International school in public park in Brussels threatened by eviction during COVID-19
Saturday, 05 June 2021
Roots and Wings, an inclusive school for mainly expat children in Parc Parmentier, Woluwe Saint-Pierre, has been told by the authorities that it has to leave the park by 25 June.
The school was founded by Soraya Yaravi in 2009 to provide the Brussels community a curriculum in English and offer alternative and inclusive preschool, primary and secondary education. This risks to be ended soon. During the first wave of the COVID-19 in 2020, the lease contract was cancelled by Les Stations de Plein Air ASBL, the association managing the building in the parc.
The parc, close to nearby Woluwe Parc, has an interesting history. It is named after the contractor Edmond Parmienter, who was tasked by King Leopold II to construct Avenue de Tervueren. After the first world war, the state became the owner of the property. In 1933, Abbot Edouard Froidure took over the buildings in the parc and created there the first playgrounds for children.
Today, Parc Parmienter is a public parc belonging to Brussels Capital-Region and managed by Brussels Environment-IBGE. The several buildings in the parc, however, are managed by an association which decided not to renew the contract with the school. The association did not respond to requests from The Brussels Times for comments.
According to the school, neither Benoit Cerexhe, the mayor of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, nor Rudi Vervoort, the minister-president of Brussels Capital-Region, have replied to petitions to prevent the closure of the school. A unit under the minister-president appears to have the overall responsibility for the parc but did not respond immediately to questions about the cancellation of the contract with the school.
Brussels has in recent years become an increasingly multi-cultural and multilingual city in the heart of Europe. Woluwe-Saint-Pierre is a popular among expats in Brussels with up to one third of its inhabitants EU citizens.
The school has about 40 pupils and employs 9 full-time staff. Its headmaster Soraya Yavari is a Canadian-trained child psychotherapist and play therapist, who when facing the challenge of finding a suitable preschool for her daughter in Brussels, decided to establish a school herself.
“Its location in the parc is no coincidence, Soraya Yavari told The Brussels Times. “Contact with nature is essential for the implementation of our teaching approach. Being outdoor in nature helps children focus better. It reduces stress, anxiety and compulsive behaviour. We have calmer, happier, kinder and motivated children.”
On average, the pupils are outdoor 50 % of their time in school, those in preschool even more, she explains. “Every child has a unique story to live and knowledge to connect to in order to grow roots and wings. Our school differs from other international schools by its integration of pupils’ special needs and learning problems in the class. We embrace everyone.”
The school is following the Belgian curriculum with English as the main teaching language and offers French as second language. That might explain the attitude of the authorities to the school and their indifference to its closure. Although the school is recognised as an educational institution, it does not receive any public grants and is financed by parent fees.
Soraya Yaravi feels that the school is discriminated compared to the other institutions in the parc. “Our contract for the main building dates back to 2011 and has been renewed every year until May 2020, when we suddenly were told to leave in four months. We managed to extend the contract for another year until June 2021.”
“We have no place to go,” she says. “I don’t understand it. Our school is the only school of its kind. I have to turn away pupils for lack of place.”
Earlier talks between the school and the association managing the building ended with no result. A letter from Les Stations de Plein Air ASBL which was seen by The Brussels Times mentions the rent paid by the school, its integration in the parc and planned investments. The school is willing to discuss the issues raised by the association but feels that it is not listened too.
The Brussels Times contacted the Brussels Commissioner for Europe and International Relations, Alain Hutchinson. Appointed by the government of Brussels Capital-Region in 2015, his overriding objective is to promote a good working and living environment for the international organisations and their staff and families in Brussels. His office offers a single point of contact to the different institutions.
Following an investigation of the case by his team, he found that the school has a “precarious” lease of a duration of one year renewable each year. Les Stations de Plein Air ASBL claims that it wishes the school to leave in order to recover the premises to carry out their own activities which are addressed to all the public. No new rental is planned.
As the Brussels Capital-Region, despite its overall responsibility, has not formally authorized the occupation of the premises, it cannot today oppose the cancellation of an agreement to which it is not a party. However, the Commissioner promised that the region’s school service will contact the school in order to clarify its need for space.
Father Edouard Froidure was entrusted the property to develop it into “playing grounds” for children. Why a small and inclusive school has to leave the grounds after so many years, when there are other unused buildings in the parc, was not explained. If no solution is found soon, its pupils will have no school to return to on 30 August, the first day of the new school year, and its staff will lose their jobs.