When personal and social issues collide there are rarely any safety nets or caring outsiders to help kids stay on the right path, writes Tracy Hackland
South Africa’s school dropout rate has hit a shocking 60%, with the majority of young pupils not completing matric.
Of those who stay in school to reach the senior grades, half will drop out before their exams.
A wide range of issues lies behind this enormous failure rate, including absent parents, poverty, a lack of adult support, domestic abuse or bullying, relocations and a lack of motivation when education seems less important than foraging for a living.
That’s before you consider the schools, with unqualified or dispirited teachers and poor classroom facilities.
When personal and social issues collide there are rarely any safety nets or caring outsiders to help kids stay on track.
The story of Katlego Russel mirrors the story of many young people: An absent father, instability at home, frequent relocations, the death of his mother, being taken in by his grandmother, mired in poverty and with no comforting place to process grief and difficult emotions.
With no adult figure to provide encouragement, Katlego found it hard to see the point of school.
“I needed to make money and no one was helping me. I couldn’t see the relevance of what we were being taught. I was in class hungry, worried about things at home and totally overwhelmed – I wasn’t receptive to learning.”
He didn’t mention his problems to his teachers, he saw it as his personal plight.
The final straw was walking home one day to see their meagre household contents on the pavement.
His granny had been evicted and they were homeless.
The hardship battered Katlego’s self-image. He knew he had less than many others and became hardened and alienated from his classmates.
Then came the pain of failing Grade 10, drawing criticism about his underperformance from people unaware of his background problems.
He dropped out of school and anticipated a future as an aimless thug.
Yet the Katlego I reconnected with recently has become a powerful young leader and an active contributor to society.
I’m struck by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, his confidence and humility.
Most of all I’m struck by his deep service ethic and sense of purpose shown through his contribution to society in the past few years.
Katlego, very reluctantly, had been encouraged to return to school by an adult.
His return coincided with his school choosing to work with Columba Leadership, an organisation that helps principals, teachers and pupils untap their leadership potential.
“I was lucky,” he says.
“The vice-principal invited me to participate in the leadership programme, which required me to write about the change I wished to see in my life, my school and my community.”
Katlego was selected and joined the week-long residential academy that kicks off a three-year programme.
“From the first day things shifted. Suddenly, I was engaged in activities that had meaning. I was in a safe space where we could all share what was going on in our lives.
“I was helped to realise that I had value, that I could contribute and that I had a purpose in life.”
He and 11 of his peers returned to school as young leaders and began actively resolving problems at the school using their own ingenuity.
They cleaned the toilets. They planted a vegetable garden to contribute to the school feeding scheme.
They put on a musical show that raised more than R30 000 and they ran academic study sessions twice a week.
They visited people in old-age homes to keep them company and visited other schools and children’s homes to help them develop their own self-worth and not be defeated by their circumstances.
By now Katlego actively wanted to be at school to bring about changes and recreate himself in a different light.
His focus shifted to where he was going, not where he had been. He grew receptive to learning and his marks improved.
The story of Katlego’s turnaround is not unique. About 90% of pupils who take part in Columba Leadership’s programme complete their schooling – far above the 40% national average.
The organisation has worked with 200 schools across South Africa so far, helping thousands of youngsters to redirect their own future by gaining self-esteem and skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, resilience and an ethos of ethical leadership.
They become role models who contribute to improving discipline and creating a more conducive environment for learning.
Although we cannot afford to touch every school yet, our practical experience can be repeated by educators who realise that youngsters have the inner resources to rise above their circumstances and make changes if they are given the opportunity and responsibility.
Schools need to nurture their pupils and help them unleash their potential, otherwise the dropout rate will continue to climb.
Tracy Hacklandis the CEO of Columba Leadership, where Katlego now works. Visit columba.org.za