A reimagined school is embedded in its community

COMMENT

Right now South Africa needs to start reimagining our schools as places of hope and opportunity, not only for our children but for the residents of the area in which they are situated.   

It’s known that 75% of our schools are not receiving the same quality education as that of learners in middle-class areas. The effect of Covid-19 has amplified the structural inequalities in our society. 

We need to use this opportunity to move away from the notion of getting schools “back to the way they were”, and for the reimagination to form part of the broader social justice discourse and the need for redress in society.

Over the past 10 years, the Centre for the Community School (CCS) has been working to understand the key elements of a contextually responsive education system. We have been collaborating on a reimagination through what we call “the community school” in a number of schools in the greater Nelson Mandela Bay metro and rural Eastern Cape.

The community school is one that is integrated in the community. It requires us to reimagine the school as being “of” the community rather than a school “in” the community. This approach to schooling requires working with schools, teachers, parents, residents, nongovernmental and community-based organisations, government departments and universities to create solutions to current and future schooling needs.

In 2019 the CCS was awarded a National Research Foundation grant to develop theoretical and practice-based models of school improvements that are relevant and responsive to the realities of the schools and communities they serve. In 2019-2020 the CCS produced and published its first publication on the community school, titled Reimagining Our Schools, Strengthening Our Communities

As a nation, we have to address the structural inequalities that prevent learners from realising their full potential. Covid-19 highlighted this. The reality is that the majority of learners are unable to benefit from the e-Learning digital support platforms, unlike learners at well-resourced schools, as was evident before the pandemic.  

The department of basic education estimated that only about 20% of learners are reached through the various online platforms being used during lockdown. Apart from the lack of access to devices, connectivity and data in working class and rural areas, there is the issue of learner and teacher capacity to deal with the technology of online classrooms. They don’t feel confident to use these technologies; they need assistance to develop this. 

We need to advance the use of technology but in doing it, it is essential to integrate the practical realities of schools, such as remoteness, no connectivity and security issues. 

Certain schools have triumphed over many years in spite of the severe socioeconomic and other adversities they face. Their success relates to the strengths of the communities in which they are situated. They present an opportunity for us to understand the agency of the community school. My education towards understanding this was in my former role as principal of a primary school in one of these poorer areas.

It was during this period that I realised the value and knowledge our community added to our school. We had parents and residents volunteering as teacher assistants in the classrooms, running our library, helping with the administration, cleaning the school and serving as security guards. It inspired my PhD study on school volunteerism and one of the reflections is that beyond the infrequent material benefit, the parents and residents said volunteerism allowed them to actively contribute towards the education of the children in their area. 

Since 2017, the CCS and the IKamvelihle Development Trust (iKDT) in Cala in the rural Eastern Cape has been piloting school improvement plans with four schools — two high schools and two primary schools.

Numerous meetings have been held with principals, educators, parents and learners at the pilot schools, leading to the establishment of a programme called Sakhingomso (building a better tomorrow), guided by five themes of collaboration: teaching and learning support; psychosocial support; infrastructure; capacity building and community and stakeholder support. 

The groups identified contextually relevant school improvement projects under these themes for “scaffolded” implementation from 2018, based on priorities and available resources. 

Working with rural schools is a fantastic learning experience because it challenges our notions of “rurality”. There is huge agency and willingness to grapple with and think through the problems. These interactions are so enriching and the

CCS brings so much knowledge to share with others. 

It is through this interaction in Willowvale, Mvezo and Qumbu and with the community schools in Nelson Mandela Bay metro that we are developing a framework to collaborate with other higher education institutions in the province.

Community agency engenders a sense of ownership of the schools by those people who live in the area. When this happens schools are generally not broken into and vandalised because the residents look after the school and regard it as a community asset. 

In Nelson Mandela Bay, a key partner of ours is the Manyano Network of Community Schools that has supported education in working class areas for many years. Charles Duna Primary in New Brighton is one of the Manyano schools with whom the CCS partners. It has 1 063 learners from grade R to 7. Principal Nombulelo Sume has led Charles Duna since 1998. She says that many of the learners come from informal settlements where their lives are unspeakably hard; unemployment is rife, as are gangs, violence, single parent homes, orphans and HIV. 

Despite this, over the past 15 years they have turned the school into a place of optimism, with 27 parent volunteers on site. It epitomises what the community school should be. Charles Duna has a well-managed library and reading clubs; it is establishing two science labs for grades 5 to 7 with funding they applied for from the Motsepe Foundation; and a computer lab with internet for information technology training where the learners and residents can learn computer skills.

Sume says that during this Covid-19 period, Jarren Gangiah, who teaches grade 6 maths, science and information technology, organised online lessons through Zoom, WhatsApp and the school’s Facebook page and teachers made booklets on their subjects because not everyone has online access.

The volunteers have given support throughout the pandemic. Koleka Ndzuta started volunteering at Charles Duna in 2003 when her child was at the school. Ndzuta was unemployed at the time and received R500 from the extended public works programme for her volunteering. She rose through the system and in 2011 was appointed as a grade R teacher and completed her Early Childhood Education levels 4 and 5.

In 2015 she enrolled for her BEd Foundation Phase at Nelson Mandela University, for which she received a Funza Lushaka teaching bursary. It wasn’t easy

because she had six children and was staying with her parents. She graduated in 2018. She is now doing her Honours in education psychology. 

Community agency is complemented by external stakeholders. One of these is an nongovernmental organisation (NGO) called Masifunde. It is part of a community of practice in the CCS called Oasis, which is supported by The Learning Trust. ThMasifunde got together with a number of other NGOs, notably United Through Sport and Masinyusane, to optimise each other’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro. United Through Sport works with more tan 80 primary schools; Masinyusane has a decade-long relationship with every township high school. They combined forces with other NGOs to raise funds and, working with the basic education department, supply 75 schools in the metro with food parcels.

A Masifunde-led initiative is quaranTV, which brings content from core learning programmes to social media and to the local station, Bay TV. Learners can view it using a TV aerial in the region or nationwide through DStv satellite. The episodes feature literacy, drama, music, visual arts, cooking, health and fitness, Covid-19 awareness and prevention of gender-based violence. quaranTV is aired Monday to Friday at 5.30pm for 30 minutes on Mpuma Kapa, Channel 260 (fka. Bay TV). All shows are available on Masifunde’s youTube channel.

Covid-19 presents us with an opportunity to define what a quality public education system in South Africa should look like to be of service to society.

Dr Bruce Damons is director of the Centre for the Community School in the faculty of education at Nelson Mandela University

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