December 2013   

NEWSLETTER # 15 - Unyamezela

"I know you are poor but that does not mean your mind is also poor. You did not have full uniform at school and you did not carry money for lunch every day, but you were the top student in your class. You've been waking up early in the frosty mornings, walking (bare footed) to the river to fetch water, collecting animal matter and pieces of wood to make a fire. You've been willing to work hard.

Your friends were laughing at you when you were reading your books and said, "You think you are Mr Serious". You did not change your behaviour even though learners laughed at you daily. Remember, they said that you did not dress stylishly, but you did not listen. Those were the challenges you've been trying to rise above. They still laugh at you but you don't show any weakness. This is my wisdom to you: hard workers always feel pain but their tears are wiped by the towel of success!"

- Ekukhuleni Grade 12 students

The words above were written by our Grade 12 students in a letter to their "future selves". I hope they inspire you, as they have me, because often it seems the odds are against us. It takes the kind of courage and determination portrayed here to unyamezela (persevere). Have we turned the corner this year? Sadly, I don't think so. Thousands of students are still being let down by a system that seems not to care: too few students are reading and writing confidently in their home language, let alone in English; too few students finish matric with anything resembling a useful pass; and, digital literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving skills remain a distant dream, even for the best of the best. So we have a long way to go.

Gwebityala Senior Secondary until recently: 430 students in this three-room structure

These realities keep us grounded, despite a year of significant highlights… A number of schools now have desks and chairs (thanks to legal pressure from the Legal Resources Centre). Some have new classrooms. Even a science lab is on the cards at one school. Most unpaid teachers have now been paid. Our grade nines have smiles when spoken to in English, where a year ago stony shyness would have prevailed. Young boys and girls have played in a structured sports league for the first time; won a trophy; learnt some new skills. Students are reading books, on their phones and in hard copy. Three of our Khan Academy students clocked over 50 hours of additional maths this term. Science teachers are demanding to meet more often, rather than less. Our grade 12s have applied for places at institutions throughout the country for next year, and both our 11s and 12s spent days shadowing inspirational people in a variety of professions at Zithulele Hospital. Science competitions, leadership camps, tours… the list goes on!

New furniture for Putuma JSS and new classrooms for Gwebityala

"It was awesome, very fruitful, full of information…" so commented one of our star principals at the close of the SSS Network's Coffee Bay Retreat for school senior management teams. We feel fortunate to be able to call on people of the calibre of Evan Torrance (our Board Chairman), who focussed the group on their schools' vision, values and culture - from a business perspective. It is not often that teachers here have an opportunity to reflect and be encouraged, so the time away was like an oasis, with many commenting on how they returned to their schools with new energy to make change happen. We've seen the fruit in the months since, with some excellent engagement from schools on some of the core issues raised, such as a migration from "paper to digital" record keeping and literacy in the early years of school. We're excited about the prospects for this group of highly influential people as we put together a structured leadership curriculum for next year.

Delegates at the SMT Retreat at Coffee Bay

We're also excited about two other developments for next year. First up: we're piloting a new approach to strengthening literacy in the early years of primary school, using 'Community Readers'. These young, previously unemployed adults work alongside teachers to give students in crowded classrooms an opportunity to read and be read to in a small group setting - something that rarely happens in most schools. Interestingly, one of the best candidates we interviewed for these positions was Mashiya, a young lady who we met on our very first Boot Camp in 2009. She was the stand-out student on that camp, but since then her story has been a classic case of rural frustration: a dismal matric, a few part-time courses later and she is back at home doing little. The Community Reader project offers hope not just to the children, but to the young people taking up real positions of influence as Community Readers. We're proud to partner with Biblionef, Fundza Literacy Trust and Nali Bali (among others) as we grow a culture of reading and a love of stories in the communities around Zithulele.

"Zo" playing his part at Masakhane Literacy

Secondly, we're building more cohesion around our Teacher Networks, Ekukhuleni and Study Group programmes. Once again, it is largely about shifting student culture - from dependency and passivity to active learning. We're hoping to incentivize this process using a set of monthly tests for all the science and maths students at the six schools in our area (roughly 1000 students), which will tie in with work covered with science teachers in our network meetings, and a trip to the Science Festival in Grahamstown. At study groups, students will have an opportunity to dig deeper into material covered on Saturdays and with their teachers in class. We've started a 'Tablet Fund' to empower these students to do their own research, play maths games and explore technology using tablet computers - please consider making a Christmas donation to this fund!

Egg Parachutes and Towers at Ekukhuleni Boot Camp

In many respects this has been a breakthrough year for us. We have a growing number of funders from both the corporate world and charitable foundations: Anglo Platinum's Lefa-La-Rona Trust, Anglo Gold Ashanti, the Export Credit Insurance Corporation of South Africa, The Claude Leon Foundation all came on board over the last twelve months. Our partnerships with schools and other organisations like the Legal Resources Centre and Equal Education have meant we're starting to address some of the bigger picture issues around school infrastructure and conditions of service for teachers. And we've had an amazingly dynamic team of staff and volunteers that have helped to strengthen all that we do. Yet we still feel like we are only scratching the surface - as my opening paragraph highlighted, there is SO much work to do!


We look forward to partnering with you in this work in the year that lies ahead.

Yours in changing the face of rural education

Craig, Michelle and the Axium Team

Our team mourned the passing of a great man on the 5th of December, 2013. Born not 50 km's from us here in Zithulele, we keenly feel the weight of the baton passed on to our generation of "freedom fighters". We hope our work lives up to the high ideals of sacrifice, love and generosity of spirit with which Nelson Mandela's life was marked. Lala ngoxolo tat'omkhulu.

Can you help? We're looking for:

'Urban Scholars' - isi-Xhosa speaking gap year students (post-school or varsity) from the city, who can add value to our maths and sports programmes for the 2014 school year. If you know of anyone or would like a copy of the job descriptions, let me know!
Dynamic, hardworking, 'adventurers in education' (volunteers!) - we're always looking for great people willing to volunteer their time - and have an infinite amount of things to do!
Stuff for kids: Reading books, Xhosa-English dictionaries, calculators, maths sets, solar lights… anything that will help rural kids learn!
Donations to our Tablet Fund: bringing the educational power of tablet computing to our Study Groups. (1 tablet = R1500/USD150, or part thereof, use 'Tablet' as your reference if making an EFT)
©2013 Axium Education