Rural schools beat the odds

A group of dedicated teachers, many of them from Zimbabwe, has been producing a string of distinctions in mathematics and science in one of the poorest rural districts of Mpumalanga.

These teachers, in effect, are laying the foundation for eradicating poverty in the Gert Sibande district of the deeply rural Albert Luthuli local municipality. And they are doing it despite a lack of equipment.

Chen Muchiriri, a physical science tutor in Mpuluzi, a village a stone’s throw away from the Swaziland border, says none of the learners in the area knows what a fully equipped science laboratory looks like.

He explains how he and other dedicated educators work extra hours using a depleted science kit that was donated eight years ago and has been rotated among all the schools in the area.

“Our learners don’t want to be classified as being rural and disadvantaged. And we agree with them,” says Muchiriri with a broad smile.
He is involved in local projects, called the Mayflower Science Project, teaching science at four centres in the area. In the five years he has worked for the project the matric results in the area have improved immensely, he says.

“How could you be disadvantaged with a pass rate of 87% and 73% respectively at Mpuluzi and Mayflower high schools? If one learner here obtained seven distinctions, there’s one label we prefer to use — educationally empowered,” says Muchiriri.

Improved results
It is 4pm on the last day of February and two blocks of classes at Mayflower high school are filled to capacity with grades 10 to 12 science learners in full school uniform and hard at work.

There’s no fee charged for the afternoon classes and learners are not coerced to join. But they say they attend the classes because they’ve seen the results obtained by other learners and they hope also to make their parents and teachers proud.

This school has not always been a hive of activity in the afternoons. A group of science teachers and parents in the local community who were concerned about the high failure rate of matric learners, especially in science, started the Mayflower Science Project in 1996.
“We had to come up with a way of fighting the high failure rate with the hope the benefits to the community would be more learners accessing higher education, then the reduction of unemployment and the social development of the community,” says Nkosinathi Nkambule, project co-ordinator and the curriculum implementer in the area.

Nkambule admits that the project’s biggest challenge is funding and finding good samaritans to donate science kits, but, he says, not even that is enough to dampen the spirit of community members, tutors and learners.

In the absence of funding for 2012 tutors may have to dig deep into their own pockets to get transport to the different schools in the area, or they may have to be prepared to walk. But Muchiriri and his Zimbabwean colleagues, who are the backbone of the project, don’t seem to mind.

“We’ve got to reach as many schools in the area as possible, especially during revision time. If we all do well in science, the entire circuit and region will do well, but if it’s only one or two schools it defeats the purpose of eradicating poverty through education,” says Muchiriri.

Making science interesting
The tutors say they try by all means to make their projects interesting for learners. “We rotate tutors. Learners don’t get taught by their day teachers and we don’t cover the same work done during the day. Here it’s more about helping learners with problem areas that they highlight and we also consult with their day school teachers. The sessions are relaxed and interactive and in our World of Work sessions we talk about different careers in science and access to funding,” says Samson Radebe, a maths tutor.

A nagging worry for the champions of the Mayflower project is the fact that in Mpumalanga foreign teachers are given only one-year contracts and these are renewable only in the absence of suitable local science teachers.

But, they say, through prayer and always hoping for the best, they continue to put their learners first. -—

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