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A private school with a difference

One usually associates a private school with the highest possible cost of school education, not so? I recall that, when my children went to school, they attended so-called model C schools, partly because there were several excellent schools in that category in the area where we lived, and partly because, even if I had wanted to send them to a private school, I simply could not afford the school fees charged by those in Port Elizabeth. To be sure, there was, and still is, a reason for those high fees – these schools are not subsidised by the department of education, and they have to generate the funds necessary to run these schools by private means. And some of these schools were, and still are, known for the superb quality of education, so I don’t mean to knock them in any way.

But what would you say about a not-for-profit private school that provides outstanding education from grade one through to matric, is not exorbitantly expensive, and on top of it all, counts some of the poorest of pupils among its rapidly growing numbers? And by “poorest of pupils”, I mean those who come from very poor homes, whose parents often cannot afford to pay school fees at all, as well as some who don’t have any homes, in other words, children literally from the streets of Port Elizabeth.

I know this sounds impossible, but it is happening. The school I am talking about is called Urban Academy, and it is situated in the heart of Port Elizabeth’s Old City, just off Albany Road, and above Govan Mbeki Avenue. It is run by a retired school principal, Mr Cronjé, who could not get teaching out of his blood when he retired, and consequently, together with his wife, started looking for suitable premises to start a school. When I was chatting to him the other day it became clear to me that it had been his growing awareness of the great need for good education, particularly among children whose access to school education was compromised in some or other way, that prompted him to take action.

After a considerable period of looking in vain for buildings that would accommodate a reasonable number of pupils and lend themselves to other school functions as well, fortune smiled on them at last when he got wind of a building complex covering three different levels and included a number of secure garages as well. This proved to be right up his alley, as it were, although it needed work before it could be opened to prospective pupils. Considering all the arrangements that had to be made before this could happen – finding teachers, arranging to use curricula prescribed by the department of education, finding school desks, stationery, text books and other essential equipment, and sufficient funds to make a beginning as far as rent for the buildings and school salaries are concerned – I am in awe of this enterprising principal’s organisational skills, let alone his and his wife’s perseverance (for she has supported him throughout all of this, and still works at the school).

Urban Academy finally opened its doors in January 2013, with (if I recall correctly) 27 pupils. Now in its second year, their numbers have grown to more than 480, and all indications are that next year will see comparable growth. There are stipulated school fees, but if anyone cannot afford to pay the full amount, the school has a “financial aid” scheme from which the amount that the parents cannot afford is drawn. This scheme, of which there are at present almost 60 student beneficiaries, is maintained by donations from churches and other benefactors. In some cases, as mentioned earlier, pupils are exempted from fees altogether, and are welcomed at the school on condition that they show a willingness to learn and abide by school rules.
The school also helps children and their parents in other ways, by providing food on some days for those who cannot afford to bring food to school. Other students who are in this position are supported by people who know about their plight; for example, my partner provides food on a regular basis for a foundation phase student whose parents are so poor that they simply cannot send food to school with their child.

Judging by what I saw when I visited the school recently, everyone there showed an unmistakable willingness to learn. Dressed neatly in grey flannels, white shirts, grey jerseys and maroon ties, scholars were talking among themselves in corridors during break, and filed back into classrooms when the bell signalled the end of the interval. I was visiting the principal as well as my partner’s daughter, Janine, who is a foundation phase teacher there, by invitation, and was welcomed by several rows of bright little faces when I arrived at her classroom.

My visit was to establish what one might call ambassadorial ties with the school – something that was easy to do on my part once I had spent some time in the foundation phase classroom with Janine’s students. They were doing mathematics when I arrived, and the eagerness with which they listened to me trying to explain to them why Plato believed that everybody – even a slave boy in ancient Greece – could understand geometrical relations, was infectious. And when I greeted them in Xhosa, informing them of my Xhosa name at the same time, it was clear that we would become friends.

Witnessing the degree of enthusiasm with which Janine has embraced her new teaching job at Urban Academy, the school seems to have just the right formula for teachers and students, which (not surprisingly) differs from that of Departmental schools. Before she was offered this post she taught at two different schools run by the Eastern Cape department of education, and decided to give up teaching when, after a number of years, the salary owed to her by the department did not materialise, and she and her husband had to make ends meet with his salary and the amount she received from the schools’ governing bodies, which turned out to be insufficient for them to live on. She still has not received the salary arrears owed to her by the department, despite numerous trips to their offices.

Nevertheless, when the Urban Academy post was advertised she applied for it because it was not a departmental school, and to her great surprise was offered the post at the beginning of the year. It is no exaggeration to say that, since then, Janine has been a different person compared to the young woman whose motivation to go to work at schools where teachers are overburdened with administration (and where she was not paid properly), was minimal, to say the least. Because she loves teaching, she cannot wait to get to work every day. At Urban Academy the emphasis is on the teaching, not on bureaucracy, and as a result the department’s subject specialists who have visited the school have expressed their astonishment at the level of learning that they have witnessed there.

Ironically, in spite of the constructive work being done there by the teachers and other staff, all kinds of obstacles have been encountered in the course of the attempt to register the school. Already it follows the same curricula as those prescribed for departmental Schools, but for full recognition it has to be registered as a private school. The principal has been indefatigable in his efforts to achieve this, but has encountered obstacles all the way.

The financial situation of the school remains precarious, too. While one sometimes hears about high-profile private schools receiving financial sponsorship from large companies, Urban Academy has attracted no such financial support, and scrapes by on a more-or-less “break-even” basis every month. And yet, in light of the wonderful work being done at the school for mostly underprivileged children, it is probably one of the most deserving private schools in South Africa. It is significant that the school motto is “Education is an act of hope”.

For more information on Urban Academy, watch this video: