The idea of starting a Christian school was birthed in various conversations over many years between friends who were in teaching and church work together. It became serious probably for the first time in a conversation early in 1996 between David Klein and Gordon Anderson. It was the former who commented at the time that as most of those who had floated the idea at some time or another were progressing in their individual careers to mostly Deputy and Head positions in schools, and as none of them were getting any younger, it was time to either take the idea seriously or drop it. The upshot was that an informal group was formed to begin assessing seriously the viability of such a project and continued to do so until the end of 1997. The people meeting initially were Gordon Anderson, Grant Caw, Timothy Irving and David Klein (Chair).
Busy people with busy schedules constituted the group and so meetings were held, and continued to be so for 2 years, on Sunday evenings after church services had taken place, in the Anderson home.
Church support for the project was sought from the start as the committee wanted the school, to be a Christian school, to have the support of the local Christian community. Presentations for such support were made in 1996 to the Rosebank Union Church Council, then the Rosebank Union Church AGM, to the Bryanston Bible Chapel and Ferndale Chapel leaderships. Full support was given for the project in each case and the committee expanded to include Denzil Busse and Tony Gebhardt, both from Rosebank Union Church, and Derek Irish from Ferndale Chapel.
Planning progressed well and effectively, to the point that in 1997, by April the proposed school had been specced and the financial scenario worked out, by May a site had been chosen from various options and an architect commissioned for sketch drawings. The site at that stage was in Waterford Estate, the attraction being the possibility of purchasing an already existing pre-primary school and adjacent land. However, the financial demands were already beginning to raise concern and so we contemplated the possible cheaper purchase of State land zoned for education (along Belairs Drive) or a joint venture with the State. So in June we were cheeky enough to request and be granted a meeting with Mrs Mary Metcalfe and subsequently Mr James Maseko, both of the Gauteng Department of Education (the latter the Director General for Education in Gauteng). We bravely sent Tony Gebhardt and Derek Irish to meet Mrs Mary Metcalfe and on her advice wrote to Mr James Maseko, MEC for Education. The initiative proved disappointing and led nowhere.
One of the more significant meetings to be held at the time was an early morning prayer meeting on the intended Waterford site. Looking back, Rev Ellis Andr? of the Rosebank Union Church, wrote of the occasion that he had stood in the veld with the then team at a prayer meeting one Saturday morning. He had seen the veld but they had seen a school.
The time came to proceed with the purchase of the land and commissioning of the architect for detailed plans. It was at that point that finance reared its ugly head fully and the disappointing decision was ultimately made in November 1997 to shelve the project because of the anticipated financial strain. Progress had been made on the possibility of securing institutional finance and on raising the concomitant equity, but the committee realised that, though the first phase was well within reach and entirely feasible, the entire project would not be easily accomplished in financial terms. Wisdom required caution and unfortunately the project went dormant.
It stayed that way, but in thought and prayer, for some two years and then came to light in an unexpected way.
It was public knowledge in the middle portion of 2000 that the property of the Woodmead School, then defunct, was for sale. There had been various newspaper articles relating to proposed buyers and there was talk of at least one significant Christian organization operating in schools being interested. Grant Caw saw a classified advertisement in The Star on Saturday 24 June 2000 and in the same week David Klein was phoned out of the blue by a friend suggesting the property could be of interest to the previous school committee. The upshot was that Grant and Lesley Caw visited the property first on 25 June 2000, then took along Timothy Irving, David Klein and David Tomlinson to view it within the week, 27 June to be precise. They met on site with Bob Glenister, Chairman of the Woodmead Educational Trust. There was pressure to decide quickly on the viability of the site and the possibility of reviving the project because the Trust had scheduled to accept offers only to the end of that particular month and already had some.
The potential of the Woodmead grounds and buildings was immediately apparent. The possibility of reviving the dormant project was suddenly very real, but the financial implications were still significantly worrying. Added to this concern was the timeframe within which decisions had to be made. It did not seem a likely possibility. The situation was compounded by David Klein managing a South African Waterski Team to the European Championships in Czech Republic for the next two weeks of that month. His parting comment to the others as they left Woodmead School that day was that it would be wonderful to buy the school and, jokingly, he told them to phone him in Czech with the news that they would buy the school. That phone call was made to him by David Tomlinson on the next Sunday evening, to the effect that David had secured a loan from a personal friend and business associate for the necessary finance and was ready to submit an offer. He, his wife Elspeth, Grant and Lesley Caw would constitute the major shareholders and others would be gathered around them. He committed himself in that phone call to the required finances, asking for the other David to commit himself to the educational aspects. That was immediately forthcoming, from a distance, and so David Tomlinson was able to write later of that conversation on 30 June 2000:
There was a handshake agreement between myself and David Klein: ‘We’ll make the property happen if you make the school happen.’
The project was back on track, assuming a successful bid. Previously it had been the finances which had caused the demise of the project, this time the finances were in place before the educators of the previous committee had even settled in their minds they wanted to get back into planning a school!
Negotiations concluded with the sale of the property to the Tomlinsons and Caws, on behalf of the school team, with occupation of the property taking place in September 2000. Excitement there certainly was; also trepidation at what was now a serious commitment. There was much prayer, in gratitude particularly. Other bids had received serious consideration and some certainly must have seemed to have had more favourable elements than ours, but for the fact that we were committed to running an educational institution on the site again. From a Woodmead perspective that was probably a factor, from ours the motivating factor was that God had done a work and answered prayers. In due course we were to discover the degree to which he had supplied even beyond our prayers!
However, it was not all rosy! Grant Caw comments aptly:
If you had seen the property then you would have thought us totally mad (and perhaps we were!) There were half the existing High School buildings which were all seriously vandalised, Five broken down classes, which today are part of the Pre-Prep block, with no doors or windows and most of the Retreat buildings, but in a terrible state. The property itself was in ruins with no paving, no gardens, dead trees everywhere, burnt veld grass, no water, no paving or roads. A barbed wire fence with huge holes in it was the only boundary and vagrants were living rent free. The College staff room was half a meter under sand from being flooded so often. A bridge over the river had been washed away in recent floods. Our friends and family could be forgiven for not showing any immediate enthusiasm!
The goodness of the Lord and his deliberate leading in all of this must be emphasized. The speed with which the project was reactivated and the immediate alacrity with which people returned to it was evidence. The purchase itself was dramatic: for less than had been required for the undeveloped eight hectares of ground previously, thirty-six hectares were now purchased, including buildings and other improvements! In addition, Grant Caw’s dream and prayer of the years to run a Christian campsite was also realised in the opportunity offered by the previous boarding dormitories, the Retreat opening for the first group at the end of October 2000. Cottages on the property, once renovated, provided an income stream from the second month onwards.
Quite simply, God’s providence provided more than had ever been hoped or even prayed for! As the renovation of the property commenced, Grant Caw had a constant smile on his face in those days as he uncovered, literally, more and more – paving hidden by the undergrowth, for instance. A Cecil Skotnes wood carving was discovered in the mess of the stuff in the auditorium and, nearly thrown into a fire, sold well at just the right time to provide R16 000 for a water pump.
Fortunately a lot of the school planning had been done in the previous instance and so the business of school was set going again quickly.
A most significant meeting took place on site on Saturday 10 September 2000. With the purchase successful, the project well and truly underway, the most important decision to be made related to the starting date of the new school. January 2001 was obviously problematic but so was leaving it all for more than a year. It was decided to invite a renowned and well-respected educator, Tom Bourquin, to advise on the matter. He did so at that Saturday meeting, making the telling observation that the committee would probably never feel ready for the start whenever it happened, that to start within a year rather than immediately would not necessarily provide a better base, that much planning had been done anyway, and that it would be better to start sooner than later. The decision was made on the day to heed the advice and to start the Pre-Preparatory in January 2001. That clearly placed an enormous time pressure on the committee. It was decided to approach Glynis Courtney, founder and Head of Land of Oz, a most successful pre-primary school in Fourways, to consider starting a second school on the new site. She agreed and so, in effect, the immediate pressures for pre-primary education became hers.
There was no name for the new school yet. ‘HeronBridge’ was suggested in due course by Lesley Caw on her seeing a heron at the river below the road bridge.
The committee now responsible for making it all happen comprised Grant and Lesley Caw, Glynis Courtney, Timothy and Maureen Irving, David and Margie Klein, Alison and Peter Scott, David and Elspeth Tomlinson.
A series of promotional meetings was undertaken in various places and churches to make known the new school. The first was held at Pecanwood Country Club in March 2001. A good crowd was anticipated because it was thought the area would support what would be then its closest independent school. The turnout was abysmal. Only about thirty people responded. The HeronBridge people virtually outnumbered the guests and the meeting was hardly inspiring to anyone! There had been a problem with the postal service in the time leading up to the meeting and many invitations had not been delivered. The message back into HeronBridge was clear though: this was not going to be easy and reliance on the Lord’s leading would be essential. Much prayer followed!
A more encouraging meeting was held at much the same time for the parents of Land of Oz. Those who attended (more than at Pecanwood!) sat on the tiny children’s chairs to hear of a new schooling opportunity for their young children. Out of that meeting came the first enrolment – little Megan Rigby. She would be honoured for this in time to come by being asked to open the new Grade R block when that was built for 2004.
HeronBridge Pre-Preparatory School opened with twenty one pupils, three teachers and one Administor on 6 January 2000. It was a day of excitement for all concerned, made possible only by the enormous amount of work by Glynis Courtney and her teachers, Grant Caw and his Estate team who had renovated a badly vandalised building. The target enrolment for the year was pitched at 50. Interestingly, the enrolment grew to forty nine by September and frustratingly stayed there until October before it broke the fifty barrier! The message to the steering committee in all this was that prayer was going to be necessary and foundational to the success of the new College.
Renovations continued through 2001, preparing the facilities for an influx of pupils the next year. Marketing also received due emphasis and a number of promotional meetings were arranged.
Most significantly, Timothy Irving was appointed to the Head’s position and he took up his post in a full-time capacity on 1 July 2001. He was joined by Helen Cock at the same time to assist him with the administrative and marketing demands.
Attention was clearly focused on preparing for the new year, with all that entailed. It was necessary to attend to marketing, enrolments, staffing, developing educational policies, finances and renovation of the grounds and buildings.
January 2001 saw the doors open wide to an enrolment from Grade R through to Grade 6, and Grade 8. Helen Braithwaite had been appointed to a Deputy position and Acting Head of the College to oversee the High School. She would maintain this position until mid-2004, when David Klein joined the staff full time as College Head.
The pioneer staff over the first two years were:
Timothy Irving (Head)
Glynis Courtney (Pre-Preparatory Head)
Helen Braithwaite (Acting Head, College)
Natalie Carey (Pre-Preparatory)
Lyn Clifton (Pre-Preparatory)
Bronwyn Geldenhuis (Pre-Preparatory)
Lee Hardy (Pre-Preparatory)
Salome Higgins (Pre-Preparatory)
Lee Anne Maddern (Pre-Preparatory)
Hayley Pearce (Pre-Preparatory)
Yvette Wilson (Pre-Preparatory)
Colette Beynon (Preparatory Teacher)
Linda Kotze (Preparatory Teacher)
Lilla Macnab (Preparatory Teacher)
Hazel Neunborn (Preparatory Teacher)
Linda Seymour (Preparatory teacher)
Les van Eck (Preparatory Teacher)
Pippa Copeland (College teacher)
Derek Lotz (College teacher))
Janet Seath (College teacher)
Helen Balabanoff (Marketing)
Florence Buthelezi (Administration)
Janine Caw (Administration)
Helen Cock (Administration)
Ronel Loggie (Administration)
Cherie Mogg (Administration)
In that first year the total enrolment began at 187, rising to 230 by year end.
From such a beginning has come the significant College we know today and that celebrates a decade of growth. Important milestones along the way have been:
- the official opening of the College on 21 October 2002;
- the building and subsequent opening of the Grade R block in 2004;
- the building of College classrooms for use from 2007;
- the purchase of ground across the road in 2002 and the subsequent development of the HeronBridge Sports Complex, opened for use in 2006 and expanded in 2009;
- the graduation of the first Grade 12 group in 2006;
- the development of an independent church, HeronBridge Community Church, from 2006;
- the appointment of a Chaplain, the first being Ingo van der Merwe in 2007;
- the development of AfroMission as a deliberate policy, formally from 2009;
- the building of a completely new Preparatory school, in two phases during the period 2007 – 2010;
- the joint partnership establishing the HeronBridge Training and Resource Centre, with HeronBridge Community Church and WITS, in 2010;
- the establishment of Moms in Touch in 2001, the PTA in 2003 and the PCF in 2005;
- membership of ISASA in 2001 and ACSI in 2006;
- the building of a completely new Baobab Auditorium, during 2012, and officially opened at the end of 2012.
A Directorate was established by the shareholders in 2004, serving to the present: David Tomlinson (Chair)
What should we make of all this? It is clearly possible for people to get together and start schools. We are not special in that regard at all, being neither the first nor the last to do so. There are some schools bigger than ours and others more advanced than ours. There are schools older than ours. But we do believe HeronBridge is special and has a unique niche in education.
We believe the College is special because it has been favoured in an unmistakable way by God, who is gracious. Throughout it has been the intention to honour God in all we have done and to serve the community in both educational and spiritual terms.
We trust we have laid the foundation of an outstanding school and for that we pay tribute to all teachers who have served on staff in all three schools in all the years. We have attracted the best over the years. We boast easily of the quality and commitment of our staff.
We have been true to our vision of establishing a Christian school. We have multiple testimonies of people whose lives have been influenced for God in the staff, pupil and parent bodies. For this we take no credit; we are simply thankful for the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of all associated with the College and Retreat.
In the final analysis, we believe HeronBridge has been a work of God. We are all grateful to have been caught up in it and so to him be the honour. May HeronBridge College go from strength to strength under his continued gracious hand.