The face of the Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills in Rocklands, principal Graham Cupido, is taking leave of the school after 10 years of leading and teaching there.
Mr Cupido, 56, from Brackenfell, who has taught in Mitchell’s Plain for more than three decades, said it is with a sad heart that he leaves behind generations of people who have come and gone at the school, as well as staff members he has worked with over the years.
The Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills premises used to be Weltevreden Primary School before it was converted to a school of skills in 2007.
Mr Cupido started teaching at Cedar High School in 1987 and stayed there for nine years. He then started teaching at Weltevreden Primary School, becoming principal of the school in 1997.
In 2003 certain primary schools in the Rocklands area were identified as schools that were being underutilised because of progressive, annual shrinking of pupil numbers. Weltevreden Primary was one of these schools.
The then Eucation Management and Development Centre (EMDC) had discussions with those schools and the possibility of amalgamating (and thereby closing) some of them was investigated. The vacant buildings would then have been used for either Adult Education and Training (ABET) centres or schools of skills.
Between 2003 and 2005 many discussions between the EMDC and the school took place. After much deliberation, the staff and school governing body of Weltevreden Primary requested that the Western Cape Education Department convert the school into a School of Skills as the enrolment was shrinking annually, the school ran the risk of being closed down and teachers were at risk of being declared in excess. The school had capacity for 700 pupils and started in 1997 with 629 pupils – a figure that shrunk to 270 in 2007.
Up until the opening of the Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills in 2007, Batavia School of Skills in Claremont had been turning away more than 200 Mitchell’s Plain pupils every year because of large numbers of applications.
“Everyone was frustrated about this problem. The pupils that did not get accepted would drop out of school,” Mr Cupido said.
For a while, before its pupils were enrolled at nearby schools, Weltevreden Primary School and the Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills operated on the same premises, with the school of skills starting with 80 pupils and six teachers. They started in two ordinary classrooms, doing welding and food studies.
Today, the school has over 600 pupils and the school has seven different workshops, where they teach motor mechanics, welding, food studies, hairdressing, clothing production, office admin and life care. There are 11 artisans teachings these classes to the pupils.
This year the Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills will be celebrating its 11th anniversary.
“Over the years we haven’t changed Mitchell’s Plain but we have impacted it, especially the area for pupils with learning disabilities. The success for us so far is the number of pupils we have placed in the job market,” said Mr Cupido.
The school has partnered with the Cape Town International Convention Centre, The Vineyard Hotel, Yogurt restaurant, the local salons in the area, Jeep Somerset West and motor mechanic workshops to create job opportunities for pupils.
“A special needs school is different to that of a mainstream school. The pupil arrives at 14 years old and leaves at 18. The school is an intervention for them, which means academic performance is not the main focus; being hands-on is. If you’re a parent and your child has a learning disability, you’re going to do something about his future and how your child can make it through society without feeling left out. That to us is a success,” said Mr Cupido.
“We’ve managed to keep our kids away from drug lords and many bad things in their community. We have empowered them with a skill, we’ve changed their lives so that they do not need to turn to the streets and become drug peddlers when they cannot understand their disability on their own,” said Mr Cupido.
Mr Cupido chose to take the school of skills route in his teaching career because his father, Louis Cupido, 84, from Strandfontein, has a learning disability. His father worked as a Golden Arrow bus driver and a diesel mechanic. He retired after 40 years.
Mr Cupido recalled how his father would communicate with him and his siblings, Johan, 48, Paul, 51, his late sister Deborah Cupido, by drawing a clock with their faces next to it to remind him when it was time for an activity.
“My Dad fixed his own car in order for us to go to school every day. He had no university degree or matric; he only had the skill. If that was possible for my dad, then it is definitely possible for these kids,” said Mr Cupido.
From the start of the new term, Mr Cupido will be teaching at Wellington School of Skills, which started out as a youth care centre. Three years ago the Department of Education closed the youth care centre in Eureka and transformed it into a school of skills. The school is two years old this year.
“The context is different this time around. I have an interest to teach and lead the pupils in the rural areas with learning disabilities,” said Mr Cupido.
“It’s more about how I can serve these kids when I get there. I have a passion for pupils with learning disabilities and it is a great experience working with them, engaging with them and teaching them things every day. To know that we can make a change in their lives, that is more rewarding than money,” said Mr Cupido.
He encourages parents not to lose hope if their child has a learning disability but to act as soon as they can. “Children will act out because they don’t understand what is happening to them,” said Mr Cupido.
There are few schools for pupils with learning disabilities, said Mr Cupido. “We focus too much on mainstream schools and matric that we forget about those who are good with physically creating things,” said Mr Cupido.
Natasha Meyer, the current deputy principal at Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills, will take over from Mr Cupido.
“I am very sad that I will be leaving. It is very important to know when your season is over in your career. The school is on a high and has been successful in every area. The next chapter I am about to enter will come with its own challenges, and I can’t wait to get there.
“The experience that I have gained here I will use as a tool at Wellington,” said Mr Cupido.
Isaac Hermanus, 71, from Woodlands, who has served as chairperson of Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills school governing body from 2007 to 2016, said Mr Cupido is leaving the school well equipped, well trained and in good hands. “For all the challenges ahead, I wish him well because he can do it,” said Mr Hermanus.
Mercia Nel, 59, from Lentegeur, a language teacher at the Mitchell’s Plain School of Skills, has taught at the school since it first opened its doors.
“Mr Cupido has been my mentor for all these years. I love what he does, he has a great heart. I won’t be able to come to school in the morning without thinking he will be there. I will also be leaving when I turn 60 this year. We will really miss him,” said Ms Nel.
Selina Bernhardt, 37, from Portland, who teaches hairdressing, started teaching at the school in 2009.”
“Mr Cupido always taught me to push for more and want more. If it wasn’t for him I would not have been as qualified as I am today. He has coached my colleagues and I well. He has prepared us well for whatever happens and I think seeing him leave this term will be the hardest thing for all of us,” said Ms Bernhardt.