The story goes like this. Some gangsters were bothering Principal Henry Alexander’s learners and he told them to stop. One of the gangsters felt disrespected and put out a hit on him. Now, the thing about Principal Alexander is that he is the stereotypical tough guy. He does not smile a lot, he will punch back hard if you throw a punch at him, and his nickname is, ‘The Bull’. When he heard about the hit, instead of going into hiding, he got up one morning, put on his suit, went to the gangster’s house, opened the door, went to the bedroom where the gangster was asleep, sat himself down on a chair, and waited. When the gangster woke up, he found the principal hovering over him, warning him that if he bothers the learners again, bad things will happen to him. The rest, as they say, is history.
In addition to being fearless, Principal Alexander is also known for his lack of tolerance for people who feel sorry themselves. This is because of where he comes from and the struggles he had to endure. Born and raised in the small town of Calvinia, his father died when he was nine, leaving his mother to raise him and his 8 siblings. To make ends meet, the young Henry had to work on construction sites during the weekends and school holidays. He knows what it feels like to go to bed hungry but even on an empty stomach, he continued to work hard at school, even saving up for university where he could. At the time, he had decided that he would not be poor for the rest of his life and this came down to the way his mother raised him. Despite being a single mother who struggled to put food on the table, she taught little Henry the value of being disciplined and always encouraged him to aspire for greatness. She continuously stressed the importance of education and it is these values that he carries with him to this very day.
After matric, he started working fulltime because he did not have enough money to study. He built up enough savings and eventually enrolled at the University of the Western Cape for a BA degree in teaching. He still did not have enough money to study full-time, so he enrolled part-time and worked as a full-time administrative clerk at Tygerberg hospital. In 1976 he began teaching at Elsies River High School, he joined Bernadino Heights in 1989 and in 1993, he was appointed its principal. During his time at Elsies River High, he completed both his honours and masters degrees.
When he became principal of Bernadino Heights High School, the school was badly damaged, its windows were all smashed in, the kids were out of control, most of them were failing, and the gangsters were constantly threatening the kids. By the time he retired last year in 2017, the school had a state of the art sports facility, bullet resistant fencing, high tech classrooms, computer labs, solar powered electricity, a science learning centre, multiple awards and a 99% pass rate. Almost all of his matriculants qualified for tertiary studies and the school consistently dominated in the A Division of the Cape Town schools athletics. His learners are especially well known for their disciplined and respectful behaviour. But how did he do it?
Principal Alexander had always acted with a lack of concern for his own safety, so one of the first things that he did as principal was chase away the gangsters. Whenever they entered the school grounds, he would ask the teachers and the kids to lock all the doors, made sure that everyone was safe inside, and then he’d go after the gangsters by himself. It meant a lot to the kids that he was willing to put his life on the line for them and after he managed to control the movements of the gangsters, he began to work on the kids. It was not easy but he gradually managed to push up the pass rate and within a few years’ time, the school had a consistent pass rate of above 90%.
He taught the kids that they should have pride in themselves, and if they have that pride, anything is possible. He believes that South Africa is full of possibilities and you can be whatever you want to be but you have to be prepared to work hard. He tells learners that learning by candlelight should not be used as an excuse for failing, because that is what he had to do. If he had felt sorry for himself for learning by candlelight and used poverty as an excuse, he would not be where he is today.
Principal Alexander also believes that as a leader, you have to be an example if you expect others to also work hard. If you want the staff and learners to be at school at five to eight, then you as the leader must be at the school at half past seven. You must set the standard and others will follow.
When he is not trying to save the world, Principal Alexander likes to watch sports, listen to music, read, and spend time with his grandkids. Given his own appreciation of education, it is no wonder that all of his kids are highly educated and successful.
He says that when he retired, he joked with the current principal, Deon Wertheim, that if the school’s standards are not maintained, he will come to the school and kick everyone in the behind. Principal Wertheim seemed to have taken him seriously, because the school continues to produce a 99% pass rate.
Henry Alexander is a tough guy. He does not smile a lot, he is strict, and some may say that he is a bit harsh, but do not judge a book by its cover. Everything he has done was out of love for his family, learners and his community. He doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk, and that is how Principal Henry Alexander got a 99% pass rate.
Source(s): Bernadino Heights High School Newspaper (Michaylah Hendricks and Nicole Rhode), www.iol.co.za (Liam Moses)