At Kharkams, they learn by heart

Somewhere on the N7 highway, in northern Namaqualand on the road from Cape Town to Namibia, you'll find three towns about 100km before Springbok. You might not think much of Garies, Kharkams and Kamieskroon. You could actually miss them, driving by. If you do notice them, maybe you'd wonder what it's like to live in such a small town. 

"I'm in the middle of nowhere," I wrote in an email to my family in the United States. But, as my father replied, nowhere is always somewhere for someone. And that is very true for the community served by Kharkams High School. 

Kharkams is a small and poor community. I'm told that only about 5% of people have jobs. As we turn off the highway, we pass workers tarring a dirt road. It's early and we ask for directions, not realising that if we had driven just a few metres farther we would have seen the school. It is the nicest and newest looking building around and truly the centre of the community. 

Six hundred pupils from grade R to grade 12 attend school every day. In one classroom, we hear moo-ing and baa-ing as pupils connect animals to the noises they make and, in another, an analysis of Afrikaans poetry. In this classroom, the pupils are doing basic addition and subtraction; in that one it's higher-level maths calculations, and they are using words such as "coefficient" and "exponent".

I have visited schools with more than 2 200 pupils, but as I spend time at Kharkams, I realise that I have let numbers of learners and overcrowding dominate my thinking as a major challenge schools have to overcome — and am almost starting to believe that if a school is small, it will have a far easier path to success. 

Yet here with 600 pupils some classes still have 40 to 50 students, certainly beyond the teacher/learner ratio considered conducive to producing pupils who excel. But excel the pupils at Kharkams do. 

Starting the "Schools That Work" project last year, I had a list of topics I wanted to examine:

• Numbers of pupils and teachers;

• Exam pass rates; 

• Strategies to achieve success;

• The nature of the community where the children live;

• School vision;

• Inspiring pupils; and 

• Relationships between principals and teachers, and between teachers and pupils.

My time at Kharkams refocuses me. Schools don't succeed or fail simply because of a list that can be checked off: they work because of the story and the community they create.

This school is young: it will celebrate its 21st birthday this year. It is the first Afrikaans-medium school I have visited. Though I have filmed in language classes before, not understanding everything that is going on in the classroom is new to me. 

Unfortunately I don't have a translator with me for the interviews with teachers and students and I wonder whether I am doing a disservice to them and myself because of this. In my interview with Kharkams's principal, however,  we converse in English. 

William Hornimann is a former policeman who, after five years on the force, chose to give back to the community in a different way: he went to university to get his BSc and become a teacher. 

"I'm first a teacher and then a principal," says Hornimann with his big smile. He is warm and gregarious, stern and encouraging. He is a presence. 

It seems Hornimann would rather be anywhere than behind his desk. He teaches mathematics and physical science and uses all kinds of methods to engage his classes. Students sit in groups; they are solving problems on the board, they are doing group work; they surround a group of desks as he shows them a problem. It is unusual to see so many teaching strategies in one room.

Last year, Kharkams had a 100% pass rate. Parents from up and down the highway want their children to come here. To help make this possible, about 200 students live in a hostel at the school. It is funded largely by the government, and some pupils tell me that living here gives them extended opportunities to work in groups and so support each other academically. It also allows the principal to have evening and weekend classes — he teaches on Sunday evenings. 

Like some principals I have met, Hornimann is not satisfied with the government's definition of academic success. Although the education department suggests schools should start intervention programmes in April, he starts in January. While pupils can technically pass to the next grade with 45%, Hornimann labels students who pass with this grade "intervention learners" and they immediately get extra help. Forty-five percent is not enough for him.  

Students come from all over,  but Hornimann strives to involve the community of Kharkams. This is partly because of his unique perception of leadership and partly because of how important the school is to the community.   

When he defines leadership, he speaks of his relationship with teachers and pupils but then goes further. "I am not supposed to be on a higher level than the poorest of the poor. You must welcome them at your home. You must be welcomed at their home," he says. His home, of course, is the school. 

"It doesn't matter, their status in the community. They are people, they are God's people; they are part of this school and part of the school community. You must involve them in every aspect."

He not only involves traditional institutions such as churches and the police department, but also reaches out to individuals. Some community members clean the school and a group of women — who call themselves "Women Against Crime" — provide security. The school doesn't have the funds to pay these people, but he gives them food hampers at the end of each month. 

Amid the extra classes, interventions and planning, Hornimann articulates another strategy. "We give children love. They are part of us and we are part of them."

His dreams for his students often involve leaving Kharkams and achieving big goals. "They can go out to the broader South Africa [and] be the man or the woman they want to be. They can want to be the president of South Africa. And then they can say, 'I'm coming from Kharkams High School and now I'm the president of South Africa.' "

Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker. This is her fifth article about the video series, Schools That Work, she is directing on disadvantaged schools that achieve exceptional results. The series was conceived by University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen. For more information go to vimeo.com/schoolsthatwork or email [email protected]

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