Leaps and bounds: a lighthouse school in Limpopo

| March 9, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Raphael Mukachi

The LEAP Science and Maths School, Jane Furse, was established in 20121 to promote and improve the quality of education specifically in the Sekhukhune district, which is one of the most impoverished districts in Limpopo province.

The school became the fifth member of a network of six schools established in impoverished and disadvantaged communities across the country. Known as LEAP 5, the school is located in the rural settlement of Jane Furse.

Starting the school was a gamble, but we have proved that it is possible if one believes and is prepared to tread on the path less travelled. The school did not have proper classroom
infrastructure at its inception and utilised old, dilapidated hospital buildings. The buildings were specially renovated to offer classroom spaces. LEAP 5 started with 30 learners in Grade 9 and four educators.

Against all odds

A bandwagon of doubting Thomases watched us with hawkish eyes. In different corners of the community, the school was called names such as “fly by night”, whilst other community members were sceptical that the school would survive. Against all these odds, our school has since grown to 149 learners in grades 8–9 and the staff cohort has increased to 28. To silence the doubting Thomases, the school produced an excellent matric pass rate of 100% in 2015. Seventy-five per cent of the graduates were accepted into university to study for bachelor degrees, and a total of 59 distinctions were obtained from 28 learners.

Every visitor who comes to our campus is given a tour and told about its rich history, dating back to the missionary era. This tour would not be complete without a detour to our school garden, which started in 2012. Our learners take great delight in the garden, into which they have invested a great deal of effort. They produce enough to supplement their daily meals, whilst the surplus is given to our social responsibility partners or sold to local supermarkets.

Dedication and determination

Many who visit our school marvel at the rural landscape and often ask me how we established this wonderful school. Born and bred in the rural area of Karoi, Zimbabwe, I obtained a BCom Honours degree at the Midlands State University in Zimbabwe. I taught in my home country for four years before coming to South Africa in 2007, and in 2008 I joined LEAP 2 in Cape Town, where I tutored Saturday classes once a week. My perseverance and commitment helped me to become a mathematics and computer studies teacher at LEAP 2.

I did not rest on my laurels after being given a chance to teach. I showed determination and precision and was duly promoted to the LEAP 2 school management team. In 2011, I was appointed to be part of the LEAP 4 (in Diepsloot in Soweto, Gauteng) start-up team. Just a year after my promotion, I was then assigned to come to this heartland of our country (Limpopo) to establish LEAP 5, taking on the role of school principal. In the same year, I enrolled for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education with the University of South Africa, and simultaneously completed a six-month school leadership training programme via the University of Chicago in the US.4 Because I believe in lifelong learning, I have recently completed a leadership training course with the Callaway Leadership Institute in California in the US5 and am on the verge of completing another school leadership training programme with the Old Mutual Education Flagship programme.

The power of patience

Our school serves the community of Jane Furse and nearby villages. Some come to us from as much as 50 km away, because they believe we offer quality education. Most of these learners come to our school with a lot of academic deficiencies, but we have employed qualified and dedicated teachers who are willing to be patient and work with them. The work that we do, however, does not rest on the shoulders of the teachers alone, but also the community at large. We have formed great partnerships with various community organisations, ranging from non-profit organisations to businesses. Through our partnerships, our learners have learned skills such as sewing and beading, and some of them have already started their own projects that are aimed at helping the communities they come from.

The existence of our school has led to a paradigm shift with regard to how certain things can be done. Being the only independent school in the area has not divided our greater community into ‘us and them’, but rather we have become a beacon of hope in the area and formed formidable partnerships with the local schools. Educators from the local schools come to our school for training in information technology, curriculum integration in the classroom and pedagogical workshops organised by our school and education partners, Edunova and Old Mutual. Our partner school in the area is St Mark’s Comprehensive College in Jane Furse, and our teachers collaborate closely with colleagues from this school.

Collaboration leads to transformation

After a short visit to our school, one would quickly pick up the demographic representation of the community we serve. Our learners come from low- to middle-class households. Thirtyfour per cent of our learners are boys, with the remaining percentage made up of girls. The staff complement is made up of nine foreign nationals and 19 locals, with ages ranging from 22 to 60 years. Each time visitors come to our school, the comment is, “You have a fairly young staff.” The beauty of the hard work produced in our school is founded in the collaboration that exists between the young and the senior educators in my team.

To deepen the understanding of the work we do at the school, one must view education as an entity with different integrated facets. We are a transformational school, and we believe that all our learners can learn and produce excellent results. To achieve this, we have put in place measures that support learners emotionally and intellectually to assist them achieve academically and socially. We value diversity in race, religion and views, and these values reverberate in all the classrooms, corridors and staff rooms. We all work hard together to achieve excellent results. Everyone goes the extra mile, as we believe that today’s sacrifices will make tomorrow better. To achieve all these, we conduct home visits to understand our learners and their backgrounds. All our learners are given the opportunity to lead in different areas; all are confident in their engagement and interaction. We challenge our educators and learners to consider the need to be able to adapt to a changing world.

The 100% results our 2015 Grade 12s produced in their final examinations tell a tale of the work that everyone in the school – from educators to janitors and security personnel – put
in to transform the lives of the children from the community we serve. These children will, in turn, transform their communities socially and economically.

Riding the wave

Looking back, it has not been an easy journey. I recall the struggles that the school faced to be registered with the provincial Department of Basic Education (DBE). When we first tried to register the school, the DBE in our area was under administration,9 and a moratorium was passed that prohibited the registration of new schools in the province.10We were taken from pillar to post as we tried to register the school. It also meant that we did not enjoy any examination centre status. Our learners had to sit for their examinations under the auspices of St Mark’s Comprehensive College. We have, however, enjoyed the support and cooperation of the local government circuit and district managers. The fact that we were
still accepted for introductory membership by ISASA in 2014 also instilled hope in our hearts about the work that we do.

Amidst the challenges alluded to, the waves of higher expectations are not deterred and they flow swiftly through the school classrooms, corridors and playgrounds and straight to pupils’ homes and study areas. We maintain high standards in both academic and non-academic activities, to produce graduates who can sustain themselves and continue to uphold the values of the school long after they leave.

Doing things differently

As we celebrate the success of our 2015 learners across all grades, one always remembers the words of Dr Nelson Mandela when he said, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”11 His sentiments motivate me to do more for the school and its community. I am more committed than ever to continue sharing my experience and best practices with other education specialists, and continue to develop myself as a leader and
support learners and educators in their endeavours. I am more committed than ever to work with various stakeholders to make LEAP 5 the epitome of great social and academic excellence, by “continuing to do things differently”, as our school director, John Gilmour, often reiterates.

References:

1. See: http://leapschool.org.za/schools/.
2. Jane Furse developed around the Jane Furse Memorial Hospital, which was
founded by the Right Reverend Michael Furse, Bishop of Pretoria, and is
named after his daughter, who died at the age of 14 years. (Source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Furse.)
3. See, for example: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people-south-africa/pedi.
4. See: http://www.uchicago.edu/.
5. See: http://www.callawayleadership.com/cli_about_team.php.
6. See: http://reports2013.oldmutual.com/annual-review/financial-literacy-andeducation/.
7. See: http://www.edunova.org/.
8. See: http://leapschool.org.za/2012/06/07/rfmty-raise-r1-3m/.
9. See, for example: http://www.news24.com/Archives/City-Press/Limpopo-nolonger-
under-administration-20150430.
10. See, for example: http://www.edu.limpopo.gov.za/index.php?option=
com_content&view=article&id=119&Itemid=3.
11. See, for example: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/nelsonmand
178785.html.

Category: Autumn 2016, Featured Articles

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