'Strict' Oprah school under fire from parents
Parents have accused Oprah Winfrey’s elite school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa of being too strict.
In a report in the country’s Witness newspaper they complained that they were only allowed to visit their children once a month and one claimed they were banned from smuggling in junk food treats.
The boarding school, opened by the talk show host in the small town of Henley-on-Klip in January, said it was merely trying to protect the “health, welfare and wellbeing” of its handpicked students.
A spokeswoman for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy said edible gifts were “discouraged” in favour of educational items like books, but were not prohibited.
The girls were not penalised for receiving food, she said.
The Witness reported that parents felt the rules made it difficult for them to keep in touch with their children.
Mobile phones and e-mail correspondence are out of bounds during the week, the newspaper said.
Pupils are allowed just one visit, by up to four family members at the same time, per month.
Frances Mans, whose foster daughter Gweneth Mulder is one of the 150 girls studying at the academy, claimed she had to wait at the security gate for half an hour to be signed in for a recent visit.
“It was a nightmare,” she told Witness.
“We had only two hours to see my child. Surely this isn’t a prison or an institution?”
She added: “The poor children are not even allowed to have any treats.
“Their diet is fruit, yoghurt and sandwiches.
“When they go on holiday for a month in April they’ll be stuffing themselves with sweets and chocolates in any case.”
Another mother, Angela Conradie, said her daughter Michelle was upset about the strict visiting times.
“Michelle phones me in tears sometimes and then I don’t know what to say to her,” she said.
“Our goal is to protect the health, welfare and wellbeing of the students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy,” the spokeswoman for the school said.
“As with other boarding schools we provide a structured, safe and nurturing environment in which the girls can learn and develop.”
She confirmed that mobile phones are only allowed at the weekends and visitors had to be approved in advance, but said there was no two-week-notice policy as reported.
The spokeswoman denied a claim that the parents had been due to air their concerns in a satellite link-up with Winfrey a week ago but that it was cancelled by the school’s management body.
No such contact was ever planned, she said.
“The previous week there was a meeting for parents and guardians with the staff and these issues were not brought up,” the spokeswoman added.
She denied the claims about the girls’ diet.
John Samuel, the school’s chief operating officer, told Witness: “We have the security and well-being of the girls at heart, in every respect.
“They are our priority. If there’s too much movement on the premises at the weekend, it disturbs the school spirit.”
The school, south of Johannesburg, cost $40m (€30.3m) to build.
Winfrey interviewed many of the 3,500 South African girls from low-income families who applied for the first places herself.
The academy will eventually cater for 450 pupils who show outstanding promise but whose family income is less than $700 (€530.90) a month.
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