Leaving no child behind: The road to Zero School Dropout – Interview Series #1

Last week we introduced the Zero School Dropout Initiative and explored the magnitude of the issue. We continue our series by hearing from two of our six partners. First up is Ashley Visagie of Bottomup and Daleen Labuschagne of the Khula Development Group.

Ashley Visagie – Bottomup

What motivates you to work in this space?

Half our students from grade R aren’t making it through the system. It’s not just about statistics; it’s about people’s lives.

Having grown up on the Cape Flats, I know what education means for people. I know what it translates to when you’re successful. Our Bottomup team were the fortunate ones who were able to access good quality education. In the communities we’re working with, there is a large percentage of students who fell through the system. You have a large proportion ending up in gang life, but an even larger proportion end up in factory life, which is exactly what apartheid imagined for the people living on the Cape Flats. It’s not even the fees that prevent kids from getting their education. There are other factors that keep them disengaged. I’m motivated to try to shift this so that more people have the opportunity to participate in our society on equal terms, through a more just and equitable schooling system.

What was your biggest learning from last year?

We started our work with some assumptions about school dropout. Some of these were correct – like the total disconnect between learners visualising their path to success. They had dreams for their future and knew what they wanted to become but lacked understanding of how to get there and of alternative routes they could take if something went wrong. However, these assumptions weren’t enough. There are certain issues within schools that prevent learning. For example, some of the schools we work with still practice corporal punishment and lock the gates during the school day, preventing latecomers from entering the school. These factors create an environment where learners don’t feel safe or don’t want to be at school. We felt it was important to look at these things from a macro level and school level. Halfway through last year, we implemented the action research process where students and teachers dialogue together around these issues. Having this conversation is a step in the right direction, together with helping parents understand their role in their child’s education and in holding the school to account.

What is Bottomup’s vision for the year ahead?

Our vision is to create the small victories for students to help them realise they do have power even in the school context.

We also want to get students to take ownership of their school grounds and how they organise themselves. We want them to take pride in their space and themselves because at the moment they don’t have that school identity. To them, it’s the government’s school, teachers’ school or principal’s school – not their school.

How do you feel about the year ahead?

I’m quite positive about the year ahead. I like that DGMT has given us the scope to go ahead with these action research groups and the teacher workshops as part of our new focus. Our whole team feels energised about this. We’re excited to see where this takes us. Even if it doesn’t solve school dropout, I think it will take away some of the barriers we see in the schools, such as an end to corporal punishment or bullying at school.

What advice would you give to other NGOs working in this space?

Don’t make too many assumptions upfront and spend enough time with the schools to understand how dropout manifests in each school. Spend time with the school to know what factors make things better or worse.

Daleen Labuschagne – Khula Development Group

What motivates you to work in this space?

It motivates me to know that for most of the learners our intervention provided the only contact with a loving adult and consistent support. I know we make a difference. It may be small when you look at numbers in terms of the scale of the issue, but it makes a difference to each child to know that they’re supported. One mother was addicted to drugs and experienced trauma when she was young. Sadly, she didn’t care for her kids. After several invitations to our primary caregiver’s group, she attended a session. We saw her realising her dependency and wanting to change.

It’s when you see the change – the light that switches on in their eyes when they know they are seen as people – that motivates me.

What was your biggest learning from last year?

Last year was an intense growth period for KDG in all areas of our work. From developing our fieldworkers and really looking deeper into their cases to empowering and advancing our staff members. If I could emphasise one thing, it’d be the improvement of our database to manage our caseload. This assisted our decision-making processes, and with our monitoring and evaluation. Now whenever someone calls us or we need to do a report, we can tap into this. I love telling the stories that emerge from our work, but I can see that having a database like this has really improved our service delivery.

What is KDG’s vision for the year ahead?

Last year, we identified that we need to equip our volunteers, who are working in schools with learners, with more structure and support. We hired the services of an Occupational Therapist who developed a workbook for us that looks at basic literacy and numeracy and takes into consideration the child’s developmental needs. Our vision for the year ahead is to ensure that all children in our programme have access to this workbook.

Another part of our vision for the year ahead is to make school attendance a priority for all. We’ll be doing this through the mobilisation of teachers, parents and the Junior Town Council.

At the end of last year, we decided that we would pay more attention to promoting school attendance than on the negative side of tracking absenteeism all the time. We want to impart the value that attending school is very good for you and encouraging the community to see this too. It’s a massive culture shift.

We also want to support the teachers more – to appreciate what they are doing and make them understand how important they are. We’re trying to motivate the teachers to have a Zero Dropout mentality. We know it will be a process of relationship building and the teachers will need to buy into the fact that capturing data is something to be cared about and not just ticked off their list.

We also want to see our peer mentorship programme take root and grow. Members of the Junior Town Council of Paarl will be mentoring school children. These mentors are from the same circumstances but have managed to reach grade 10 and 11. We’re looking at what helped them to stay in school. We want to encourage young people to see the important role they play in helping their peers stay in school.

How do you feel about the year ahead?

I’m very excited and a little scared. We know where we want to go, but we also realise that we don’t know everything. Khula means growth in Xhosa, and we are a developing and growing organisation. This is why we’re excited about DGMT and their input, as it’s a learning process. It motivates me because in the end it’s aimed at being more effective and reaching more children.

What advice would you give to other NGOs working in this space?

Don’t be discouraged. The data doesn’t always reflect the change. For instance, in our primary caregiver’s programme, we have so many children in the programme, but if only five mothers attend, we will focus on them and encourage them to be better parents. If one mother changes, the ripple effect of her change will impact a generation. You can’t reach all children, but believe in your mission and keep on doing your work with passion and enthusiasm. If you believe in your work, other people will too.

In the next instalment, we will feature interviews with Ilze Olivier of Community Action Partnership and Jenny Rist of SAILI.

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