- Apex High School in Eerste River, Cape Town, has been voted the News24 Super School 2020.
- The no-fee school moved all classes online and made sure all pupils had access to lessons.
- Teachers provided additional academic support, but also supported pupils emotionally and went the extra mile to keep them motivated.
On a wooden sign outside Apex High School, its unofficial slogan, written in bright white letters, is unmissable: "Whatever it takes."
"We will do whatever it takes. We've been saying it for three years, and this year we showed our pupils we really will," says Renate van der Westhuizen, principal of the school.
The school has been voted the News24 Super School 2020 for its Covid-19 "keep learning" initiatives. More than 20 000 News24 readers voted in the inaugural competition.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that schools would reopen in June while the country's Covid-19 outbreak was still very much at its peak, the teachers at the school did not blink.
Every single staff member said they wanted to continue teaching immediately, says Van der Westhuizen.
A no-fee, dual-medium public school in Eertse River, Cape Town, Apex High managed to move all classes online while ensuring that all 900 pupils had devices and internet access. Classes were initially held on Facebook where teachers used the interactive features to motivate pupils. When, after a week pupils started to drop off, they realised that the data costs were becoming too much.
With the help of their collaboration partner, non-profit organisation Acorn Education, they created a data free website where pupils could access all lessons on their phones, completely free.
To make this possible, teachers had to keep lessons compact and only upload videos of 3mb and smaller.
"The teachers had to really think what they wanted to say and compress it in such a way as not to compromise the rigour of our lessons," says Van der Westhuizen. "We didn't cut anything out of the curriculum and completed the entire year's work."
Apex High School has an extended school day of eight hours so that teachers can have the maximum amount of contact time with pupils and make up for any knowledge gaps they may have when they enter the school at Grade 8. Grade 8s and 9s go to the computer lab three times per week to focus on math and home language education.
The school opened four years ago and will have its first matric cohort next year. It aims to have a 100% pass rate, something that very few no-fee schools in the Western Cape have managed to achieve. It currently has roughly 900 pupils and has already received 1 500 applications for next year.
"We spend a lot of time on school culture and discipline and on getting buy-in from the kids. We didn't want to lose that during the lockdown and worked very hard to motivate the kids," says Van der Westhuizen.
"It took a while, but we are producing good academic results and our kids are starting to act differently, because we really try to instil our school's seven values, which are compassion, responsibility, authenticity, integrity, excellence, respect and grit."
Like most schools, they set up WhatsApp groups for different classes and pupils to keep in touch.
Van der Westhuizen recorded a voicenote every morning to send to register teachers, which would, in turn, be sent to parents. In it she would speak about Covid-19, the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing and why they encouraged pupils to adhere to lockdown rules.
Each teacher also called regularly called their pupils to make sure they coped academically, socially and emotionally. They awarded pupils who worked hard with gold stars and published it on Facebook.
Leading from the front
While the school deals with the same social issues as other schools in the area, including gangsterism, it proactively tackled concerns around ways to keep their pupils connected and motivated to learn from home.
"Our kids face the same challenges as other kids in the area, but we don't hold them to that standard," says Van der Westhuizen.
"I think we must change the way we lead our schools. You cannot be a principal that does admin in her office all day. You have to be instructional and lead by example. You have to be out there spending time on school culture, looking at the data, coaching teachers to be leaders. And if the kids are not learning, you should change the way you teach. Flip the classroom a little, let the kids do the heavy lifting."
Dr Abraham de Villiers, head of education at Acorn Education, Apex High School's collaboration partner, said the school showed what can be done with a positive mindset, persistence and willingness.
"Their efforts meant very few learning hours were lost."
Bronagh Casey, spokesperson for the Western Cape department of education, congratulated the school on being named News24 Super School 2020.
"It is wonderful that they have been recognised for their achievements and initiatives during this very tumultuous year," she said.
Visit the Super Schools special site to see all the finalists.
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