A school with passion
In 2000, Vuyiswa-Mtolo Senior Secondary School in KwaMashu, an impoverished township in Durban, was shut down when it received a zero per cent pass rate for matric, the school-leaving exam. Today, it is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s best performers with a pass rate of almost 99 per cent. You only have to walk into the principal’s office to see the collection of trophies and awards perched on top of a filing cabinet to appreciate the extraordinary progress that has been achieved.
What was behind the school’s dramatic recovery?
After the temporary closure of the school, the principal, Mr E M Masonda, was determined to turn the school around. “Other educators told me that I wasn’t going to do any wonders,” explains Mr Masonda, “But I thought I’d do my level best to make the situation better.”
Mr Masonda made key changes to how the school operated. He got rid of under-performing educators who he felt were contributing to the low pass rate and decided to teach the matric class himself, using a blend of tough love and motivational guidance to bring the best out of his students. He also hired a dynamic deputy principal, Mrs Confidence Thokozile Makhathini, who was just as committed to saving this sinking ship.
Mrs Makhathini’s appointment coincided fortuitously with the official launch of the Girls Education Movement (GEM) in South Africa, a UNICEF-supported initiative that aims to make education more accessible to girls and promotes gender equality and safety in schools. Mrs Makhathini took on the task of introducing GEM to Vuyiswa-Mtolo.
The result is an extracurricular GEM club with 46 members, both girls and boys. The club has played a vital role in the school’s transformation by making Vuyiswa-Mtolo a safe place for learning. ‘Our school used to be a school of thugs. The school was vandalized. No windows, no doors, even the toilets were broken, “ says 15-year-old student, Nokuthula. “Big boys from the community used to collude with male students and come to the school to steal our cell phones, sandwiches and teachers’ jewellery at gunpoint.”
The GEM members invited the so-called gangsters, some of whom had brothers and sisters in the school, for talks. The purpose was to make the boys see why education was important and to foster a sense of connection. Soon the boys became the schools’ allies. “Now these boys act as our security guards,” says Nokuthula.
GEM has also enhanced the children’s academic performance. In addition to her managerial role, Mrs Makhathini is a mathematics teacher. Her mentoring at the club has encouraged students, especially girls, to study maths, a subject many would rather avoid. “I joined the GEM club because I had an academic problem. I didn’t like maths,” says 19-year-old Summer Rose who is in her final year, “The maths teacher made an effort to teach me. I failed my first exam but then I started doing better. In my second test, I got 55 per cent.” Nokuthula adds in support of her friend, “Yes, with GEM, you have a passion to come to school!”
Vuyiswa-Mtolo has much to be proud of. Teachers and students have come together to build their school, one step at a time. What is astounding is that with everything they have managed to do, the school is still without the basics. It does not have a library, there is no computer room, a school hall is desperately needed and the sports ground consists of an uneven grassy patch that turns to mud when it rains. It goes to show that when there is vision, passion and commitment, a lot can be done with very little.