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Zikhethele gets some help

A school in Devon is one of 20 poor but promising facilities singled out for help through the IDC's Whole School Development Programme. Zikhethele Secondary is going places.

March 28, 2013

Zikhethele Secondary School Maths teacher Sheppard MoyoZikhethele Secondary School Maths teacher Sheppard MoyoIn the centre of a net of tiny RDP houses and shacks in the impoverished and isolated township of Devon, on Gauteng's East Rand, is Zikhethele Secondary School, the only beacon of hope for the youth of the area.

With 953 pupils enrolled this year, the school not only services the immediate community but also the surrounding informal settlements such as Zenzele and neighbouring farm areas. It has a history of poor performance, but that has been improving steadily in recent years, particularly in mathematics and science.

Zikhethele, a non-fee paying school in the Sedibeng District, is one of 20 schools across South Africa adopted by the Industrial Development Corporation through its Whole School Development Programme. The IDC is working in partnership with Adopt a School Foundation, an NGO, on the venture. The adopted schools will be under the wing of the two organisations for five years.

Launched in early March, the Whole School Development Programme is designed to help disadvantaged but promising schools to perform better in science, maths and technology. Through its intervention, the IDC and its partner will provide extensive training for teachers specialising in these subjects.

Pupils and teachers alike at Zikhethele are beating the odds in many ways. Against the backdrop of dire poverty, absent parental support in most cases and almost empty laboratories, they lifted the bar in 2012, predominantly in mathematics and science. And they are sweating blood and tears to do even better at the end of 2013.

The matric pass rate in mathematics rose from a dismal 9 percent in 2011 to 47 percent in 2012; in physical science, it improved from 12 percent in 2011 to 52 percent in 2012. Principal Diemiso Zitha says the 2012 matric results signalled a light at the end of the tunnel. "It shows that there is potential within the school. We are hoping the IDC is going help us improve on these results."

She says the teachers are enthusiastic about the Whole School Development Programme. "The educators are positive and prepared for the help we are going to get." Zitha, who arrived at the school in 1994 as a teacher, before being promoted to deputy principal in 2003 and eventually to principal, has witnessed the school's struggle to produce good results – and the dramatic turning point in 2012.

She explains that maths and science teachers of grades eight and nine should be prioritised for training as they are key to laying a strong foundation. "The other thing I have noticed is that educators who are teaching mathematics and science in grades eight and nine are the ones who need thorough development."

Work very, very hard

Zikhethele Secondary School Principal Diemiso ZithaZikhethele Secondary School Principal Diemiso ZithaZitha speaks with the conviction of a church minister and is undoubtedly committed to taking the school to greater heights. Displayed in bold letters on the notice board in her office are the words: "To be part of achieving our target of 75%, work very very hard." The target for 2013 is, of course, 75 percent.

To achieve this, the school is holding compulsory afternoon and evening studies on weekdays. The sessions run from 3pm to 5pm for maths, and from 5pm to 7pm for physical science. In addition, there are maths classes on Saturdays, even though many teachers have to travel great distances to get to work and some depend on public transport to get around. Not a single teacher is from the local community. In addition, Zitha points out, teachers are not paid for working out normal of hours.

Indeed, the spirit of hard work can almost be sensed in the school. Teachers scurry past quiet blocks with teaching material in hand, and pupils are settled in classrooms. Back in the principal's office, this attention to the students plays out again. A member of the learner representative council (LRC) walks in, and Zitha quickly stops her work to attend to the girl.

She speaks in eloquent English, giving the principal feedback from a meeting she attended. This gives a sense that teacher and pupils are indeed working together, in line with school's motto of "United Utility for Prosperity".

Language challenges

Yet the challenges are many. Grade 12 science teacher Blessing Magaya points out that communicating in English is still a huge challenge for many of the students. He says their inability to speak and understand English affects their studies. "Most subjects' command language is English."

Magaya, who spent the better of his career teaching in his home country, Zimbabwe, commended the principal for insisting on extra lessons: "According to my experience, this is assisting learners to be constantly in touch with the content nature of the subject."

He emphasises that extra lessons help to keep the pupils focused on their studies and to stay from the many distractions that might take their concentration from their academics.

Sheppard Moyo, a maths teacher for grades 10, 11 and 12, is concerned that his pupils do not understand basic maths theories such as factorisation, exponents and prime factors. Moyo, who is studying for his honours degree in maths methodology through Unisa, says the students cannot understand simple maths concepts such as calculus, because they did not have the right foundation.

Yet he stresses that the school is well on the path to greatness, basing his analysis on the results of the past few years. "In 2010, we had a leaner who obtained 85 percent in maths; that is a distinction. In 2009, we had one level six in maths and in 2012, five students achieved level five in maths."

The overall matric pass rate in the past three years has been inconsistent: in 2010, 117 pupils wrote matric and 52 passed; in 2011, 107 wrote and 41 passed; and in 2012, 113 wrote and 63 passed. "I can say 2012, in terms of quality, were the best so far," Moyo says.

Culture and custom

Zikhethele is based in a community that is very much entrenched in ancient African customs that sometimes interfere with the pupils' academics. One such practice is ingoma, a Zulu phrase for initiation school.

Zitha says male learners are taken away to attend ingoma for a period of three months, every June. "It is hard for the learners to catch up after spending a long time away from school, especially matriculants find it hard. We have tried to engage parents about this but we have not been successful."

Students speak

Speaking to the students themselves, things seem to be going well so far. Maria Tshehla, a 16-year old in Grade 11, is among the top performers in her class. She attributes this to the support from teachers. Maria is second in maths and in the top five best performing pupils in physical science.

She is also pleased with the school's extra lessons initiative. "During school hours we do not get to complete everything," she says. Maria is also one of the few who have support from home: "My parents are behind me all the way." After matric, she aims to study engineering.

In Devon, most parents work far from home as there are no industrial areas nearby .Child-headed families are common, according to the teachers. Another pupil, Thamsanqa Odisa, a 17-year-old in Grade 12, aspires to study mining engineering at the University of Johannesburg – and he is confident that he will achieve good results.

Thamsanqa is hoping for a level six in maths and physical science, and a level five in life science and English, enough to qualify him for the course.

For a school that started operating in a hostel in 1992, Zikhethele has grown considerably. Today, it has nine classroom blocks, each consisting of six classrooms. There are also five mobile classrooms. However, one of the blocks does not have roofing as renovations are continuing.

There are two partially furnished laboratories, one for physical science and the other for life science. But they are used as classrooms as space is limited. There is one computer laboratory with a capacity to accommodate 24 pupils at a time. But internet connections have been terminated because of renovations.

Since the school has a large number of pupils coming from surrounding areas, there are five buses that ferry them in the morning and in the afternoon to and from school, even on Saturdays. The buses are paid for by the government, according to Zitha.

In the middle of the blocks is a huge, paved basketball court, but it sees little action these days according to the pupils – and understandably so, as time for extra mural activities is always going to suffer given the extra lessons put in place.

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