When the originators of the 12+ year mass schooling system laid their blueprints out 100 years ago, I doubt their intentions were to simulate the Twelve Labours of Hercules from Greek mythology (despite what many current students may moan!). Today education planners and curriculum developers use experience, research and common sense to craft a step-by-step system that allows students to move from one level to the next as a matter of natural progression - at least this is as it should be. Our experience has been that in rural South African schools it takes acts of exceptional character to move students successfully from grade to grade. So for students to move through twelve consecutive years of schooling with anything approaching success at the end of Grade 12 is a remarkable feat - a truly Herculean task for all involved!
We've seen this in the lives of our first graduating class of Ekukhuleni students, who finished their final exams last month. They have come through schools where: about six weeks (nearly 20%) of each school year is lost through extended school holidays; teachers and students spend as much as three hours of the day travelling to and from school; buildings are vastly inadequate and class sizes can be as big as 90; if they are lucky enough to have science and maths teachers (a third of our students did not), they tend not to be qualified to teach the subject; and, should students, against all odds, achieve academic success, there are no school support systems to help them access tertiary studies and financial support. With all of this as background, we wait in suspense to see whether any will be accepted into their chosen programmes of study in 2013
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The immense amount of effort required in these final years of school has made us all the more determined to help schools and students build better foundations for success earlier on. Our Khan Academy programmes have given us a small window into what happens when students have a solid grounding in mathematics before they enter the final three years of high school. We're also learning how to use these remarkable materials optimally in our setting. They seem to be best for younger, stronger students who do not require constant support to bring them up to speed. The online materials can also be substantially enhanced by paper-and-pen drills, challenges and competitions that push students and improve their mental maths. And of course, their success still relies on a competent classroom 'manager', who cares about his students and who runs a tight ship. We're excited at the prospect of increasing the reach of our Khan programmes so that they cover Grades 7 - 9 at two of our local junior secondary schools next year.
If rural students face trials of Herculean proportions, their educators face no less daunting challenges, which is why we are so excited by the launch of the Siyahluma Sisonke Sakhingomso (SSS) Network for school management teams. This network brings together key leaders from 15 schools in our area to discuss common problems and develop strategies for improvement. The group has chosen literacy as its first major focus area - and we couldn't agree more from our experiences working with senior students, who often struggle to do maths and science because the language of learning is so foreign to them. We'll be doing everything in our power to support this group and to grow the people in it through various professional development initiatives scheduled throughout 2013.
The highlight of the year for fourteen young students was undoubtedly a trip to Johannesburg as part of the Zithulele Tigers Touch Rugby club. Thanks to the generosity of sponsors from near and far, we were able to take these boys to the Apartheid Museum, the University of the Witwatersrand and an Interprovincial Tournament as part of an 'exposure tour' - opening new doors and growing aspirations of a world outside their village. The quote at the top of this newsletter reflects the impact of the experience. These boys are now coaching, reffing and running a schools league at four junior schools, and returned to their books with real determination after seeing what it takes to study at a great university like Wits. As we continue to expose more students to new horizons of opportunity, you can follow their progress at https://www.facebook.com/ZithuleleTigersTouchRugby.
We certainly feel like we've also been involved in an epic Greek tussle this year
two new teacher networks, Khan Academy programmes, tertiary study applications, student teachers, sports tours and more. Two staff members, Amy Whiting and Isabelle Giddy, have been the driving force behind much of this and as they leave us we're grateful for their efforts this year. We're also hugely thankful to the many of you that support our 'labours' to improve rural Eastern Cape schools, and trust that you, like Hercules, will be richly rewarded!
Yours in rural education,
Craig, Michelle and the Axium Team