While many of us were simply trying to keep our heads above water during the COVID-19 lockdown, two ambitious women were bringing a much more elaborate challenge to completion: launching a school.
THE FIRST FOOTSTEPS
Emma Kendall and Bryony Platt both spent many years teaching in Leeds, England, before moving to the Cayman Islands in 2013 and 2008, respectively.
They originally brought Footsteps into being in 2014 as a one-to-one private tutoring centre.
“Very quickly, the demand grew so we took on more tutors, and from that grew more demand for more services,” says Kendall. “It was a spiral of growth and it seemed to happen very quickly.”
The tutoring centre catered to a broad variety of students, from those requiring homework assistance to children with significant learning needs; children who need a boost in a particular subject to children who are homeschooled and want something a bit different for a couple of hours a week; and children who are gifted and relish a challenge.
As demand for Footsteps’ services kept increasing, the women decided to take the next step in growing from a tutoring centre to a full school for children aged four to 11.
“We had a number of children whom we were providing education for that really had no alternative option: If we didn’t become a full school then those children would’ve been without a suitable place to go to school,” says Kendall.
“Those children and their families were the driving force for us.”
Originally slated to open in September 2019, but plagued with building delays, the school was given special approval to open in a temporary location on the assurance that the new building would be ready by September 2020. Then the pandemic hit.
“COVID had some quite devastating impacts on our development, particularly financial impact,” says Platt. “We lost one-third of our student population due to job losses at the start of lockdown.
“It was a very difficult period for us to navigate, particularly as costs were at an all-time high trying to get the new school building ready. We are still playing catch-up now but, like all small businesses, we’re just working as hard as we can to try and regain a little of what we’ve lost and we’re
Even without a pandemic, opening a school comes with many challenges.
“There is a huge process involved in opening a school and we have had to work very closely with
both the Department of Education Services and the Department of Planning to try and meet the requirements for each of these,” says Kendall, who found the building process the most challenging as it was out of their hands.
“We are not afraid of hard work and we relish a challenge but the frustration has come when we have not been able to control the timeline…,” she says. “The calming mantra, ‘I cannot control the things I cannot control’ has been very well utilised.”
Lockdown, and the sudden halt to building work, did provide the women with the opportunity to take a step back and focus on administrative tasks.
“Working from home meant that we had to be extremely organised, preparing all of our online teaching, and delivering lessons to our students, and supporting parents, whilst simultaneously looking after our own children and keeping them entertained and stimulated,” says Kendall.
“Despite the stress that came with lockdown, we both actually really enjoyed being at home.” she says. “It’s not often you get to take your foot off the gas and spend endless days at home with your own children…It’s a period of time we both really appreciated and look back on fondly.”
The school now has 35 students, with another 10 waiting to join within the academic year, and the hopes are that one day up to 75 students will be accommodated.
It is an inclusive school, with a number of special needs students among the population, and a balance of different cultures from all over the globe.
“We believe that all children in the world should have access to top quality education and so we proudly offer scholarships to Caymanian students who show academic promise,” explains Kendall. “It is that balance and diversity in our children that makes our school the wonderful little place that it is.”
The school prides itself on its small class sizes and a boutique, village primary school feel.
“Everyone knows everyone else, parents included, and we all appreciate each other’s differences and talents,” Kendall says.
Their learning environment weaves the UK national curriculum objectives into the school’s own ‘bespoke beach learning curriculum’.
“We’re the first and only fully accredited ‘beach school’ on island,” says Platt. “Spending time outdoors and learning through hands-on exploration and investigation is what sets us apart from all the other primary schools on island. We are passionate about the environment and learning through nature and we aim to entwine that into everything we do.”
As such, the school has an official partnership with the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.
The future looks bright for Footsteps with two driven women at the helm, and alongside giving the best to present students, they also have their eye on a bigger aim.
“Our longer-term goal – the ultimate dream – is to build our own purpose-built modern facility within a nature setting, allowing us to expand our student population whilst still retaining the friendly, small-school feel and individualised learning that makes us so special,” says Platt.