Teachers and education officials in the Western Cape are at odds over the performance level of a school that is facing possible closure.
Although some boys do not admit they cry, 17-year-old Moses Magadla was not ashamed to confess he wept with his friends when they were told that the Western Cape education department was probably going to close his school in Cape Town's city bowl.
Now his sadness has turned to anger with the Democratic Alliance-run administration. Away from his home in Khayelitsha where children as young as 13 are joining gangs, Magadla has flourished at the Zonnebloem Nest Secondary School. The recent success of the school has been attributed to a unique choice of creative subjects, namely Spanish dance, design, drama and tourism, which have given its pupils a better chance of passing matric.
"I chose my subjects at school and I am now good at them. I have great teachers," Magadla said. "I want to go into tourism management. Where am I going to find a school offering tourism as a subject? Anyhow, we don't want to move to different schools because all my friends are here at school."
The provincial education department claims that the school's "consistent underperformance" and "high drop-out rate" are the reasons for its possible closure. But this makes no sense to Zonnebloem's principal, Jonty Damsell, who said Zonnebloem had an 85% matric pass rate last year and a 73% pass rate the year before.
The school's governing body said it was hard to understand how a school so highly rated that the department allocated it special funding in 2010 had become an institution "not needed any more".
"The school's drop-out rate is by no means exceptional but in line with the systemically poor drop-out rate across the province and country," it said.
Not very "public" after all
A Mail & Guardian request for a copy of the submissions from the 27 schools the department is considering closing was turned down by the education MEC's spokesperson, Bronagh Casey, even though the hearings had been described as "public participation processes".
Casey said no decision had been made to close the school. "This followed a recommendation by the department based on reasons pertaining to the high drop-out rate and consistent underperformance in all grades," Casey said. "For instance, in 2011, 54.8% of learners in grade 11 did not progress to grade 12, 46.2% did not pass grade nine and 42.9% did not pass grade 10."
In its submission to the department, the governing body stated that each year it had new grade nine and 10 pupils because of the stringent grade nine maths pass requirement.
"Hence our results reflect current provincial realities for the disadvantaged learners we take on," it said. "It takes more than a year to get a poorly educated learner on track."
Casey also said the department could not spend millions to renovate buildings that did not belong to the state when a better option would be to accommodate the pupils in other schools in the immediate area that were achieving better results.
The school was the first "African school" established under the auspices of the Anglican Church in March 1858. It is housed in a run-down church building.
Damsell said everybody involved in the school, including the more than 300 pupils, was feeling demoralised. "We fear the decision might have already been made to close our school," said Damsell, who has been the principal for more than 13 years.
"It's hard work to run a high school like this, but we have many dedicated teachers … To get these pupils to achieve good results, we do intense revision with extra lessons."
Last month Western Cape education MEC Donald Grant sent a letter to the school headed "Official closure of Zonnebloem Nest Secondary School". Grant has since claimed someone blundered with the heading of his letter, because the process has not been finalised. Zonnebloem is set for a hearing by the education department on August 25.
Last month Grant called on the public to participate in school closure processes. "The aim of the closures is to improve opportunities for learners by placing them in schools that are better equipped to provide quality education," he said.
But for Magadla and his close friends in grade 11, waiting for the axe to fall is painful. Zintle Baleni (16) and Nasiphi Lutshiti (18) said it was particularly difficult with just six months to
go before they progressed to their matric year.
Baleni said she wanted to go into the medical field because maths and science were her strengths and she was concerned her marks would drop dramatically if she was moved to another school.
The department made a "big mistake", said Lutshiti.
"They didn't think it through properly. How do they think this is going to affect our matric? It seems they don't care about us."
Parents gave the Mail & Guardian written consent for their children to speak to us
Pupils anxious about options
Neo Motinyane, chairperson of the Zonnebloem Nest Secondary School, has good reason to be unhappy about its possible closure.
His son Mojalefa (16) is a pupil in grade 10 and has picked design as one of his matric subjects. Motinyane and his family live in crime-ridden Khayelitsha. They thought carefully about where to send the child to high school to offer him the most appropriate subjects as well as the best opportunities in life.
"It is of great concern whether the education department is going to close this school," said Motinyane. "I work down the road at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology as a transport officer and we formed a lift club so our children would not have to go by train. There are gangsters on the trains.
"My son is doing well at school and my two other children want to come here when they get to high school. Where will my son find another suitable government school that offers design as a subject?"
His concerns are shared by his friend and colleague, Thomas Sheldon, who works as a mailroom supervisor at Cape Pensinsula. Sheldon and his son Chesray (15) are in the lift club with the Motinyanes. The Sheldons live in Mitchells Plain in a suburb besieged by gangsterism.
The R3 800 annual fee for the school is hefty for many parents, but they believe it is well worth it.
"I am frustrated by it all," said Chesray, who is thriving at Zonnebloem.
"I can't see any reason why they would want to close my school."