This school is on fire

2014-11-03 13:00

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About 45 minutes into a strait-laced interview, Masibambane High School principal Rajan Naidoo breaks into a short but surprisingly spirited version of Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire.

This musical interlude gives us a glimpse into how Naidoo and his team have turned the school in one of Cape Town’s poorest areas into one of the city’s best performers.

Masibambane High is flanked by shacks and RDP houses in Bloekombos, Kraaifontein. Its 1?629 pupils routinely give the Cape’s top private schools a run for their money in debating competitions and expos.

Among its 2014 matrics are two who have already been accepted to study medicine at Stellenbosch University.

The school also had two provincial top achievers in 2011. Asavela Rawe achieved seven distinctions (including 98% for higher grade maths) and his classmate, Mode Simbosini, got 98% for higher grade maths and two further distinctions. Both are now studying actuarial science at the University of Cape Town.

In Naidoo’s spacious but spartan office is a trophy declaring Masibambane High the winner of the recently held SA Institute of International Affairs Sasol Environmental Sustainability Project.

Tumelo Chere and Alpha Chihora beat finalists from Rhenish Girls’ High, St George’s Grammar School, Bishops College and Somerset College to clinch the trophy.

In 2001, Masibambane’s pupils studied in overcrowded prefab classrooms. Construction took a disruptive decade, and when Naidoo arrived at the school in 2003, it had a 39% matric pass rate.

A year later, 76% of Masibambane’s matrics passed. Naidoo said this was achieved partly by working with the late senior circuit manager Ntombi Dwane to flush out a corrupt school governing body.

That was just the start. Masibambane’s staff work tirelessly, often staying at school until 7pm or 8pm – whether it’s during exam time or just to run extracurricular activities.

Pupils are encouraged to form their own study groups and the school organises transport home for those who want to stay late. Many of Masibambane’s pupils don’t even have a desk at home, so they prefer to study at school. Classes run throughout the school holidays.

Naidoo says he believes in differentiated teaching: getting pupils involved in every quiz, debate and internal school award he can find or invent means stronger students can excel and those who struggle can get all the attention they need to improve.

“A one-size-fits-all approach loses the stronger and the weaker pupils,” he says.

Aphiwe Hokolo is writing her matric exams at the moment. She came to Masibambane in Grade 11.

“This school changed the vision I had. [Before I came here] I was just another face in the classroom,” says Hokolo.

“I found Masi inspiring. Most teachers understand us as individuals. My marks improved, and I met people who are now like sisters to me.”

Tumelo Chere walked out of his Grade 12 geography exam positive he’d achieved a distinction, and he told City Press his teachers were “informative and supportive”.

“They go the extra mile and create a positive environment for learning to create a school able to overcome the obstacles of its environment.”

It’s clear that Masibambane’s pupils regard their school as a safe space.

“I have a strong belief that the environment has a massive impact on the subconscious,” says Naidoo.

“We strive to create an atmosphere in which pupils feel relaxed and involved in learning.”

That’s why, when he’s not working to keep the school’s matric pass rate at 90% and higher, Naidoo sings.

He performed a version of Keys’ hit at the school valedictory ceremony, with a small adjustment to the lyrics: instead of ‘girl’, he sang “This school is on fire.” – West Cape News

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