Ridgeway College: A Nine-Month Journey

Most readers would never have heard of our school and may wonder where we are situated. Our family of Ridgeway schools is in Louis Trichardt in Limpopo.

The early childhood development (ECD) centre, which is bright and new and beautiful, is on the same campus as the college and a few kilometres down the road is our preparatory collegiate. Built on farmland, it has the most stunning surrounds, with quaint log-cabin classrooms and ample space for children to be ‘free range’.

In total, we have 513 pupils and 65 staff (academic and non-academic). Our pupils come from the town itself, surrounding municipalities and rural areas, a few from Zimbabwe and some from Polokwane. As far as independent schools go, we have what we need, but there are few luxuries and frills.

Pre COVID-19 plans

It was into these schools that Jannie le Roux (head of the preparatory collegiate) and I moved in January this year. Like every other school in the country, 2020 seemed to start off like all other years: the usual chaos and excitement of a new school year with two new heads in place.

We had all sorts of plans to re-launch our family of schools, especially since our college was turning 21 – an auspicious occasion which we hoped to mark with twenty-one events. Regarded as a ‘coming of age’ birthday that celebrates a sense of independence and selfhood, we wanted this year to be a time when we too reassessed our three schools, our values and identity and our offering in the 21st century.

We consolidated our ECD, preparatory collegiate and college under one banner, so to speak, with one badge and one uniform to show unity and commonality of the vision for Ridgeway.

We set about making the changes we needed to make, holding information evenings, launching our weekly newsletters, re-structuring the academic day, raising the bar in terms of staff expectations and planning the shift to a more integrated, 21st century academic programme that was globally relevant, including coding and robotics as well as critical thinking. In the college, our five heads of department took on the roles of grade heads as well (since we do not have any deputies) to assist with the monitoring of the needs of each grade and the tracking of pupils of concern.

Things were off to a good start and we thought we were on track. We had a gala evening of cultural events on the cards, our squad of athletes won the Inter-High B League Athletics Meeting, gaining promotion to the A league, pupil numbers were increasing and our visibility as a school was slowly improving.

Jannie and I had identified several key areas that needed attention; one being the need for staff training in information technology (IT) skills followed by upskilling our pupils.

The majority of staff, across all three schools, had never used Google Classroom. Some did not own laptops, or had old ones. The vast majority of our pupils did not own laptops, iPads, or tablets. Some had phones, some did not. Some shared phones with their parents. Neither the staff nor the pupils had school e-mail addresses and, while we had two IT teachers (one at the prep and one at the college), we had no IT department per se, and no technicians.

In January 2020, that was on our ‘To do’ list. By March, it was too late.

Honouring a special staff team

That first term flew by in a blur of change and learning. To be honest, it felt like I had been a head for five minutes before the South African president made his historical announcement and suddenly, we had less than 48 hours to close our schools. I had no idea if I was making the right calls or not, but I had no time to think about it.

It would be so easy to draw on an extended metaphor at this point and talk about the COVID-19 storm that hit us as we navigated through our first few months at Ridgeway: about uncharted waters, a school year blown entirely off course, the tidal waves of panic and fear that threatened to overwhelm us, so many plans being scuppered, fears of running aground on unpaid school fees and those months of lockdown when we felt becalmed in dark and murky waters of uncertainty, peering overboard to see if we could spot that dreaded virus leviathan that lurked somewhere out there… but that all seems a tad clichéd.

One can prepare for such a storm. One can physically see the danger. Batten down the hatches and all that. COVID-19 was the unseen … the unknown … surreptitious and stealthy, like those mushrooms in Sylvia Plath’s poem that inherited the earth overnight or the terrifying ‘idea of an animal’ that pattered across the roof of Atwood’s uneasy pioneer at night. I have never suffered from anxiety or had a panic attack, but there were times then the pressure and weight of responsibility was almost overwhelming.

As I write about our school in lockdown, I do so in the knowledge that every school in the country grappled with the same issues; that many faced even more disadvantages and that still more achieved extraordinary things under the most testing circumstances. Our story is not unique, but with the resources and the time we had, what our staff achieved was remarkable and, if nothing else, this is a tribute to them.

In the few hours we had to close the school, we halted the report-writing process and spent the time updating cell phone numbers for pupils and printing ten days’ worth of hard copy notes. Every pupil left with a pack and all their textbooks. Staff also established WhatsApp groups for every subject with every teacher, and tutors updated their groups with their tutees in the College.

Learning on the go

Our message to our staff as we closed the school was simple: sink or swim. During that week of ‘holiday’, the college staff had to teach themselves how to use Google Classroom. Working in physical isolation from one another, we circulated home-made videos, watched YouTube clips, and supported one another with amusing memes. We had no other choice. All those 21st century teaching skills we had thought about implementing were now a necessity. A game-changer occurred when my husband’s school loaned us some spare Google licences while we applied to be a Google school.

Then, the Herculean task began of trying to reach all our pupils, send them new email addresses and passwords, register them on the classrooms and train them all remotely. I still don’t know how we did it. I look back on those days and the word that comes to mind is ‘miracle’. It took bundles of private data, days of begging, pleading and cajoling, being ‘blue ticked’ by pupils who could not believe we needed them to work, thousands of phone calls to grannies, uncles, moms and dads because phones were broken or numbers had changed, a million messages and finally, we had every child on board by 14 April to start an online timetable.

The prep continued with hard copy packages and the use of WhatsApp for a while, before we moved our Grade RR-Grade 5 students onto Seesaw and the Grade 6s and 7s onto Google Classroom. The frustrations were many. As parents felt the financial knock, there was less and less money for data (if any at all).

Most of our pupils were working off cell phones, which are fine when one is scrolling through Instagram, but not so fine when one is trying to answer a mathematics worksheet. Connectivity, broken screens, lost passwords, fear of using Google Classroom and mental exhaustion made those months of hard lockdown incredibly difficult. Lessons took three times longer to prepare online and once set, it was no simple task to get the work back again.

A sustainable solution

We soon realised that some of our learners were simply disengaging entirely, and so we contacted every parent, updating phone numbers and email addresses, which seemed to change weekly. While the prep had had parent groups since the start of the year, the college did not. Once we had those numbers, every tutor established a parent group with the parents of his or her tutees.

Our routine was then to send the names of pupils with outstanding work and details of that work to my long-suffering personal assistant. She tabulated this data by 16:00 on a Thursday, and by Friday morning, parents would receive private messages notifying them of the missing work.

In that first week, when the pupils realised what was going to happen, the work flew in like homing pigeons. Children we had not heard from in weeks were suddenly apologetic and contrite, begging for work to be marked. Those parent groups also became invaluable as a means of quick and easy communication over COVID rules, the opening of school and parental concerns of fees and safety issues.

Communication was, in fact, the key. I wrote a letter to all our schools each week on COVID-19 updates and then each staff member wrote newsletters that were focused on more cheerful matters. Tutors checked on their tutor groups frequently, and Jannie and I used WhatsApp or Zoom to check in with the staff every day to keep them motivated and to deal with any issues.

As the weeks dragged on, seemingly interminable, we became increasingly aware of the emotional and psychological toll the lockdown was taking on our staff, pupils, and parents. In particular, too many of our matrics had simply given up and disengaged entirely. Even now, as they begin their final examinations, that foggy malaise and anxiety we all felt seems to have hit them worst of all.

Their final year will be remembered as the year that never was. Since we re-opened on 01 June, we have done all we can to make up time and settle into a semblance of normality – but the impact of online schooling and the financial devastation for families is still being felt, like the aftershock of a global quake that shook the foundations of all we assumed was unshakeable.

Meeting all the challenges head-on

Marketing a school during lockdown has been a challenge too. Since August, we have updated the school website, re-written all the marketing material, held an online marketing meeting and visited many junior schools in Limpopo. Slowly, slowly, these measures are paying dividends, as we now have waiting lists in several grades.

Our new uniform has also been launched as well as a new Facebook and Instagram page. We have re-structured the ECD aftercare programme, extending it to give more value for money. In the prep, we are offering an extension programme in the afternoons. Nothing is simple when the power keeps cutting and the generator only runs a few buildings, so all the curriculum planning is done around the loss of power! In all we are doing now, global relevance and positioning is foremost in our planning.

On one of the seemingly endless Zoom meetings I attended, someone clever said that we should note the good things that have come out of all of this. First and foremost, a crisis brings out the best or worst in people. Jannie and I are blessed to have a staff that chose to rise to the challenge, faced their fears of technology, found creative ways to teach online and reinvented themselves without complaint. They were – and still are – extraordinary.

Secondly, we had (for the most part) the unwavering support of the parents who recognised what we were trying to do to save not only the academic year, but our school.

Lastly, on a personal note, I could not have done this had I not worked alongside my husband. We shared our planning and COVID-19 standard operating procedures, and I am grateful to have had him as a sounding board.

Important personal growth

At the beginning of this article, I alluded to the personal growth that has occurred in the last nine months. This is the most difficult part to write, as it requires the most honesty and introspection.

I think I speak for both Jannie and myself when I say that we have both taught in privileged spaces in our careers and have taken so much for granted. Finances and human resources were available to make things happen and those things happened quickly. While both of us have relied heavily on our past experiences to get us through these nine months, we have also spent time reflecting on what is different about this school and how it has changed our mindsets and approaches as educators and leaders.

I have learnt more in the last nine months than I have learnt in my 30 years as an educator.

This school has a completely different culture and identity to those we have taught at previously. We have had to reassess the manner in which we teach and what we teach and the policies we apply. I thought I understood the impact of a Eurocentric curriculum. I did not. I thought I understood transformation, diversity and cultural inclusivity. I did not.

We don’t have perfectly manicured grounds. We don’t have SMART boards in every classroom or lovely staff rooms. What we do have is a little school in the middle of Limpopo that has more heart and more resilience at its core than many others.

It has been a humbling, invigorating and challenging time and I look forward to the next nine months.