Maya Jagjivan Kalicharan pays a visit to the wonderful Browns School.
To laugh freely is one of the greatest joys. The laughter of children greets me as I enter The Browns School in Pinetown. I know I’m in for a special visit. This is not because the school caters for children with special needs, but more so, I feel the warmth and love echoing through their laughter.
Principal Brenda Hattingh beams with pride as we sit down for a chat after the morning assembly. “A group of our learners swam the Midmar Mile. I spoke about how people with disabilities do swim … Don’t judge people by what they look like, rather look at what they can do and the positives,” she says.
It’s a message for society too – to see each child positively. Brenda explains, “When your child is different from the next-door neighbour’s child, you have to first accept it, and then realise it’s not the end of the road. There are things your child is going to be able to do. And that whole process is something we help parents through.”
It began in the 1950s when a lady raised funds to start a holiday home for children with cerebral palsy. When questioned by the media, she chose to remain anonymous and said, “Just call me Mrs Brown.” Her legacy continues today, with the school providing holistic development to nearly 400 special needs children, from three to 18 years old. They hail from various areas, including Amanzimtoti, Chatsworth, the CBD, Durban North, Phoenix and Hillcrest. The children face different challenges – learning disabilities, being on the autistic spectrum, or living with cerebral palsy.
Classes are small, between seven to 15 per class. The school follows the CAPS curriculum and once the remedial group of learners complete Grade 7, they enter mainstream schools. Brenda says they track the progress of learners, and several have completed matric. “Some have taken longer than the conventional fi ve years, but they have an academic matric, which is awesome.”
Autistic learners are at school until the age of 18 and they are equipped with life skills so they can become a meaningful part of society. “All our parents have that fear – they are not going to live forever, what’s going to happen to their disabled child? Every year, we try something new. Cooking is one of them, and we are trying gardening. We’ve got beauty skills too,” she explains.
The Browns School has physiotherapists, occupational therapists, a speech therapist, a psychologist and nurses. This is in addition to the 41 teachers – many of whom have been at the school for over 20 years.
Fundraiser Lyn de Klerk says the school has weathered Covid-19, the riots and the devastating floods. “The school is state-funded, but this does not cover salaries for all teachers, and there are many activities for which we fundraise,” she explains.
Only about 50 percent of parents can afford to pay school fees. Brenda emphasises, “We have never, and will never, turn a child away that cannot pay school fees.”
This year, the school needs at least R2-million rand in cash to continue running the way it has.
A tour of the school allows me to see why. It’s well-maintained and spacious, with specialised facilities and a multi-media library – the ideal environment for children to flourish.
I sit in on a lesson with Carol Levy, departmental head of the foundation phase. The learners’ eyes light up as they touch, feel and understand more about groceries. Carol, who has been at the school for 20 years, smiles as she explains, “It’s rewarding watching a child who couldn’t read or couldn’t write, who was battling with themselves, become the best they can be.”