Moipone Ralebese, who was a national finalist in the recently held annual National Teaching Awards, has turned her school into a facility to provide government services to the local community
Opening up the gates of her school to the neighbouring community of Freedom Square in Bloemfontein has been a winning formula for Moipone Ralebese, principal of Toka Primary School. She won the provincial title of “Excellence in Primary School Leadership” in the 2016 National Teaching Awards, and says allowing the community to access the school has changed its destiny in ways that she could not have imagined. There is more happiness in both the learners and teachers and, surprisingly, more support from outside.
Ralebese admits that running a school in an impoverished area is a challenge. “More often than not we have to be creative about how we do things to ensure that we get the resources that the department does not provide,” she says.
As the provincial winner of the NTA and a finalist at national level, Ralebese can attest to how engagement with the community has changed the lives of her learners and the residents alike. With a total of 1 135 learners and a staff complement of 33 teachers, four administrators and two cleaners, the big question is: how does she make everyone feel at home in her school?
Making the school available
Ralebese says they make it easy for the community to access the school by simply bringing the services they need closer. She says many parents or guardians of her learners are elderly and have difficulty accessing government services. The first thing her school did was to provide some of those services, such as bringing social workers to the school.
“Social workers visit the school regularly to give advice, particularly to parents or guardians who do not know how to apply for social grants. Those whose grants have been stopped do not have to travel distances to get help, as the services come to them here,” says Ralebese. Pensioners who have queries are also allowed to use the service.
The department of home affairs’ mobile office visits the school on regular intervals to assists with the registration of births certificates and applications for ID books. The Community Works Projects also runs a food garden project in the school’s yard and contributes some of the produce for the school’s nutrition programme. “All I do is provide the space for these things to happen,” says the principal.
Medical doctors, dentists and optometrists also come around to check on the learners — a service that nearby residents also benefit from. “We have a partnership with the local private doctors, who also come to assist us and make referrals if there are issues they cannot handle on site,” says Ralebese. Other partners include the local clinic, which prioritises learners, and the police, whose programmes focus on discouraging learners from abusing drugs and alcohol and engaging in anti-social behaviours. These partnerships help to strengthen the running of the school.
Caring for learners
Ralebese says she regularly assesses the living conditions of the people living around the school, particularly those of the learners at her school. “We are constantly monitoring our learners and the challenges they face at home, because we want them to be happy,” says Ralebese. She is passionate about the wellbeing of both the community and the learners: “We are shaping the lives of these children; it is therefore important to exercise care in terms of how we treat them.”
“The teachers at Toka Primary are as involved as I am,” says Ralebese. “The thing about running a school is that you cannot do it without the involvement and support of your teachers.”
She says she has learned to identify the strengths and weaknesses of her staff. “If you do not interact closely with your team and their families, there are many things that you will miss, until something big happens.”
Ralebese says the support she receives comes not only come from the staff, but also from a forum of principals in Mangaung, which she chairs. “We come together to share experiences, challenges and best practices. This support keeps me going and gives me courage to continue striving to change the lives of my learners.”