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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty In South Africa

This post is by Jonathan D. Jansen.

The small, thin, Black boy got my attention. After going around the class of about 80 Grade 10 children gathered on my university campus, the responses to my single question were familiar and predictable. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Yes, of course, doctors and engineers and pilots and astronauts. That will not happen, at least not if these young minds simply did what they do where they do it in a South African township school. That is, they attend classes and hope the teacher shows up on the day and that textbooks arrive on time and that even if the teacher decides to teach, that she holds enough subject matter knowledge to help the learners learn anything.

And so it is the turn of the small, thin, Black boy to answer the question, and I am stunned by his answer. "I want to be a historian," he says, and then, without prompting, "because in order to know where you're going, you got to know where you're coming from." The class falls deadly silent, then loud applause.

This is my prospective group of "first generation students" (1G, as the intervention is called) who will start university classes in subjects like mathematics and chemistry and law and sociology. But instead of taking these introductory university courses in one year, they will do it over three years so that by the time they finish high school they would be granted exemption from the subjects they passed. More importantly, they would already have this precious thing called "university knowledge"--knowledge of how to use the science laboratories, navigate the large library, ask questions in large classes, summarize key points from a lecture, and do university-level assignments.

More than half the children who start Grade 1 in South Africa will not complete the final year of schooling in Grade 12. And of those in Grade 12 who pass, about 20% of fewer will qualify for university training. Of that group, a small percentage comes from the disadvantaged black schools of the country. And of the students who enroll in the first year of university studies, more than half will drop-out or not complete a university degree. That is the wastage of human potential on a grand scale, and yet we continue to do what we do as if the system will fix itself if human intentions remain noble. The students who are the more likely to successfully run this gauntlet from Grade 1 to a degree tend to be White and Black middle class students.

The University of the Free State does two things in response to this crisis. First, we work directly with the most disadvantaged schools in the country with a carefully-crafted mentoring model for teachers and principals to ensure that knowledge is gained and applied on the site of practice in ways that change the outcomes of schooling in a sustainable way. Second, we take the most promising Grade 10 children out of school and prepare them for university in a parallel education stream (they continue with normal classes) that uses after-school hours, weekends and holidays for extended learning in the 1G program.

I do not know of another way to break the cycle of poverty in homes where no adult has finished school or completed a university degree. The South African data is clear: a young person with a degree normally gets a good job and feeds the benefits of an earned salary back into the home so that other children can complete their schooling while all in that domestic situation at least live a life that is bearable.

There are and should, however, be many critical questions and concerns about this approach, among them the following. Children also need leisure time and this intensive model of schooling can be stressful for young minds. This approach cannot change a system of 27,000 public schools; it can, at best, make a difference in those schools reached by a regional university. This cannot therefore be the task of a public university, whose primary mission is the education of post-school students, but of a government. And, is this kind of intervention sustainable in a poor country? It takes considerable private sector investment to keep the 1G program going and, of course, the goodwill of professors who give of their time and energy to teach children from poor schools in the region.

What do you think? Are you running similar programs at your universities? How is the program preparing students for higher education and beyond?

Jonathan D. Jansen is vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State in central South Africa, the president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, and a fellow of the Academy of Science of the Developing World.
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