Private business school helps S. African blacks catch up

Twelve-year-old Sharon Khosi, attentive and serious, weighs carefully and at some length the question of what she wants to be when she grows up.

At the moment the medical profession interests her, and her mother would be very pleased if Sharon became a doctor. But Sharon is still open to a career as an accountant or some other position in business, although she has pretty well excluded secretarial work.

Classmate Brendan Mbatha wants to see his name in print. He imagines combining a career in business with being an author.

That they are aiming high and seeing a future full of job opportunities is perhaps the greatest compliment to the new PACE (Project for the Advancement of Community Education) college in South Africa's black township of Soweto.

This private school, spanning the American equivalent of grades 8 through 12, is the first in Soweto to operate virtually free of government controls. It was completed earlier this year, although students were first accepted in mid-1981. It is funded largely by donations from American firms doing business in South Africa.

Education was the flashpoint for the Soweto riots in 1976. Blacks still say the state-run education system, strictly segregated, is inferior for blacks.

PACE, while serving the self-interest of the business community in training possible future employees, also provides a visible demonstration of social consciousness. It is an attempt to provide blacks with at least one school where the nagging question of inequality is laid to rest. Students here seem convinced they will get the education to pursue any career they like.

PACE has all the amenities of a first-rate institution. In terms of facilities, it would exceed most secondary schools anywhere.

Amid the dry, littered fields and rows of Soweto's government housing, PACE has green lawns and tidily manicured gardens. Children in crisp school uniforms scramble to class along carpeted hallways. The cafeteria looks like a small university student center.

Unlike the rest of surrounding Soweto, PACE is supplied with the electricity to permit electric typewriters (typing is a required subject) and overhead projectors in every classroom.

PACE has a large auditorium, a library, two tennis courts, a soccer field, and a running track. Nine more classrooms will be added to the present 18 by 1984, along with a swimming pool and a gymnasium. Enrollment is now 263. It will rise to 600.

If there is any criticism of this school, it is that it is ''gold-plated''--overly extravagant in light of the pressing educational needs of South Africa's fast-growing black population. One American businessman, who is a contributor, wonders if it wouldn't have been better to build several good schools instead of one exceptional school.

There is also the concern that PACE would be perceived as an ''elitist'' institution imposed from the outside, proving more a source of irritation than pride in Soweto.

PACE headmaster Rex Pennington says that although these criticisms have merit , they are outweighed by ''the very positive impact'' the school has by insisting on high standards.

''For the first time these students are aware of being given the very best,'' he says. ''I believe this is opening up to them a future that most of them have never even imagined before.''

Black education expert Ezekiel Mphahlele agrees that PACE gains more than it loses by providing top-notch facilities.

But Mr. Mphahlele is not without criticism of the school. He feels a greater percentage of black teachers, now half the teaching staff, and a black headmaster would further boost PACE's image in Soweto.

There had been some concern among blacks that PACE would opt to give its students the national senior certificate exam at graduation time--the standard exam given by state-run black schools. But Mr. Penning-ton says he plans to give the tougher joint matriculation board, which means PACE students will need the highest standard of education.

Mr. Pennington, a former headmaster of Michaelhouse, one of South Africa's most exclusive private schools, is clearly excited by the challenge of working with black, poor, and educationally underprivileged children.

''The motivation of these children here is exceptional,'' he says. ''They're getting something they've never had before and they show it.'' Attendance is virtually 100 percent and the waiting list for admission is long.

The school emphasizes commercial training for a business career. Courses include economics and accountancy. Mercantile law may be added soon.

The acute and growing shortage of skilled workers in South Africa is a serious constraint on the economy. That may explain why the government, after some reluctance, has allowed PACE to operate virtually autonomously in a community that otherwise is largely administered by the governmant.

PACE is expensive, particularly in low-income Soweto. But Mr. Pennington says students are admitted purely on academics, and ability to pay the $1,400 annual tuition is not a factor. Only 16 of the 263 students pay full tuition.

The school's aim is to have students who can afford on average $400 per year and rely on continuing contributions from the business community to provide the rest.

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