I enter my ninth year at Bellavista as the school enters its fiftieth and reflection is a dominant emergent theme. This past fortnight, the reflection has been on the successes of past pupils. I have just collated the results of the class of 2011 and of the twenty seven pupils, four children emigrated or moved without forwarding addresses, one opted to repeat a year and writes matric in 2017 and we lovingly remember Chris Loxton who sadly passed away in his high school years. Of the twenty two children who wrote the IEB and GDE matriculation exams, all passed and twenty achieved a Bachelor’s Degree entrance. Every one of these alumni is applauded for these excellent results that speak to their effort, tenacity and grit. Of course, the staff and myself have the privilege of knowing their respective challenges through their school journey and our ‘happy dance’ continued over days as we reflected on each individual and our memories of their time in our care.
After collating the results, my musings turned to ‘what is remedial school all about, really?’ Deeper than the obvious, which includes intervention through curriculum and therapy in an integrated way, it appears to me that placement here is about academic rehabilitation and personal recalibration for each individual over time. Parents write us letters expressing that they ‘have their child back’, that their lives as well as their child’s life have changed, that their child is understood. Past pupils write that they were with ‘teachers who cared’, that they were ‘given a chance’, that they were helped, that they belonged and were valued, that we ‘believed in’ them. Alumni letters, emails and text messages this past fortnight expressed gratitude, warm memories and acknowledgement for what ‘Bellavista gave me’. Just today we received an email from the parent of a past pupil who left us in his primary schooling years. He has matriculated with 7 distinctions and an 89% aggregate; was school prefect and received colours for academics, cricket, cross country and service to his school. He furthers his studies into a BSc in Maths and Physics at UCT this year.
On the matter of academic rehabilitation, I am likely stating the obvious when I say that many children (and parents) arrive here shattered and tired, worn down by trying to meet the demands of the mainstream environment. Even good and admirable intentions to assist and support a child in an inclusive setting deplete energy and stamina over time. Parent roles are blurred with that of a case manager and tutor and the child loses the access to Mum or Dad for downtime, pleasure and recreation, because it’s all about home programmes, facilitation, extra lessons and therapy. Mums anxiety is reflected in the child who experiences her concern internally. The young learner loses free time to play and exercise, relax and recharge as the whole day becomes scheduled to put in the ‘extra’. Emotionally, the message is ‘not good enough’ and ‘need help’ even if this is never verbally expressed. Anxiety creeps to an intolerable level, expressed in swinging moods, depression, aggressive behavior and agitation, if not school refusal, poor sleep, inappropriate appetite, social withdrawal and tears. Scripts and dietary support become a theme as every effort is made to hold the young one together to cope with the relentless expectation that school has come to represent. When a referral is made to remedial school, it can seem either the inevitable second prize or an enormous relief.
For the first three to six months of placement, even longer for some children, we set about academic rehabilitation intensely and deliberately. Teachers and therapists will establish what he can do and work from there, building esteem more than skill at this point. We will learn her ways and anxieties, and hear his story. We will seek to hold the safety of structure in school in tandem with her emotional comfort. Positive reinforcement will dominate over negative or punitive discipline when he needs it. Connection with the child and earning her trust is more important than neat writing and straight sheets initially. Facilitating the feeling of legitimacy that comes with communicating and sharing ideas of his own is a primary focus. Basically, we spend months and then years restoring children’s trust in ‘schooling’ by celebrating and developing each person’s individuality. This is what each member of the Class of 2011 took with them when they left us. Yes, strategies; yes, skills to deal with pervasive difficulties that won’t go away; yes, facing a hard high school slog. Also yes to knowing ‘my challenge’ and holding a vision of a future with my dreams, interests and aptitude in mind.
The recalibration is the respite from a perpetual sense of failure coupled with an exposure to practical strategies that work. An important part of our role at school is helping every child know his or her personal strengths and weaknesses. We talk openly about this balance once the trust is established. We also engage plainly on strategies that are researched and effective, and the various supports that the child expresses as useful. This may be medication. It may not be medication. It may be diet, exercise and sport, anxiety management tools like sensory calming activities or psychological methodology. It may be ways to learn the tables or apps that type when the child dictates his thinking. It may be firm discipline and high expectations exercised by teachers until internalised by the child. Perhaps it will be just kindness and consistency. Maybe it will be individualised intervention therapeutically or access to curriculum that is structured to support how the child learns.
Make no mistake, and hold in your mind as a parent when you start to compare Bellavista’s activities and approaches to a mainstream school, everything we do here has intention. The intention is to facilitate your child’s academic rehabilitation and recalibration. Everything! When we have tuck, what seamless clothes we wear, the time we allow for sport, the outings we plan, the homework or not, the cycle test demands, the frequency of therapy, the way we write reports, the issues we call your child up on, the awards we give or don’t. Nothing lacks consideration and intent. My heartfelt plea to parents as we start this new school year is that you join us in this intent. Get to know the staff. Learn to trust the process.