‘Pupils must avoid the soft option’

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That is the motto of a successful Eastern Cape school with mainly township learners.

Ethembeni Enrichment Centre in Port Elizabeth does not look like any other school I have visited. From the outside, it looks like an Italian villa, with its white columns and red-tiled roofs. It has a view of the Indian Ocean, and its long corridors and twists and turns emphasise its age.

It was built as a primary school for the children of British settlers in the 1850s and continued as a school for white children until it closed in the early 1990s. In 1993 it reopened as a finishing school to support matric pupils who didn’t score high enough to enter tertiary education. Later the secondary school was established.

Although located in the city centre, the school draws most of its pupils from surrounding townships, such as Motherwell.

Ethembeni means “place of hope.” The school’s motto is “Avoid the Soft Option”. “[We want] to teach the children life isn’t about second chances,” says principal Elbe Malherbe.

“You need to do what you need to do today — because maybe tomorrow there won’t be another chance. So ‘avoid the soft option’ — don’t go for only the easy things: tackle the difficult things also and try to make a success of that.”

This philosophy is firmly buttressed by the school’s schedule. Classes start at 8.30am and end at 2.30pm — and that’s it. Ethembeni has no morning, after-school or winter classes, unlike most other schools I have visited. But teachers are available before and after school to help pupils.

Malherbe says if the school had additional classes “it would be like telling children: ‘You don’t have to listen now, you can switch off because it’s going to be repeated.’ There’s only one chance in life. Life isn’t about second chances.”

This strategy is working: for years the matric pass rate was 100%. Last year it was 92.7% — the result of a few potholes in the road, she says.

Pupils and teachers affirm her compassion and the strength of her leadership. She demands as much from her teachers as her pupils and they must also internalise the philosophy that the soft option is not for them either.

“I think if you do your job correctly in the class,” says maths teacher Kathy Bosch, “if you utilise the time in the class period properly, it’s not necessary to do anything extra.”

Bosch runs a dynamic maths class — beautifully controlled chaos, infused with her passion for the subject. “Ooh, I’d love to encourage one of them to be a maths teacher one day,” she said, adding, with a smile: “That is not such a terrible job.”

Bosch bends the school rules slightly by holding Saturday classes in the second term when 90% of her pupils come for a three-hour session.

Of course, pass rates are important prizes, but Malherbe sees beyond them. “It’s not the 100% that makes us proud,” she says. “What’s making us proud is that there’s a place for the child in the outside world.”

Grade 11 learner Bulumko Sojola can see that outside world. “We must all join forces to make South Africa a better place,” he says. “I believe that this school is one of the best schools that can groom young people to fight, legally and in the right way, and do better for the country.”

Malherbe is only the third female principal I have met on my travels. Where are the women in school leadership? Maybe I just haven’t found them?

Malherbe frankly expressed her journey to an awareness of apartheid when she was younger and how she arrived at Ethembeni.

“I only became politically converted quite late in my life,” she said. “Growing up in a rural area in South Africa, being white, being privileged — [it was] only when I became involved in black education that I could see how things in this country are so wrong.”

She asked herself: “How could I just play a little role in making things right?” Being principal of Ethembeni has become her role, her focus and her life.

Malherbe doesn’t have her own office but shares a large reception room with three other staff members. She knows what is going on at all times — who stops by, who calls. She has created a space where pupils feel part of a unit, a family — loved, encouraged and disciplined by their principal.

Growing up as a woman, she didn’t have many choices besides becoming a teacher or a nurse, she said. But she loves what she does and would never look back. “I got a broad base with an affluent girls school in Paarl, moving over to teachers’ college, then moving over to so-called coloured education …

“And then in 1995 I saw a little ad in the paper: ‘History teacher wanted at Ethembeni’. This is how I landed up here and I think my mission is nearly completed.”

Teacher Nobatembu Mpambani also reflected personally on race and culture when I asked how she became an English teacher. “When I grew up, I didn’t even like Xhosa. Though it’s my mother tongue, I’ve never liked the clicks and it was quite difficult for me. I chose English because people tend to think it’s a taboo for a black person to actually speak English in an eloquent manner. I saw it as a challenge.”

Mpambani knows the importance of English fluency for her pupils. She wants to eliminate any stigma children have about English and help them to speak it and love it the way that she does.

“I feel more comfortable when I’m speaking in English,” she said. “I thought, if I can speak it eloquently then maybe I will also make black children see that it is not as difficult as they think it is.”

The energy of the school is captured by its choir — from running through chords to singing and dancing — and has one of the most dynamic choir leaders I have ever seen. He was intense and encouraging. “Try to be light although you will not be on your toes — but your singing must be on your toes.”

And pupils at Ethembeni must also always be on their toes as they work hard — rejecting the soft option and mastering the difficult stuff.

Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker. This is the latest of her Mail & Guardian articles 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 tovimeo.com/schoolsthatwork   or email schoolsthatwork@gmail.com  

Photo Caption: Steps to success: Pupils at Ethembeni are encouraged to understand that ‘life isn’t about second chances’

By: Molly Blank

Source: Mail & Guardian

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