What if we re-imagine South African education, so that we might build capacity and aspiration instead of having to deal with dropouts and failure?
This is the question that Streetlight Schools is answering by establishing schools with high-quality education programmes in low-income communities. In January 2016, we opened our first school, Streetlight: Jeppestown. The school is situated in one of the most challenging suburbs in inner-city Johannesburg in Gauteng. Today, we have 128 students divided between Grade R and Grade 2 classes, all living in and around Jeppestown. Well into our second school year and after a thorough process of establishing and adjusting our model, we see great results.
This article provides insight into the lessons that we’ve learned about the trust and responsibility we build upon to create quality schooling, as well as the social strategies that we use to effectively engage with the contexts in which we operate.
Trust and responsibility: the foundation of our school culture
Demonstrating and building an environment of trust is at the heart of why we spend significant time fostering strong relationships. In addition, trust comes with responsibility for each member of our community – whether they are a student, a teacher or a parent. Trust allows space for people to grow and unlock their potential. It is vital for a learning environment that develops self-driven creativity and inquiry that teachers and students feel trusted in their work. We have seen how students organise themselves during learning activities, how they engage in peer education when they solve problems and how they create together.
Responsibility relates to how we understand our roles in education and the expectations we have for each role: teacher, student and parent. For example, the parents are expected to ensure that their child comes to school physically and mentally prepared. The students are expected to follow common rules and routines for our school culture and academic work. Being 100% responsible as a teacher is linked to how we understand the child, the learning process, and the way to succeed in school. We regard the teacher as the most important factor in a child’s school life, as the most important resource in education. If a child struggles in a subject, it is not the child but the teacher who is responsible for identifying the challenges and finding proper solutions, so that the child can overcome challenges and grow further.
Love and reason: recognising the social and emotional needs of learners
Students’ social and emotional well-being is the foundation for their ability to learn. Their cognitive growth depends on their ability to focus, concentrate and enjoy learning activities. That is why we have a strong focus on our social learning environment, emphasising inclusivity and positive relations. Our social strategy has developed along with our increased knowledge and experience of the kind of challenges our students are facing, and a realisation of what we can and cannot do as a school.
The human effects of poverty, unemployment, violence and insecurity, which most families live with in Jeppestown, is brought into our school every day and becomes visible through the students’ behaviour, typically falling along a spectrum between silent and protective or violent and aggressive. The consequences range from slow learning progress to unmanageable behaviour. The biggest cause for the socialemotional challenges we see in our school is the amount of physical and mental abuse students are experiencing at home. Based on a year with a close follow-up with our students, we estimate that between 60% and 70% of them are abused on a near-daily basis.
Roughly the same percentage of students come from broken families, where they either live with one parent or with other relatives. Every day, these children face the emotional stress of not having stable homes or responsible caregivers in their lives. In addition, living in poverty means that they lack the stimuli of toys, books and activities during their upbringing, which would otherwise provide a basis of knowledge and skills needed to be school-ready. Our students’ social baggage is heavy with exposure and experiences related to the adult world: they have very limited resources to filter it or understand how to deal with it. As a way of handling their situations, they often tend to show their anxiety and anger through challenging behaviour. So, what can we do as a school?
Using the Responsive Classroom approach