries.

Emphases on self-esteem and compassion also enable us to celebrate diversity, and many cultures are represented in the student body. As a secular school, we base our life skills programme on the universal core values of honesty, respect, self-discipline, giving back and perseverance. The school has enjoyed a long and mutually rewarding association with the Vhukukhanye Charity, which is dedicated to the upliftment of the Chesterville area. The principal and deputy principal contribute to termly leadership and management workshops for other school leaders in this area.

Teaching and learning at Cygnet

A few special needs children are admitted to Cygnet on a case-by-case basis, provided they are able to cope in a mainstream environment. Some parents mistakenly believe that small classes alone will assist their children to overcome their learning disabilities, when they actually need remedial interventions. Our resident speech and language and occupational therapists provide the necessary support for pupils who need help in these areas.

The five key principles that underpin all teaching at Cygnet are participation, pace, praise, purpose and passion. Through the continued tracking of every child’s academic career, no one is able to ‘slip through the net’. Our experience and internal research show us that there are many challenges facing the development of young children. They are a technologically advanced generation constantly bombarded by visual stimuli. The effect of this, we noticed, was a decline in the ability to sustain focus, a concomitant decline in the early acquisition of language and listening skills and diminished imaginations.

While we follow the South African national curriculum to address these learning challenges, we have integrated the best aspects of other international curricula to complement and extend our academic programme. For example, we use the oral maths programme compiled by the British National Numeracy Strategy team1, which has rendered exceptional results, especially with problem solving. Recently, we added the US-based ‘Touch math’2 method to our teaching process. To improve the teaching and learning of writing, we have also introduced Ros Wilson’s ‘VCOP and Big Writing’3

method and Ruth Miskin’s ‘Read Write Inc’ 1phonics approach. The impact on our children is remarkable!

Our use of innovative programmes extends to the sports field. Playball is a franchise contracted to do all the school sport and the pupils play cricket, soccer, hockey and netball and participate in the Playball developmental programme. A number of extramural activities are offered at the school by private arrangement – these include ballet, karate, gymnastics, Garvz rugby, Snag golf, pottery, cooking, piano lessons, music appreciation and speech and drama classes.

As our pupils benefit from the wide array of activities on offer, so we benefit from our membership of ISASA. Apart from the validation it gives our school in terms of being an organisation that values quality and diversity in education, ISASA is actively involved in keeping member schools up to date with regard to changes in legislation, policies and curriculum issues.

No ugly ducklings here!

The well-loved tale The Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen, ends thus: “The elder-tree bent down its bows into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, ‘I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.’” At Cygnet Preparatory School, such happiness is to be found in abundance, but there are no ‘ugly ducklings’ here!

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