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Friday, October 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:30 A.M.
Principals from half a world away connect on issues of race, achievement
By Linda Shaw
Seven South African principals, in Seattle as part of a new exchange program, work in buildings that make even Seattle's aging schools look grand.
But the work the principals do has striking similarities to their counterparts' jobs in Seattle the long hours, the effort to raise money, and, most of all, the struggle to help low-income students of color catch up to their more affluent, white counterparts.
"What we all share in common is the task of raising levels of achievement and ultimate liberation for kids of color," said Ed Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Washington and one of the trip's organizers.
In the U.S., he says, that means the effort to undo the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow laws. In South Africa, it's apartheid.
Taylor first visited South Africa three years ago as part of a UW trip. Since then, he's helped set up a partnership between Triomf Primary School in Port Elizabeth, a growing city on South Africa's Eastern Cape, and St. Therese, a Seattle Catholic school. Last February, he organized a trip that included staff from Seattle public schools T.T. Minor Elementary and Franklin High.
Together, that group raised money to bring the seven South African principals here for two weeks. A teacher and two staff members at the Delta Foundation, an independent South African development agency, also came along.
By the end of the visit, Taylor expects that the seven Port Elizabeth principals will each have formed a partnership with a Seattle public school. By early next year, he hopes to arrange another seven such school-to-school relationships.
But this is not about philanthropy.
"These are people who don't want things given to them," Taylor says. "This is not our gift to them. It's about sharing knowledge and sharing the work."
In the past week and a half, the Port Elizabeth principals have visited a number of schools to observe and teach.
The principals are: Nomvuyo Dubula of Funimfundo ("to seek education and knowledge") Primary; Lunga Dyani of Walmer High; Bruce Damons of Sapphire Road Primary; Lulama Hopa of Loyiso ("to conquer") High; Sipho Matyolo of Cebelihle ("a good idea") Primary; Rodric Peffer of Bethelsdorp High; and Rodney Stowman of Triomf Primary. All seven work in schools in so-called disadvantaged areas black and mixed-race neighborhoods formed under South Africa's nearly 50 years of apartheid.
Some draw students from what are known as "informal" areas where families live in shacks made of cardboard and zinc, or whatever building materials they can find.
Many of their students' parents are unemployed and illiterate.
The South African government gives schools enough money to cover teachers' salaries and most utility bills, but not much else. So the schools must charge an annual fee of $6 or $12 for everything else sometimes even the desks and principals must spend time keeping after families to pay.
In classrooms here, the principals take the opportunity to be ambassadors, patiently explaining to naïve questioners that no, they do not live among lions and giraffes in metropolitan Port Elizabeth or, more enthusiastically, helping students understand the symbolism in a Xhosa poem.
The principals also soak up everything around them from the students' moods to how some students work as teaching assistants, to curriculum. In an English class, they ask for a copy of the last exam on "Macbeth."
They are dazzled by the technology in the schools. They are dismayed by some students' apparent apathy toward education, and their sometimes less-than-respectful behavior.
But the principals also see value in students' freedom here.
"The students they are not holding back," said Walmer High Headmaster Dyani, after a visit to Cleveland High.
"The teacher simply facilitated ... and much of the work was done by students," he said. "It was so amazing what I saw."
To be leaders, he added, South African students should spend less time sitting in straight rows listening to the teacher.
What strikes U.S. educators most about their South African counterparts is their passion, and their sense of urgency.
The democracy in South Africa is so new, and memories of oppression so fresh, that educators see their jobs as essential to their nation's survival.
"To walk into these townships in some of the poorer towns, there is so much squalor, pain and degradation," said the UW's Taylor. "You can literally step across the threshold of a school, and feel the hope and feel the potential and you can sense, by talking to the kids ... that the future of democracy lies on those faces."
Franklin High Principal Jennifer Wiley, who was on the February trip to South Africa, said the experience "rekindled my firm belief in the role public education plays in building democracy."
Wiley also is impressed that these South African schools, even with such high poverty rates, still succeed in helping 70-80 percent of their students pass national high-school exams.
But the South African principals quickly point out that the passage rate although high is often not based on a very high standard. They're eager to look at what's expected in Seattle and Washington state and some picked up copies of sample questions from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), this state's most important exam.
Because they've won freedom, the principals say, they must now help students gain the skills they need to get better jobs, so that the effects of apartheid don't linger. One part of U.S. history they don't want to repeat is the fact that black, Latino and Native American students here, as groups, don't perform on par with white or Asian students.
"We would like to avert a situation that could be identical to yours," said Dyani.
"We live in one world," he added. "Even if we are divided by seas. We need to exchange ideas to see how we can bring students to make a meaningful contribution to the economy of this world."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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