Life lessons for a school that produced a miracle
Former headmistress reflects on Parktown Girls' High's journey to social cohesion and equality
My 25 years as a secondary-school principal coincided with the years in which previously white schools became increasingly diverse. Schools were positioned to teach and model the democratic values of the constitution, such as equality, dignity, freedom, non-racialism and non-sexism.
Historically, schools had not been very good at any of these.
I reflect with mixed emotions on the road we walked while constructing it. I am embarrassed by actions of the early years stemming from unacknowledged white privilege, ignorance and absence of empathy.
For example, former white schools deemed it appropriate to conduct admission tests to “allow” learners into public schools.
These actions demonstrated extreme arrogance and ignorance of appropriate conduct in a constitutional democracy.I am humbled by the tolerance and forgiveness that so many learners and their families extended to us. I am thankful that everyone in our school community was committed to learn how to do things better for all our learners.
What did we do to create a new school culture and identity that embraced everyone? In the early days, we united in the singing of the new national anthem and cheered the unfurling of the new South African flag.
The school believed in the possibility of a harmonious non-racial “rainbow nation”. We introduced an African language as an alternative to Afrikaans. The sports and cultural programmes were extended.
In assemblies, heroes of all races were used to exemplify the message. Guest speakers at important functions were frequently leading black women, including successful past students whose personal stories could inspire the learners. School leaders were elected by the learners and reflected the demographics and diverse interests of the school.
In 1999 we invited the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation to report on how the school was reflecting its commitment to equality, justice and dignity for all.
The recommendations in their report entitled “The State of Diversity – A Qualitative Peek” were followed through to the best of our ability. One of the outcomes was the School Diversity Charter, to which each class contributed points that were worked into an inspiring document by the RCL.A Freedom Wall with the Diversity Charter at its centre surrounded by tiles created by learners and staff commemorated 10 years of democracy.
The mural, visible in the heart of the school, represented what the school community understood about living democratic values.
We replaced a punitive traditional discipline system with restorative justice practices. The impact of wrongdoing on the person harmed is central and the aim is achieving understanding of the wrongfulness of the action and restoring relationships.
Racist incidents have been managed using these processes.
We were very aware of the benefits of staff diversity and had made reasonable progress. Learners were involved in the teacher appointment policy.
While wanting to be taught by some teachers who were the same race as themselves, they prioritised teachers’ knowledge and ability to help them succeed academically. In recent years 70% of new staff appointed each year improved the staff racial profile.Having a SGB that was racially representative also helped enormously to ensure policies were respectful of the rights of all. This, however, could only be achieved if the school firstly achieved a genuine and representative quorum at the election meetings, and secondly that parents of all races were willing to be nominated.
At our school we were fortunate to have met both those requirements.
Schools are not isolated from their social and political context. As the public discourse became increasingly racially divisive, the vision of a “rainbow nation” faded.
A newspaper article written by a group of learners on racism in schools in general forced us to reflect critically on our practices and respond to allegations of institutional racism.Staff participated in externally facilitated anti-racism workshops and engaged in “courageous conversations” with one another.
Learners were asked to bring to our attention any experiences of racism. Most matters concerned the status attached to activities and perceived unfair distribution of the budget.Small pockets of learner-to-learner racism indicated a need for “courageous conversations” and anti-racism education for learners. Learners participated in the review of the Code of Conduct and School Uniform Rules to eliminate any unfair discrimination and undemocratic values and practices. I believe a really progressive code emerged and was duly ratified by the SGB months later.
I acknowledge that mistakes were made but I wonder why powerful parents did not bring these to our attention. They could have helped us to do better sooner.
I have learnt that the most important thing is to listen widely, to be alert and proactive. Any conscious or unconscious acts of racism must be addressed quickly and decisively. It helps to be transparent and communicate reasons for actions in order to prevent false assumptions and suspicions.
All in all, I believe it is quite miraculous that a school community comprising learners, parents and staff each with his or her unique personal history and experience can achieve sufficient social cohesion to fulfil its ethical mandate to educate all the learners entrusted to it.
To do so without disruptive racism despite the thousands of close interactions that occur daily is a worthy achievement and manifestation of the power of a transforming but not yet perfect education community.
Dr Anthea Cereseto is a former chairperson of the South African Council for Educators, former president of the National Professional Organisation of South Africa, and retired headmistress of Parktown High School for Girls. Currently she is a visiting associate in the Education Policy and Leadership Studies Division of the School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand.