Arts school principal bids adieu

David Charles, 62, principal of Cedar High School of the Arts, in Rocklands, retires.

Retiring Cedar High School principal says goodbye to his colleagues, pupils and their parents.

David Charles, 62, principal of Cedar High School of the Arts, said in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic it would be reckless to host a final assembly or any gathering.

In a letter to colleagues, pupils and their parents, he assured readers of his sincere and heartfelt goodbye: “Sala kakuhle en totsiens aan almal”.

“It was indeed an honour and privilege to serve you.

“Thank you. Enkosi en baie dankie,” read his letter.

Mr Charles stepped out of a career in education after 40 years, 23 of which were at the Rocklands school, on Monday May 17.

“Cedar High School has been a great part of my life. My family and I will continue to keep you in prayers. May God protect and keep you safe,” he said.

Mr Charles comes from a family of teachers – aunts, uncles and parents. His mother was a teacher and his father principal.

When he was in Grade 5, his family relocated to Abbottsdale close to Malmesbury, where he continued his schooling. His mother tongue is Afrikaans.

He first taught at Parkview Primary School, in Atlantis, in 1981. A year later he moved to Scottsdene Secondary School and started teaching at what was then called Cedar Junior Secondary School, in Rocklands, in 1983.

Mr Charles taught biology and natural sciences at Cedar High School, from 1987 and became head of the department, the following year. He was deputy principal from 1992 until 1998, when he became principal. It became a focus school of the arts, including dance, music, visual arts, drama and design, in 2006.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” he said.

Mr Charles said children were the same no matter where he taught. “They need structures in their lives. They need discipline.”

He said a highlight during his tenure at the Rocklands school was when it became an arts-focus school.

“I have no art background. I don’t play an instrument. I can’t draw or paint but I have a love for the arts,” he said.

Before 1993 the school had art as a subject during the rationalisation of teachers and had between 1999 and 2005 forged a relationship with the Peter Clarke Art Centre, formerly known as the Frank Joubert Art Centre, a co-educational government art school, in Claremont. This relationship is still ongoing.

Weekly pupils would go for classes at the Claremont centre.

“They trained our kids in 2005 and in 2005 the education department gave schools the option of becoming focus schools,” he said.

“We applied to become an arts-focus school and we had immediate buy-in from our teachers,” he said.

Mr Charles said Mitchell’s Plain was blessed with great artists, who needed a platform where their skills could be developed and capacity could be built within the community.

Today the school has Master’s, Honours graduates and students in music, design, visual, dramatic arts and dance studies at the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town and affiliations with the Afrikaans Language and Culture Association, or in Afrikaans: Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV), who host annual talent searches.

“A number of design pupils went on to study design at CPUT (Cape Peninsula University of Technology) and (UCT) University of Cape Town.

“Some artists are in the community playing music and are members in bands,” he said.

Mr Charles said the expertise, mentorship and support from drama professionals like Peter Braaf, Farouk Valley-Omar and Pieter Coetzee were instrumental in the arts-focus school’s establishment.

In 2006 he travelled to Sweden to see how art schools operate and he garnered a partnership, which saw four to six pupils go overseas every second year.

They also participated in the International Choir Festival, in Sweden.

Mr Charles enjoys travelling and was able to return with his wife Sonia in 2018. They have been to Spain, France, Finland and South Korea.

Besides international tours he also took pupils to the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK), in Oudtshoorn; the National Arts Festival, in Grahamstown; and Aardklop National Arts Festival, in Potchefstroom.

The pupils performed Kanna hy kô Hystoe (“Kanna’s Coming Home”), a verse play by Adam Small, under the direction of Mr Braaf at the Potchefstroom festival.

“It is an experience to be with those kids. They are so well behaved.

“You put down the ground rules and they behave. You become their mother and father when on a trip like that,” he said.

Mr Charles said they also exposed the children to local arts centres like the Baxter, in Rondebosch, and Michaelis School of Fine Art, in Cape Town.

Pupils’ works are on display at the University of the Western Cape as well as at Hotel Verde Cape Town Airport.

“It is a pleasure to do it. Such a rewarding job. If you can see the change in the lives of kids.

“You don’t get immediate gratification but when they come back to the school as well-rounded adults, it is heart-warming to think you were part of that,” he said.

With Mr Charles at the helm, the school is also known for its activism in raising awareness about women and child abuse with a march in the area in June 2017; and handing a memorandum to the Western Cape Education Department highlighting issues of violence, bullying and drugs months later (“‘Violence should not be a norm’”, Plainsman, October 25, 2017).

Mr Charles also thanked Petra Life Church for allowing the school to use their premises, when it did not have a school hall for valedictories and parent meetings.

He said God had blessed him with an excellent staff complement, with various community workers crossing his path, including non-government organisations, neighbourhood watch and church groups in particular the YMCA and Issachar Ministries, led by ex-students Kurt Oliver and Wyard Fabe.

“They took our troubled students with discipline challenges to a horse farm, where they could learn certain skills to assist them develop into well-rounded citizens,” he said.

As a teacher he was present at the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in August 1983 and about 28 years later, Cedar pupils were part of the design team of the UDF memorial, outside the Rocklands civic centre, which was unveiled in 2011.

Mr Charles said he was grateful to the many people who crossed his path, including a group of women from the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), who would come to pray at the school every Monday morning.

He said the school was indeed blessed with no incidents of vandalism with the support of its neighbours and neighbourhood watch member Cedric Daniels and his family.

Another significant milestone was a visit in 2019 by award-winning actor Forest Steven Whitaker, who launched his foundation, in an effort to establish peace and to commit agents of change within the local community of Mitchell’s Plain.

“I am leaving behind a legacy that we as teachers serve the community of Mitchell’s Plain with pride.

“I am looking forward to retirement and to see how the school blossoms under new leadership; and I wish them everything of the very best for the future,” he said.

Mr Charles said he would like to get used to being bored at home.

“Have a good rest and see how the pandemic pans out,” he said.

He will wave his wife goodbye, in the mornings, who will continue teaching at a school in Khayelitsha while enjoying his retirement.

Mr Charles said he was grateful for the support of his wife and their son Zach.

A number of schools have contacted him for assistance in management and administration and as a mentor.