SA at work: The world in their palms

2014-01-26 14:00

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New school in poor East Rand township opens amid much joy and optimism.

Charles van Zyl has had a tough and busy two weeks.

The principal of Gauteng’s brand-new Palm Ridge Secondary School is greeted each day by a queue of parents hoping to enrol their children – and, one by one, he sits down with each of them to discuss this.

This way, Van Zyl thinks, his staff can get on with the school’s real business: teaching.

Van Zyl hopes to complete the registration of more than 600 pupils by next week because he wants to get on with the school year as quickly as possible.

The school was opened by Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creesy last week and is a welcome addition to the neighbourhood.

With 25 classrooms, it’s also a source of great relief to nearby schools battling to cope with overcrowded classrooms.

Palm Ridge Secondary also has two laboratories, two multipurpose rooms and a computer room.

Van Zyl apologies that he can’t spend more time with City Press and refers us to Lefa Lekau, who has been a maths and natural sciences teacher for six years.

We find Lekau ringing the bell that announces the end of one class and the start of another.

Like all the other teachers who were hand-picked to teach at Palm Ridge, Lekau is energetic and motivated by the prospect of working at a school that has everything it needs.

He says: “Knowing that government has such a school in an impoverished area like ours motivates everyone to do their best for the learners.

“You will battle to find a government school in a township that has the infrastructure we have and that tells us government is serious about education.”

Palm Ridge is an impoverished community on Gauteng’s East Rand, close to Katlehong and Thokoza.

Recreational facilities are in short supply and Lekau thinks part of the school’s appeal is its clean, new spaces for sport and learning.

“Extramural activities mould a learner’s physical and mental health and if the mind is fresh, the performance in class is good. We count these kids as our own.

“As a resident, I strongly believe this is the best thing to happen for this community.”

For Desmond Benjamin, a veteran maths and science teacher of 25 years, the next four years will be about one major goal: achieving the coveted 100% matric pass.

The school will only have matrics in 2017 because for now it offers only grades 8 and 9, a decision taken deliberately by the Gauteng department of education to allow the pupils to grow naturally in their new environment.

Benjamin is a passionate man who sees potential in pupils where others may only see lost causes.

“When I heard about the facilities I thought about the kind of learners we can produce.

“Other townships don’t have schools with a science laboratory, a library and a computer lab.

“Schools with an athletics track, soccer field and tennis court are only Model C. We have changing rooms for sport.

“All the teachers here have purpose to take these children all the way to Grade 12 and prepare them for studying thereafter,” says a proud Benjamin.

This excitement and passion is apparent not only in the teachers. Parents and pupils are equally elated at what the new school could mean for them.

Lindokuhle Ntombela (14) grins broadly as he and his mother Nokubonga are ushered from Van Zyl’s office.

The Grade 8 learner has been accepted and is now being taken to his new classroom.

The school doesn’t have its own uniforms yet, meaning all the pupils still wear their old schools’ uniforms.

But Lindokuhle couldn’t care less about how he’s dressed. He just can’t wait to start classes at his new school.

Nokubonga, who lives in Palm Ridge’s Extension 9 and works at a large produce company in the area, doesn’t care that she’ll be late for work.

“Every parent wants to send their children here. Although we’ve been sent from pillar to post, that is nothing compared to knowing your child will get the best education on offer in our community,” she says.

Unlike most schools in the Gauteng North district, the medium of instruction at Palm Ridge is English, something that has piqued parents’ interest.

With many learners living within walking distance from the school, parents say they will save between R300 and R400 per child each month on transport.

Before they enrolled at Palm Ridge, many pupils had to wake up around 5am to walk long distances or catch a school bus.

Some parents have brought children from as far as KwaZulu-Natal to register, but many were turned away because of the strict admissions policy, which includes a good academic record at their last school.

Tlotla Lebesa (13) is in Grade?8 this year.

“Other schools have sports and library facilities, but not like this school. I love everything about it, from the cafeteria to the green lawns. I’m happy I won’t walk too far to school and the teachers have been great and helpful,” says the bright girl who wants to study medicine one day.

Her classmate Sergio Mathe?(14) wants to be a banker and believes he can achieve this by studying at Palm Ridge. He says: “I think this environment is the best place to learn because we are all motivated. We are privileged to have such a school.”

The school’s influence is felt beyond its classrooms.

Lucy Dlamini, one of many local women who have started selling food and refreshments outside the concrete fence, says she does not remember the last time something this good made such an impact on her community.

She says: “Everyone wants to learn here. The young children too young to enrol here wished they were old enough to attend this school. It brings new hope that life will get better for our children.”

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