Being told your child has learning difficulties is a hard blow for any parent. As is making the decision to move them out of mainstream schooling and finding a suitable school for them to attend. But things are about to get a little easier for North Coast parents.
Having spent the past 20 years of her life as the principal of one of the North Coast’s most respected schools, former Umhlali Preparatory headmistress Astra Russell is embarking on a new venture – one that is particularly close to her heart.
“It has always been my dream to have a remedial (or LSEN – Learners with Special Education Needs) unit integrated into a mainstream school on the North Coast.”
While many thought Astra was retiring when she left Umhlali at the end of last year, she says she wasn’t ready to do so just yet. Instead, she has taken on the role of founding principal of Eden Academy, a new, affordable contemporary mainstream school situated in Foxhill, Salt Rock.
The school, which opens in January 2020 (with grades 1, 2 and 3), will follow the Department of Education’s CAPS curriculum, placing a strong emphasis on literacy, numeracy and enquiry-based learning techniques – all the things Astra became particularly passionate about during her years as principal. The school will also have an inclusive LSEN unit, allowing children with learning barriers to fully integrate with the mainstream school.
“There is a huge need for schools with LSEN units in our area. Livingstone Primary in Durban is recognised as the school for children with intrinsic barriers to learning to attend, but for many North Coast parents it’s just not practical or logistically possible to send their children there. There is also a long waiting list to get in,” says Astra.
It is extremely important, she says, for children with specific learning barriers to get the correct intervention from a young age. Eden Academy co-founder, Haden Keeton, agrees.
“We have to maintain or improve a child’s self-esteem, and the older they get, the harder this becomes. It can take up to six months to build up a child’s self-confidence once its damaged.” The LSEN unit’s ultimate purpose, he says, is to help re-integrate the pupils into their original schools.
One of the things that saddens her, Astra says, is seeing children struggle and start to dislike school. “It shouldn’t be like that. School should be a happy place and a place they want to come to.”
When it comes to a child’s admission into Eden Academy’s LSEN unit, Haden says they have to go through the correct procedures. “After a learning barrier has been identified by the teacher, the pupil will have an academic assessment and a recommendation put in place.” Thereafter, he says, the parents need to agree to be fully committed and involved in their helping their child achieve success. To be accepted, children also need to have an average or above average IQ.
For the mainstream school, Astra emphasises the importance of children mastering the basics of both numeracy and literacy. “There is much talk about the fourth industrial revolution, the rapid emergence of technology and the impact of digitization – but even in this digital world, these basics need to be learnt in order for our children to face the challenges ahead of them.”
One of the key priorities for Eden Academy is ensuring they have the right team on board to get the job done. “Our teachers are the most important element in the creation of this school. You can have a beautiful school with amazing facilities, but ultimately it’s the people behind it that make the difference,” says Haden.
While a big drawcard to the school will be its affordability (the mainstream school’s fees are R3650 for grades 1 and 2 for 11 months), Astra believes the true beauty of it is the environment they are creating. “The school is situated in a beautiful, tranquil environment, surrounded by nature and with all the specialists and therapists needed on hand at Eden Health. It’s going to be a happy place, which is what a school should be.”
Text: Leah Shone