By Brian Davis, Ph.D., Superintendent, Holland Public Schools
Recently I had the chance to spend time immersing myself in the homes, streets, schools, villages and amazing wildlife of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. From walking the streets of District Six and learning about Apartheid; shuffling through the enclosed courtyard at Robben Island; standing outside of Nelson Mandela’s cell where he spent 18 years of his life; walking the hallways of an overcrowded and underfunded elementary school; and sitting in the shade of a leafless tree in the Ncube Village; this was a lifetime opportunity for me and a trip I had looked forward to for years.
Little did I really know that these experiences would yield lessons that were life-changing in many ways. For people who have so little, in comparison to what many have here stateside, I wonder if they are not some of the wealthiest people on the planet? Their sense of hope, great appreciation and support and dependence on community is amazing. Their character includes everything from giving of their self for strangers, forgiveness and holding no grudges for things they can not change from their past. They can only live for today, and hope for the future. Some might say, life is good.
Prestwich Street Primary School is in the center of Cape Town, South Africa. It is a renovated Lutheran Church to serve 600 students with a current enrollment of 770. Class sizes of 45 are not uncommon as families pay to have their children attend 220 days of school from as far away as 25 kilometers. Sometimes, families have to decide which of their children will attend school due to limited family income and tuition ($25/month). Parents also have to pay for transportation to the school ($50/month). While the average family income is approximately $33,000 compared to the U.S. of $55,000, just over 40 percent of people aged 15-64 have a paid job compared to an unemployment rate in the U.S. of under 4 percent.
In this high poverty school, with four computers, no media center or classroom libraries, a playground where parking spaces are rented out to area business professionals, porridge is served for breakfast and lunch, and few extracurricular activities, there is a strong commitment to learning and literacy. At Prestwich, teachers are responsible for providing language instruction in the 11 native languages of South Africa before English and Afrikaans are formally taught in second grade. Nearly half of a teacher’s wage goes to pay for their own housing.
Walking these hallways I found young people eager to learn and share, committed teachers working alongside parents, evidence of government mandated curriculum and assessments, an emphasis on positive behavior intervention supports, and a real inequity in school funding between neighborhoods and public/private sectors. All of the children were happy to be in school and had no complaint of the school uniforms required.
The principal does everything he can to ensure teachers are equipped with the best resources possible, students are safe (barbed wire rests along the top of the perimeter wall), conflicts resolved, and that children are engaged in learning. The principal receives $27,235/month to operate the school or the equivalency of $425/student per year, compared to just over $8,111/student per year as the minimum foundation grant in Michigan.
“We can only hope for change, we live day by day.” — Principal Mahdi
Over 1,500 miles to the North in the Ncube Village, I sit under a leafless tree with Crispen Ncube. He is very proud to share with me the generational ownership of his land, the making of each hut by hand, the daily walk of over six kilometers per day for fresh water, the parched red-orange sand not fertile to grow produce to eat, and a currency of chickens. His family eats a rationed one meal/day and share stories, songs, and celebrations each night together. A barking dog at night ignites the need for fire and beating of drums to ward off hyenas in search of goats/cows or elephants in search of pumpkins.
His dream? A school for his village to educate the nearly 60 children in the area. How did two people with similar goals in life come together in this way? While it took 50 years to get there, Crispen reminded me time is jealous. While my time is filled with moving forward with everything driving to the future and what comes next, his time is spent more in the present state and living each day in harmony.
Do we really appreciate what we have, or do we self-indulge in wanting more this holiday season as we pour billions of dollars into gifts that will be set aside before the year is complete or returned the next day? Do our students really take advantage of what our schools provide for them with opportunity and access or do we only look forward to snow days and summers of freedom? Are we any better as a result of our shared and lived experiences together as a community? I certainly hope so.