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Roots and Wings international school faces closure after rental contract rescinded
The Roots and Wings international school in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre is facing an uncertain future as it has been told to vacate its premises in Parmentier Park. The English-language school has been located in the park since it opened in 2009.
Roots and Wings, the most affordable international school in the capital, has been operating under a year-to-year contract with Les Stations de Plein Air, which has authority over the several youth-oriented organisations present in the park. “In May of last year, in the midst of a pandemic, they told us we had to leave by June,” says Roots and Wings founder and director, Soraya Yavari. “It was one month’s notice.”
Finding it an unreasonable request, Roots and Wings retained the services of a lawyer and got a year-long extension. Since then they have been working to save their school’s location in the park. They have combined these efforts with trying to find another building that will suit their needs – which is no easy task.
Previous to running Roots and Wings, Yavari was a child psychotherapist in private practice, where she found that “a lot of issues the children had were school-related”. She also acted as a consultant to international schools in Brussels to help children with special needs integrate into the school setting.
“So I’d seen a lot,” she says. By the time her own daughter was born, she realised “that there was always something missing. I wanted something different for my daughter.”
Emotions and academics hand-in-hand
The result is Roots and Wings, which, she says, not only reaches out to children with special needs but puts a focus on every child’s emotional development. “A lot of the more conventional settings nourish and feed the mind, and for me the emotions are a pillar. You cannot separate physical development from emotional development from intellectual development. They are all equally important, so you have to give them an equal amount of space.”
While mid-life adults are routinely busy trying to figure out who they are and what they want, Yavari’s school is instilling these kind of self-awareness skills at a much younger age. “Children need to get to know their emotions and what triggers them and how they are responsible for their actions and reactions, and how that has an impact in a group dynamic. So if you take that into account, academics start taking on an entirely different shape.”
This has made Roots and Wings somewhat of a go-to school for children ‘on the spectrum, who have Asperger’s, for instance. “Other international schools do welcome children with special needs, but very often there’s a special section. Our children are all together. They respect and understand each other.”
The idea is that all children have needs, regardless of their learning comprehension. “We all have challenges, whether it’s being on the autism spectrum or simply having trouble focusing when there’s too much noise. Or you have a learning preference; maybe if there’s too much visual stimuli, you have trouble focusing. It can be anything.”
Roots and Wings founder Soraya Yavari and her daughter
What is important is the overall attitude at Roots and Wings, she continues, “that everyone is seen for who they are and for their strengths. But in order to respect others, you need to respect yourself. That’s what we work on – awareness, what makes me feel good, what makes me feel sad, what are my needs. And then when I’m able to respect my needs, I will begin to imagine that somebody else can have other needs, and that those needs are as important as my needs. Then we see how can we co-exist and make it work.”
Another pillar of Roots and Wings is a relationship with nature. Pupils spend part of every day outside “whatever the weather”, not just for play but to take part in learning activities.
The park setting helps relieves stress, says Yavari, for “children who are on the autism spectrum, children with learning difficulties – and children without any of that, it doesn’t really matter. Nature brings us back to the essentials. It slows us down, it helps us create another chemistry in the body and in the brain.”
This is crucial for an education setting, she says, because “the senses really work together, so when there’s a collaboration of all our senses, we create what we call ‘whole brain state’. When that is created, learning happens in such a more harmonious way.”
This might be true for all pupils, but it’s most obvious for children who are on the spectrum. “Some compulsive behaviours in these children that happen in a more conventional setting diminish, and sometimes completely disappear, because of how nature feels.”
Location, location, location
Which is why Roots and Wings’ location is essential. Not only is Parc Parmentier – just across Avenue Tervuren from the much large Woluwe Park – fulfilling its needs on a nature level, it is also known for being home to other support-related organisations. There is day centre Timbre, which employs developmentally disabled adults, there is youth aid centre Maison d’accueil Prince Albert, and there is the toy library LuAPE – with which Roots and Wings once shared a building.
“We’ve been in the park for a long time, and we get along with all the other associations,” says Yavari. “Some of them are not happy with what’s happening either.”
So why is it happening? “I’m not sure,” she says. “I wish I knew. I’ve been trying to figure it out, but it’s still a mystery.”
The rumblings started two years ago when Les Stations de Plein Air told the school that they needed to be more “socially engaged”. It was unclear what that meant, and Yavari asked for meetings to discuss it. All her requests were ignored. So the school made suggestions of their own, such as renovating two of the buildings in the park.
All of it was met with deaf ears, claims Yavari, who adds that the rent Roots and Wings is asked to pay “increases every year” . She has since discovered that, despite being a non-profit organisation like the rest, they pay more rent than any other organisation in the park.
The Roots and Wings school
She and the staff and the parents are completely baffled as to why the rental contract is suddenly ending after 11 successful years in the park. In that time, Roots and Wings has gone from being purely a pre-school to also having a primary and now expanding into a secondary school. Starting in September – if there is a start – children up to age 14 will attend the school.
It is recognised by the French-language education ministry and fulfils the Belgian government’s requirements for home-schooling. This means that pupils can move on to any other school they want when they leave Roots and Wings.
Yavari hoped that all of that would give them some pull with local and regional governments. It has not.
While the Brussels Region actually manages the park, it has apparently given Les Stations de Plein Air control over the buildings and the tenants. In any case, minister-president Rudi Vervoort’s office is not returning their calls.
“For months, we’ve been trying to figure out what Les Stations de Plein Air is and is not allowed to do,” says Yavari. “Because so many of the activities in Parmentier are all about the welfare of children. On their website they talk about children from all walks of life and how they make sure that their emotional and physical wellbeing is taken into account. So what they’re doing goes against what they say they believe in. You just don’t do this to a school, you just don’t.”
Parents launch petition
The mayor of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, Benoit Cerexhe (cdH), is similarly quiet on the matter. “Half of the children who attend Roots and Wings are residents of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre. So surely you have to recognise that these are your citizens. We’ve been asking to meet with him. Parents have sent letters, some of the children have written, and he has not acknowledged this. Not a single letter, nothing.”
At this point, Yavari is beyond disappointed. The expat community, she says, “is what makes Brussels so unique and special. At the end of the day, the role of these politicians is to support the citizens in times of need. We are going through a crisis, and he did not respond.”
Parents of the 40 kids currently enrolled at Roots and Wings are also dismayed at the lack of response from the authorities and because they have zero desire to search for a new school for their children. Monika Lamba Saini’s eight-year-old son attends the school. “He looks forward to going to school every day and is well loved and supported by the teachers,” she says.
She finds Roots and Wings utterly unique in Brussels. “Every day at the school is different, and every part of the day is an opportunity to learn new things and develop and apply new skills, both academically and socially. We should have more schools like this, helping children to develop life skills and social-emotional wellbeing, which has benefits for the city and the country.”
Another parent points out that a forest school recently opened two kilometres away for French and Dutch-speaking children. He chose Roots and Wings for his daughter because her brother is autistic, and he wanted her to learn in an environment with similarly affected children.
If the school closes, “our daughter will be quite simply heartbroken,” he says. “It’s hard to get her into another school this late but if there is no alternative, we will somehow have to find a solution. It’s just astonishing that a city that calls itself the European capital has so little regard for the problems of international parents. If a child doesn’t fit the Flemish or Walloon system, you are basically on your own.”
Parents have launched a petition to convince authorities to find a solution for the school.
As for Yavari, she is unwilling at this point to accept that the school will close. “I will find a solution,” she says doggedly. “I don’t know what that solution will look like yet, but I am certain that we will find a solution. Right now we just want to be heard.”
Photos courtesy Roots & Wings