When she became principal of Heatherdale Secondary in 2008, Verna Jeremiah set herself a target of achieving a 100% pass rate. This year, that target became a reality, propelling Principal Jeremiah into the League of Extraordinary Principals.
Principal Jeremiah’s dedication has always seen her school maintain a pass rate of above 90%, continually improving as the years passed. For the matric year of 2017, the Free State school achieved a pass rate of 98% and then improved to 99% in 2018. The road to success has proven difficult, especially given the difficult socio-economic situations of her learners. These are circumstances that she is more than familiar with.
Principal Jeremiah was born in Heidedal, the community in which the school is situated. She started working at Heatherdale the day it officially opened back in 1987. Her commitment to the school came to fruition 21 years later, when she was appointed its principal.
Her biggest challenge as principal was getting the kids to believe in themselves. They generally come from very poor areas with many of them raised by their grandmas and some living alone, fending for themselves. They also arrive at the school with huge learning deficiencies, many of whom do not grasp concepts past a 4th grade level. However, Principal Jeremiah believes that for every problem, there is a solution.
In order to tackle these problems from all sides, the principal implemented a multitude of solutions which has produced the results we see today. The first thing she does is have motivational days. She goes around to all the classes, asks the kids how they are doing, if they have any problems and encourages them to do their best. Of course, building someone’s confidence is hard when that person is hungry, so she makes sure that soup kitchen runs on a daily basis. The kids get to have something in their stomach which allows them to concentrate in class. She also partners with various organisations to make sure that the kids have clothing items so that they do not have to come to school with torn shoes or shirts that are falling apart. Having put food in their bellies and a sense of self-belief in their minds, she then tackles the academic aspects.
Given the learning deficiencies, the teachers first make sure that the kids know the basics, eventually advancing their understanding to an eight grade level. The school also has after-school classes as well as weekend classes. They are given extra lessons in subjects such as mathematics and physics, and they are taught various study methods. Principal Jeremiah says that from day one, they start preparing the kids for matric by making them think like matriculants. She also enforces a strict culture of discipline. She says that both the kids and teachers must know that they start at a certain time and they must not be hanging around the hallways. The teachers must know that they are there to teach and the kids must know that they are there to learn. “Everything can only take place if we all strive toward the same goal and this is really to make the school a place where children can learn,” says Principal Jeremiah.
Although her primary task is to get the kids to pass, she believes that she also has a responsibility to encourage them to attend a tertiary institution. She feels that education is the best way to make sure that the kids are able to take care of themselves. The class of 2019 is testament to this commitment, with 97% of her kids getting either a bachelor or diploma pass. This means that 97% of her kids are eligible to study at either a university or university of technology.
Principal Jeremiah’s colleagues says that she is very strict but only because she believes that everyone should take ownership of the school. Her kids describe as someone that will fight for them to get the best education and as someone who will sacrifice for them. They are aware of how the principal and teachers have to sacrifice their time with their families during weekend classes and they are grateful.
Principal Jeremiah says that the biggest reason for the school’s success is the teachers who have bought into her vision of a school of excellence. She is also grateful for their sacrifices and says that she could not get the results she wanted without the great team of teachers behind her. She believes that you will get out what you put in, and the teachers have certainly put in a lot.
Every great principal has to sometimes relax, and Verna Jeremiah’s idea of relaxation is cooking for the whole family. Her husband, Brend, has been her rock throughout the years, always listening attentively when she needs to vent. Given that she had to sacrifice a lot of weekend time with them, she is also grateful for the support and understanding of her three kids, Monique, Laurent and Roshaan. They are most certainly aware of how important her work is and how this will lift thousands of young people out of poverty.
In a country like South Africa, being a high school teacher and a principal is not easy. We are still a nation where poverty is a problem and we have generation of high school kids who has not been taught the basics. In this environment, teaching such a kid might seem impossible, except that Principal Jeremiah shows us that it isn’t. You see, when you are a kid, living in poverty, alone and fending for yourself, it is hard to believe that there is better world out there for you. And then comes along Verna Jeremiah and she makes you believe, and then you pass.
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