Lessons from Elsies River school

The governing body member had a huge tattoo on her muscular forearm spelling the name of her lover.
“Risky, isn’t it?” I teased the round-faced woman, who looked as if she had won a few boxing rounds in her life.
This was Elsies River, gangster paradise even to my community on the equally volatile southern side of the Cape Flats.
It is here in “Elsies” where then president Jacob Zuma came to offer a RDP house to a family whose three-year-old daughter had been raped and killed by the family boarder.
Elsies, said a local preacher in a botched attempt at exegesis, “breaks down as El – the Hebrew for God, and ‘sies ’ – need I say more”.
“I am suspicious of this school,” I told the more than 20 teachers spread among the black computer stations in a crowded room for my motivational talk.
“Why is the school so clean, spotless?” They assured me that it was always like this in the 57-year-old institution.
“How are you?” I asked the well-dressed woman waiting for me in the foyer. “Blessed!” shouted the other governing body member with Pentecostalist fervour.
I was inside one of South Africa’s miracle schools where everything you see is counterintuitive.
The school is not supposed to do well. It is in a high-crime area where gangsters sometimes lurk near the fence.
As in so many township areas, parents with some money had long abandoned places like Balvenie Primary for the former white schools when democracy came; those who stay have few options.
There are none of the luxuries like teacher assistants in grade 1 classrooms or immaculate green sports fields or a nice big school hall for assemblies that shelter students in the Cape of storms.
My assignment from the principal was to deliver a motivational talk near the end of the school year so as to give these hardworking teachers some encouragement, to lift their spirits.
They engaged, some taking notes from the PowerPoint presentation, and with the usual mix of humour and serious talk generating a surprisingly high energy on this late Friday afternoon.
Then something stunning happened – several teachers got up in turn to say “thank you”, each with a carefully considered gift for the speaker.
A laminated “appreciation” certificate, a simple fruit basket, a beautiful book in which the school name appears.
Then off to the staff room where every table was decked in the finest cloth and an exquisite curry-and-rice meal was served with fresh salads.
Until last Friday, I had not yet seen such strong cohesion and a sense of common purpose among teachers in one school.
There are so many lessons from Balvenie Primary. They have found a way to turn their very limited resources into results.
They understand that the colourful appearance and organisation of the school communicate important messages to children such as love, care and commitment.
They know that active parents are key to a school’s success. They also know that the bottom line is academic performance and speak proudly of their successes – one girl was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s prestigious school in Gauteng, thereby securing the poor child a lifetime of financial support including university education.
When I posted the story of Balvenie on my Facebook page more than 600 people quickly responded, including former learners of the school eager to confirm the life-changing qualities of this Elsies River institution.
“Balvenie made me who I am today,” said one.
“Do they still have the Spring concerts?” asked another.
“My roots lie there, my whole family went there,” said a Facebook friend, drawing attention to the tight bond between school and community over more than five decades.
As in all studies of effective schools, the secret lies in the school leadership, and Farieda Wakefield is easily among the most “woke” of principals anywhere.
But it quickly becomes clear that she consciously allows others to lead with her, thereby creating a collective sense of school management.
Ms Wakefield appeared to do very little as every teacher had a role in the day and yet it was so evident that she was the guiding influence holding the staff together.
The Facebook posting had attracted the attention of one of South Africa’s most successful school-building initiatives.
So late last Sunday, I received this e-mail:
“Our company turns 100 next year.
“Your post about Balvenie will help make the case for them to be the school where we build our 100th school hall.
“As they say in my business, success breeds success.”

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