Youth Day 2013: Too many South African learners continue to struggle against long odds

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sparked by a government mandate that black schools teach in Afrikaans instead of English, South Africa’s 1976 Soweto riots touched off worldwide awareness of the brutalities of apartheid. The riots began when 10,000 angry teenagers staged a march. Police opened fire, killing 23. The uprising that followed lasted months and claimed hundreds of lives, including that of a young buy, Hector Pieterson, whose image became an iconic symbol of the unfairness of the system and its cost to children.

Apartheid ended in 1991, but its legacy still plays out in the educational gulf that separates disadvantaged South African students from their wealthier, and often white, peers. June 16, Youth Day, commemorates the start of the Soweto struggle. It’s a fitting time to highlight the amazing impact schools working to change student outcomes, and to call for the systemic transformation that’s needed to turn what are still slim odds of success into a distant memory.

Khayelitsha & COSAT: A study in the difference one impact school can make

Khayelitsha is a sprawling township located 35 kilometers outside of Cape Town. Founded in 1985, the township grew to an estimated 406,779 residents within 20 years.

Since then, rapid, informal growth has made accurate population numbers hard to come. What we do know is that life in the township is unstructured and hard, and the population is young. About 70 percent of residents still live in shacks, and one in three people has to walk 200 meters or further to access water. Approximately 40 percent of the township’s residents are under 19 years of age, and another roughly 27 percent are of school-going age.

We also know that the educational opportunities for children in Khayelitsha and townships like it are vanishingly slim. According to official figures, only about 40  percent of young South Africans nationwide obtain any qualification beyond grade nine. In 2011, 2,894 Khayelitsha students in 20 secondary schools, made it to and sat for the matric exams administered at the end of Grade 12. Of those who sat, a scant 16 percent earned a bachelors pass (the qualification needed for access to university.) And only 20 students went on to study at the University of Cape Town(UCT), a tertiary institution with an enrollment of over 25,000 students that’s located near Khayelitsha.

How did 20 children overcome so much? Impact schools

So among all the children in Khayelitsha, how did 20 manage to overcome so much to make it to UCT? Thanks to the extraordinary work of high-impact schools. In fact, for fully half, the opportunity came courtesy of one public school, the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT.) The school made history last year when the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) named COSAT one of the top ten schools in the province — the first time that a township school had achieved that distinction.

COSAT is a member of the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition, which aims to provide high quality education for disadvantaged learners in spite of extreme challenges. Non-governmental organizations like Ikamva Youth seek to help high school graduates from disadvantaged communities gain the knowledge, skills, networks and resources to access tertiary education and employment opportunities. UCT itself has recently launched a 100 Up program to work with top students from 20 high schools in Khayelitsha to ensure they have access to the university.

Systemic change & private-public partnerships: The key to transformation

But heroic efforts like these will never be enough to drive the systemic changes that children across South Africa need. We need a more comprehensive approach that transforms today’s slim educational odds into a distant memory. Twenty students entering a prestigious university from the closest township isn’t okay. Such small numbers will never drive the systemic transformation those of us fighting for change are seeking.

To eradicate the cycle of inequity, we must make the case that South Africa’s government and private enterprise invest in supporting and replicating schools of excellence like COSAT. Without a concerted effort to make affordable access to high quality education a given for all South Africans, UCT and other top-tier institutions of higher learning will continue to serve a very small minority of privileged learners. And those countless learners who attend ill-resourced schools day in and day out will be denied the promise of a better future for themselves and their families.

A version of this story originally ran on June 25, 2012. Read additional posts about impact schools and how they can make a difference for disadvantaged South African students here.