School triumphs against all odds

Bright future: This classroom is a step up from being taught under a tree, but the school does not have enough chairs or desks. (Felix Seuffert)

Bright future: This classroom is a step up from being taught under a tree, but the school does not have enough chairs or desks. (Felix Seuffert)

'There is this saying — 'never judge a book by its cover'," says Snegugu Khumalo, a former pupil at Mpumelelo Secondary School in KwaZulu-Natal. "I would say the same thing. Let the conditions make [people] not judge this school because basically what is inside, what this school produces, is what will change the world." 

So what are the conditions that she is referring to? 

Nearby stands a beloved tree with a rich history — grade 10s were taught there for two years before more classrooms were built. Principal Bonginkosi Maphanga's Toyota Tazz served as the school's staffroom for many years. A classroom filled to the brim with 98 pupils — better, he says, than last year, when there were 102. 

The school was started in 2005 and was the first in the community. Eight years on, staff and pupils would say things are slowly getting better. Today, pupils still share chairs, sit on bricks and blocks, and sometimes squat or sit on the floor. 

When it rains, they move around to avoid water dripping on to their books. Pit toilets remain. There are three mobile classrooms, and all are very crowded. Yet Maphanga said he still has to send interested children away, not because of a lack of desks, but a lack of floor space. 

Studying for a better future
Grade 12 pupil Andile Makhowana doesn't dwell on the conditions at the school because they are not so ­different from those at home, where he studies by candlelight. He is at the school for his future.

For most pupils and staff at Mpumelelo, which is in Loskop on the edge of the Drakensberg mountains, ­conditions are upsetting but not a hindrance. 

I have been in crowded classrooms before, but there is nothing like watching 98 grade eight pupils ­quietly listening, raising their hands, following directions — you could almost hear a pin drop.

Back in 2010, when South Africa was hosting the Soccer World Cup, Mpumelelo was celebrating the arrival of electricity — and another year of 100% matric pass rates. 

In 2009, still without electricity, Mpumelelo also managed to achieve a 100% pass rate. The school decided to ask nearby residents who had electricity to help by letting pupils into their homes to study together. 

Water arrived
Last year, with financial assistance, water arrived. Maphanga no longer had to drive down to the river to fetch buckets of ­drinking water for the staff and pupils and for the people who cook lunch with food supplied by the national feeding scheme. 

One key to Maphanga's success is how its pupils' expectations are met. As a former teacher, I have had numerous discussions about how pupils rise to the expectations of teachers. Pupils may say: "I just can't do it." Or, as one teacher in Limpopo told me what one of her pupils said: "Just give me a zero, ma'am, because I'll fail anyway." Some expect nothing of themselves and cannot envision a future beyond their dismal situation.

But the power of a teacher conveying faith in a child's abilities cannot be underestimated. To say: "You are capable" and "I will help you get there" can create a previously untapped confidence. Knowing that a teacher has high expectations of their pupils helps many of them to rise to meet those expectations. 

Is this any different from our expectations of each other, of our communities and of our schools? Driving up the dirt road to the school, I knew that Mpumelelo was unique. I knew that regardless of how the school and the area around it looked — and I must say it was painful to see — the school was successful. 

But if you drove up, would you presume much less? Would you have no expectations whatsoever? If so, this wouldn't be surprising, given the challenges facing so many rural schools in South Africa.

Initially, even the community was sceptical and had few expectations of the school. People couldn't understand how their children could learn with only six teachers, two classrooms and a large tree. But the community was soon convinced.

Proud
Nelisiwe Mabaso, whose children went to Mpumelelo, now helps cook lunch for the pupils. "As a parent who is illiterate," says Mabaso, "I am very proud to be associated with this school because through its high standard of education … I feel like my future is bright." 

Living in an area with high levels of unemployment, widespread illiteracy and few basic amenities, much of the community, including Maphanga, put their eggs in one basket — the school. He works tirelessly to imbue high expectations and show the power of an institution to transform a community. 

"As an educator, as the principal, you listen to the community. What is it they expect from you as a school?" Maphanga says. "As the first high school in the area … we want to make sure that we produce better pupils to become better citizens so that the whole mirror about this community is changing."

An English teacher told me that one thing that motivates her is the hope that her pupils will have a better life than she has had. 

The department of basic education defines underperforming pupils as those who receive less than a 35% pass in their matric exams. It is a shockingly low number, and again brings into question the department's expectations of pupils and their communities. 

Maphanga's definition of "underperforming" would confound many in the department. Last year, he told me the school was underperforming because it "only" got a 94.2% pass rate, rather than the 100% of the previous three years. This year, he said, they will be back to 100%. Maphanga, his deputy and a few teachers all have children who attend the school. 

"I will change the world, but I was cooked here," said Snegugu Khumalo, who is now a fourth-year engineering student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

"The foundation that will make me stand and change the world is the foundation I attained here — in this school that people will take for granted. This school they will say [is] disadvantaged … These teachers are not just teaching them about what is in the books, but they also teach them about life. They build them." 

Building them, most pupils would say, to get "the key" to opportunity — an education. But though it is the way out, many pupils expect more of themselves — they want their education to transform their own lives, their families and their communities, just as Maphanga expects.

Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker. This is the seventh of 10 articles about the video series that she is directing called Schools That Work. The series focuses 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 schools­[email protected]

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