The reason for this post is to put down in writing the issues that faced Imhoff waldorf High school that lasted precisely 8 years and then died prematurely, still in its youth. I was involved from long before its inception to almost its end. I wish to clarify things that seemed to have got lost along the way, and examine what led to its untimely end.Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt along the way.
THE SITUATION BEFORE THE HIGH SCHOOL
Imhoff Waldorf High school was born in January 2010, the year my son was in matric. It was conceived 9 months earlier, but in reality it was 6 years from the first pangs of need. I was the midwife and lucky to have had the privilege of bringing this amazing High school to birth. With me have been an incredible team and wonderful students, who have breathed life into it..even to its last breath, which will be on the 8th of December. We are already in mourning. How can such a vibrant school die at such a young age, is what we all ask? So hopefully this will put some perspective onto a brave endeavor.
I was connected to Imhoff through my son, being in the pioneering days of Imhoff primary school from 1989. My son went through the primary school. I loved the school. Its values were good. It strove to be inclusive and diverse, and costs were affordable to middle class people like myself but also had a strong sponsorship programme so that those of lesser means could attend. I was on the board at the time the idea was put forward in 2004. It was already too late for my son.
At that time there were only one and a half Waldorf High schools (Micheal Oak only went up to class 10, and had done so for 20 years. Somehow they got stuck there). It was becoming difficult to get Imhoff’s children into either one of these high schools, as demand was increasing from all the Waldorf primary schools in Cape Town area (There were 7 other primary schools that did not have high schools at the time). A survey was done by Dassenburg school, that showed that by 2010 there would be a huge demand for Waldorf High schools. Both existing High schools involved travel for Imhoff parents and were not as affordable. So the question was asked: How can we provide Waldorf High schooling for our children at Imhoff that would be affordable and convenient.
All the small schools met with the Federation to thrash out the problem. We suggested that Constantia waldorf school, which was the biggest school, double stream in order to accommodate this demand. We suggested Michael oak complete its High school. because, the fact that it ended in class 10, put pressure on Constantia to accommodate them in class 11, so didn’t really solve the problem of creating space for High school children. Both ideas were turned down, as neither school wanted to expand at that stage, and it was suggested that each school should solve its own problems.
A further issue was that Imhoff had been wanting to buy land for a number of years. Land was expensive in the area and hard to come by. A financial survey done in 2004 showed that the only way the school could afford to buy land and build a school was to have a High school, as the numbers were needed to increase the turnover of the school.
Also, it was found that Imhoff had a drop off of students in Class 6 and 7. Fishoek had a local government middle school, and if students were not enrolled at an early stage, they would not get into Fishoek High school later, especially as Imhoff’s Kommetjie and Scarborough residents were outside the Fishoek zone. There was already high demand for Fishoek High school from Sun Valley primary, as they at that stage did not have a High school either. So upper primary classes would be small where parents sent their children to Fishoek to get in there before the grade 8 “rush”. As a result of all these factors, Imhoff decided it needed to start a High school also to help fill the upper primary classes. At that stage, there was no teachers willing to take the step, so it remained in limbo. In the meantime, Stellenbosch Waldorf school decided that they were not going to wait. They started their High school in 2008. I was involved in that, and saw that it just needed the step to be taken. Once started, it would carry its own energy.
Now starting a High school is easier said than done. Despite the need, both parents and children were not keen to be the first class to go up. You may ask why. Its a complex issue, but one of the key problems is that teenagers need older teenagers and a big school idea, especially those from Imhoff, as it is a small school as it is. Teenagers need a wider social net and everything that opens and shuts, so they would resist just being a small class with nothing except a teacher or two.
So we did a survey on the class 7’s of 2009 to see how many would be interested in the High school. A number were interested but not committed, and some were definitely keen. Our eye was on the then class 5’s who were all very keen to be part of pioneering a High school, and were a large class determined to stay together. By then the school was negotiating buying land and drawing up plans with an architect, despite not having money to do so. Now, even if we were eyeing class 5 for the High school, we needed the wider social net for them to feel happy to be there. It was kind of a catch 22 situation. So we decided to start the High school, even although it may be small to begin with. We only needed one classroom initially. The Board committed to building a temporary classroom on adjacent land that I negotiated from our landlord, together with a desperately needed playing field with GRASS (the current soccer field was a dust bowl). This was actually a huge achievement, as relations with the landlord had been soured over the years.
STARTING WITH VERY LITTLE
So we advertised the new high school, despite having nothing in place, and lo and behold, we got a number of applications from both outside and inside Imhoff. They were waiting for a commitment from Imhoff. We got support from Constantia Waldorf school, who agreed to refer students applying there from our catchment area who didnt manage to get in there, as they were at this stage seriously full in class 8. I conducted interviews with only an artists sketch of our prospective school, and no building in sight. When students asked where the High school was situated, I pointed through the trees showing them where the buildings would be. Its amazing what imagination can do. I also negotiated with a local sports teacher to start a sports programme. This was one of the FAQs of prospective students. What sports do you offer? And so we could offer a lot by tying into other schools and local private sports clubs that were already in existence without having to provide the equipment. This sports programme benefited the primary school as well, as they had little in the form of sports at that stage.
The other FAQ was whether we were going to go all the way to matric. We had no idea, but we had to make that commitment to do everything in our power to make it happen. Without that, we would not have got the commitment from the parents that was needed. It was a crucial issue that led to this class going all the way to matric and keeping our High school strong.
Then Our landlord offered us a house close by. It had been used by Mr Opperman who was the farm manager and who died mid year. Originally he had converted what were a series of chicken runs into a house. So the rooms were small. With the advice of a local engineer, we could convert it into 2 classrooms and a kitchen at the grand price of R5000! And so we had our new High school..just far enough away to be separate from the primary school, with a grass field in between. By then we had 13 students definitely committed and two teachers. One full and one part time, myself and Alexandra James Gets. She was the English, drama teacher, and I was the Maths, science and biology teacher..not to mention art, crafts, gardening, even woodwork and general dogsbody on the Board and the college. We also borrowed teachers from Constantia, swapping time with myself when I was not teaching at Imhoff. We ran a full on Waldorf curriculum using experienced teachers like Ed Fox and Howard Dobson on a part time basis. Der Freunde donated 10 000 for equipment, and we stretched that money very far, buying sewing machines and science equipment.. science benches that could be wheeled in and out. The school bought new desks and chairs and a blackboard. It was seen as an investment into our future permanent school. Howard Dobson became our Federation mentor (a Federation requirement to be a waldorf school), and we ran teacher training sessions which we opened up to our parent body to help cover costs and prepare future teachers that we would need over time.
Janis came a bit later to teach IsiXhosa, and we had Maike teaching eurhythmy to students who had never done eurythmy before. We had a great group of students who were fully prepared to pioneer the High school.
It was important for the High school to not draw on the primary school financially, and at the end of the year, we were the only area of the school to actually make a profit..a small one, but nevertheless, the viability was there.
There were many problems, which is what is expected when you are dealing with the vulnerable teenage years, but we solved them as we went. It was like rowing a boat on choppy waters. What kept us afloat and excited was faith and creative thinking. What we were NOT doing, was going backwards. We never faulted in looking forwards to a long future even though we did not have a plan beyond class 9. Nobody knew that of course, other than the inner circle of the college. I never doubted that we would find a solution.
THE NEXT YEAR
So, our next group of class 8’s numbered 10 and came from a class that had a rocky time in primary school. They had had 3 teachers in primary school, which is unusual, normally they only have one. What started as a large class of close on 30 in class 1, ended in 10 in class 7. We took in some children from outside Imhoff and ended with 15. One of the problems of taking on people who had no Waldorf education, is that they were often struggling, with parents desperate to find a solution. This second class had some social issues, with strong-minded students who resisted getting on with others. So at the end of class 8 we lost 5. After that, it remained a small class, despite new people coming. The pioneer class, however grew in strength and number. Ulric, an ex- Waldorf student himself, joined us to offer Woodwork and metalwork
The question then arose about offering class 10. The college then questioned for the first time whether the High school could continue up. For me, this was a shock, as I thought that everyone was behind the High school, to find it was not so. I was the only High school member on the college at that stage. At this point the High school felt unsupported by the primary and the rest of the school back tracked on building any new classrooms. The High school had already expanded the crafts into a second building nearby, courtesy of our landlord. Yes, we were paying for it, but it was all covered by fees.
We set out in search of a solution deciding to separate the High school from the primary. We found a place in Noordhoek that used to be a school and so had education status. It was more expensive, but then we had more students and could still cover the costs. The school bought desks, chairs and we received some donations of boards from Michael oak, but essentially the equipment we had bought two years before using the Freunde donation stretched enough.
Again, when we had to decide for class 11, although we had the space, the college and board questioned us going ahead. Again we had to convince them that it was worth it. This took a Big circle and added to our stress and there was a sense that the High school was still not supported by the rest of the school, especially now we were on separate campuses. This was shown in other ways, and I think this was where a rift developed. We had a new board made of mostly Primary school parents. All we actually needed then was a eurythmy room, which we found within walking distance, thanks to a parent who ran a yoga studio there.
At this stage, the High school was the only part of the school that was registered with the department of Education. We were still covering costs, but it was then decided to charge the High school an admin fee. Nevertheless, we still covered expenses which included much higher rent. By this time we had a secretary, two full time teachers, the rest drawn from our parent body mostly and on various percentages depending on their teaching load. But it was vibrant and exciting. Charisse came in to teach drama and English when Alexandra left, and Tracey taught art. Matthew and Kath came in to teach class 8 and 9 We landed with a difficult class 8 class with some extremely naughty students, who again came from a primary school class that had 3 different teachers, and was not very cohesive socially.
By this stage, Michael Oak had decided to continue its High school into class 11. Also Sun Valley primary decided to open their very expensive private school to the general public with government support. Sandy Dowling, a parent had also started a small home school offering the cambridge matric. This drew some of our prospective students away from us. (Stellenbosch, which was quite far out and so didnt really affect us, were one step ahead of us, offering class 12.)
Nevertheless, our classes were essentially full for our spaces, (which were quite small and could accommodate only 20 students in each classroom.)
Our first Parsival Journey from Cape Point to Table Mountain. Our original group in class 11.
Now we had to decide on class 12. Our landlord was trying to sell the property we were on, but it was too expensive for what it was and besides we didnt have the money, as the school was still negotiating to buy land at Imhoff to build on. It was also really too small.
At this stage, Solole nature reserve, which had gone bankrupt became available to rent, via a connection of a parent, Clive. It had been bought by the council who were prepared to let it out at a good rate while they put plans in for a much needed fire station. We had to fix it up, as it had been vandalised quite extensively and the thatch needed repairing. Thus far we had spent every December holiday since 2010, either moving the school or doing repairs, so this was nothing new.
It was a beautiful space and big enough to house a full High school…but….we had it for 3 years only. Other plans were in the offing, however. A banker friend of Clives had offered to put up the money to buy the land for the primary school, with a proviso that they buy a portion for themselves. They would then build a high school there that they would rent to Imhoff High school, but also run their own post school education classes. It all seemed ideal.
By then we had our first matric class. We were registered to offer matric, by no mean feat, classes were running. We had 5 full time teachers, being joined by Maggie, Irene, Lorna and Carol Drew. Also Sandise very capably took on the Eurythmy..never an easy thing in the High school. We had a few high school parents on the Board, Irene joined the college, It looked like nothing could go wrong, wrong wrong…
How wrong can you be.
By then I was stressed and exhausted. I felt that I was always defending the High school to a group of naysayers on Board and college. Much as words were said that denied that, the reality was that the Board was made of Executive types with primary school children who had little sense for the High school. I needed a sabbatical and to decide my own future. I was not getting any younger. I do believe teaching has a time limit. Janis and Tracey had joined the college and Janis the board at that stage. We also had two high school parents there. Our great supporter at the board was Clive. Part of my reason for leaving for sabbatical was to let the school firm up its feet.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
While I was away, a few tragedies happened: Firstly, Amani, a popular class 8 student, was tragically killed. After this his class dissipated somewhat. Secondly, but what was crucial, I think, is that Clive left the board. It was here that the banker, who was to build our High school felt, correctly I think, that Imhoff was not committed enough to the High school endeavour. So Imhoff Campus withdrew from the arrangement to build the High school. Thirdly, the Imhoff board then decided to rather build the High school on the primary land, despite having no means to do so.
Fourthly, after the first matric, which was very successful, the college and board decided not to offer matric to the second group, as the class was too small to offer choices (there were 10 students, as there were in the beginning). Fifthly, and crucially, this decision was taken without consultation of the teachers or the parents to find a way of compromising, and so this sent shock waves through the school. I bumped into very irate parents on my return from sabbatical, who were not consulted.
After this confidence was leaking and so students from lower down also withdrew. Stopping a process in this way would inevitably bring results further down. This was known by High school teachers, but they were again not consulted. No alternatives were given except to send the students to Michael Oak, which was now offering matric. It was forgotten that one of the reasons why Michael Oak decided to go further in their High school was because they lost students after class 9, where they left to go to other High schools that offered matric. Parents need to know there is an end point. This fact of the backlash further down was not seen by the college or board, as they were not involved in the everyday High school.
The decision that was taken from a financial savings perspective brought further financial restrictions through lack of foresight.
At a very late stage the board and college then put the High school on notice to close due to a deficit in the region of 100 000, mainly created by sponsored students who had no sponsors. The High school teachers then took it into their own hands to raise funds for the sponsored students in order to save the school. (There are dedicated people who generally do this, but for some reason sponsorship money was not allocated to the High school). This was already too late, and despite raising the deficit, the college and board decided to close the upper High school, again without consultation. They would build 3 classrooms for classes 8, 9 and 10 on the new land they had bought, ( although they still have to pay for it, and had no money to build). This already would shrink the school and thus lose the greater social atmosphere vital to a high school.
As a result of these cutbacks, new students for 2018 did not materialise by September, naturally enough, through the fact of the cancelling of the upper classes. Although this was very early to decide (many students applied later than this in previous years, even up to December), the board and college then decided to close the entire High school, again without consultation. Teachers were given severance notices, and class 11 was sent to Constantia Waldorf school for the final term. 15 students were to be interviewed, but they were told not to go ahead.
HOW TO KILL A HIGH SCHOOL
A sadness now descends on the dissipated high school, and a confusion as to what actually happened, who made the decisions, how and why. Only 3 members remain on the board and a key primary school teacher has resigned prematurely. A Waldorf school normally prides itself in circle management. No decision is made without the players involved in the decision. All big decisions were made at “Big Circle” meetings. This involved relevant parents and teachers and not just Board and College.
The other question is why were the High school notified of the financial situation at such a late stage to make gathering the funds so difficult? and further, why was the decision to close the entire High school so soon before the end of the year, even although there were 15 ppeople who had applied for class 8? one of the bigger questions for me was why did the school stop offering matric without trying to find a compromise with the parents and students? Waldorf schoosl have offered matric with far less students than this. This is what set the entire house of cards tumbling. The main question again and again is why were decisions taken without consultation with the people involved. This is not how Waldorf schools operate.
The question still remains as to how the primary school is going to afford to build and pay off its large loan with only a primary school. The fact remains that upper classes in the primary school will become depleted as they were before when there was no High school. What was to be the High school, has now been sold to a Montessori school in direct competition, and next door to Imhoff. (Strangely enough they feel quite confident of starting their own High school, with less students as what was at Imhoff High school.)
I also wonder that if it was the primary school leaking, would they have saved the high school and closed the primary? It makes you consider what is called support. I can think of many things that could have been done and would have been done if it was the primary school in this situation. I remain worried for the future also of the primary school. Its not only the foolish decision that was the problem, it was how it was done. If everyone had been consulted, new solutions could have been found. Am I wrong?