As I go from province to province, I have become very familiar with being guided to a school step by step. “Take the exit, turn right and then call me.” And after the next phone call, “Go straight, turn at the t-junction, and when you see a primary school on your right, call me.” Then a third set of instructions. A couple of weeks ago, in Katlehong, outside of Johannesburg, I missed a turn and the principal had to come get me and guide me to the school.
Some schools simply exist in an area and for others, that space has meaning. I had only read a little about Katlehong, but this school’s founding, its history and its present are grounded in the space.
Phumlani Secondary School was started in 1993. “It was the last school formed in the area by the previous government,” Principal Shumi Shongowe told me. “There was a fight, a war between the IFP and the ANC, the soldiers that were deployed by the previous government... People were killing each other. There was blood all over. And there was no time even to bury those that were dead.”
Then he paused, looked up and calmly said, “And it is then that this school was started.”
It was a reminder to me of the painful history of this country and the trauma and chaos out of which so much, including this school, has been born.
Many people who work in schools say that uniforms help with discipline and focus, but I rarely hear that the blues and yellows and greens and maroons have any meaning. Surrounded by brutal violence in 1993, Shongowe consciously chose the school colors. Red for the blood that was spilled. White for the hope that remained. “To say,” he told me, “after some time, all this shall be over and life shall go back to normal.”
In 1994, that was a new normal, one might say.
The school has grown from 200 students and a 5 percent pass rate in 1993 to 1,783 students and a 94 percent pass rate in 2012.
These 1,783 learners also find meaning in the uniform. “I call it a uniform of success,” one learner told me. “People who are in jail, not that I’m criticizing, but people who are in jail, they are wearing a uniform of regret. So this is a uniform of success.” The nuance and generosity he extended to prisoners with the use of the word regret struck me. Not violence, evil or wrong, but regret.
Just after our interview with the principal, I casually peered into the school’s log book and amazed that it reaches back to the very establishment of the school and reads like a historical journal:
Sept 6, 1993: There was a national stay away called by the African National Congress and the alliances. The entire work force and the schooling community responded positively to the stay away and therefore teaching and learning did not take place.
April 22, 1994: Due to excitement of the first democratic election in the Republic of South Africa and the usage of the school building by the IEC for elections, education in our school came to a standstill.
May 10 1994: The inauguration of the state president. The whole world came to South Africa as Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was inaugurated as the first Black president of the Republic of South Africa.
My mandate here is to identify keys to success. I often find that while those keys are unique, they really should be commonplace. One principal only hires teachers who studied that subject in college or university. That seems fairly basic, right? How can a history teacher teach biology? How can an Afrikaans teacher switch to technology, as I saw happen at one school? This too often happens as teachers are moved from subject to subject to fill gaps, despite a lack of training.
In another example, at Tetelo Secondary School in Soweto, Principal Linda Molefe and his staff end the year with a two-day meeting where they create a comprehensive plan for the following year. Acknowledging that plans constantly shift and change once the year begins, he said, “We can start right away because we know where we’re going.”
I always ask about parent involvement because I know it’s a critical factor but often very difficult to achieve. Both principals emphasized that getting the parents to show up wasn’t enough. It was their obligation to teach parents how to be involved, to be clear about what is expected of them.
One principal has created an easy way for parents or grandparents, regardless of their education, to check their children’s progress. It involves simple numeric indicators. “Some of these grannies, they have never been at school… it is your responsibility to try and school them. To say what role are you expecting them to play. And these grannies with the issue of indicators, they also become excited because they can now get involved and give support to their granddaughters and grandsons.”
I have a new word for moments in these journeys that surprise me. I now call them “Acapello moments.” At Phumlani Secondary, a group of boys approached me and asked if I would film their singing group. I was blown over when I heard the harmony that came from the mouths of these boys, the noises they created through snapping and percussive beats. It was like nothing I had heard before at a school in South Africa. The Soul Singers (as you may have guessed) are an acapello group.
The accapello moment at Tetelo Secondary came at the very end of the day, during mandatory study time for grade 12 learners. Because of the heat, many bring desks and chairs outside. We found one group of about 10 learners sitting under a tree, intently studying physics, debating and teaching one another. They traded off being the teacher, chalk in hand, using the side of a Cell C container to write on. (If you aren’t in South Africa, this looks like a shipping container and you often find them in townships. They usually have public phones inside. I am not sure why this one was on school grounds.)
The irony was not lost on me that these kids were choosing to learn under a tree in a country where for years children like them had to learned under trees. I shouldn’t speak of it in the past sense, since this still happens in some rural schools.
When I flew back to Cape Town on Friday morning, there was an article in the newspaper about an Education Charter that was recently put forward by the South African Human Rights Commission. The charter offers rules and recommendations to the government on giving quality education to all children. It addresses issues like crowded classrooms, suggesting that pupil teacher ratios not exceed 1 to 40 for grades 1 to 12. It has a series of ambitious deadlines to meet aims for everything from reduced class size to electricity and running water for all schools, to making sure schools have other basic and essential services needed to teach and learn properly.
The Charter is filled with incredible goals to improve education across the country. I hate to be pessimistic, but I just don’t understand how they are going to fix so much so quickly. At Phumlani, the 1738 students are based in an old primary school building. The principal says he is basically running two schools. At Tetelo, I saw students mopping out their container classrooms in the morning because it had rained the night before and the classrooms leak. In the midst of the cleaning and mopping, some were polishing shoes and straightening ties.
So how will the government build enough classrooms and buildings so these students aren’t packed 65 in a class and don’t have rain dripping on their books? To have actual libraries and labs rather than a lab on a cart that is pushed from class to class.
I remain somewhat doubtful, but hopeful and I’ll wait and see. In the meantime, maybe the government should bring some of these principals to other schools to share their best practices. “There is no recipe for success,” Principal Molefe from Soweto told me. But I think sharing ingredients would be a good start.