Saturday school in Soweto: 'These children want to learn'

Early each Saturday morning about 200 black children from the South African township of Soweto go to school - voluntarily.

Other children, although not enrolled, straggle in hoping to find a vacant desk and a teacher willing to let them stay for the morning.

''These children want to learn,'' says school principal Stan Edkins, clearly impressed by the weekend attendance.

Mr. Edkins runs a new educational program that brings together Soweto's brightest children each Saturday for the kind of innovative, high-quality teaching they do not get Monday through Friday.

Although small, this program stands out as one rare example of blacks being encouraged to excel in education. South African schools are strictly segregated, and for blacks the quality of education is far inferior to that of whites.

Adelaide, a bright, talkative 14-year-old, says the Soweto Saturday school is the highlight of her week. She explains:

''At my regular (weekday) school, sometimes a teacher doesn't even come. Here , you can really understand things and see what the world is like.''

Each Saturday morning she is up at dawn to complete her household chores before walking to class, which convenes at 8 a.m. in the assembly hall of the local teachers college. After a breakfast of hot soup and bread, washed down with hot chocolate, Adelaide and the other students are divided up into four groups that rotate to four classrooms (English, math, science, general knowledge) before adjournment at noon.

The teaching is innovative, geared to sparking the kind of spontaneity that blacks are rarely encouraged to display in this white-dominated society. An English class, for example, is broken into small groups that are asked to come up with impromptu skits reenacting the discovery of gold - by blacks - in South Africa.

''We used to think that all that was important for blacks was to teach them the basics,'' says Mr. Edkins. ''We must now motivate them toward leadership - it's no use just teaching them math and science.''

The school is seen optimistically as a forum for developing leadership. The weakness of the school is that it is in the hands of whites and so cannot satisfy the growing desire in Soweto, and other black townships, for institutions with roots in the black community.

Community reaction is ambivalent. On the individual level, there is a clamoring on the part of parents to have their children admitted. Some 11,000 youngsters in the Standard-6 level (eighth grade) were tested, out of which the top 200 were selected. There is already great pressure to expand the program, and Mr. Edkins says within four years it will grow to accommodate 1,000 students.

The project was started by the government regional director of black education, and although it is being funded by private donations, it bears the government stamp as far as blacks are concerned.

''Anything that eminates from the government is looked upon with great doubt, '' says a Soweto school principal. He reckons blacks see the program as a progressive step, but one that won't earn the government any accolades since the whole government approach to black education is rejected by most blacks.

Mr. Edkins spent his career in white schools and has come out of retirement to run the Saturday classes. He is impressed by both the eagerness of the black children to learn, and the obstacles that stand in their way.

''They're up against all sorts of things that white children are not,'' he says. Homes in Soweto are small and crowded - indeed, most don't even have electricity. Mr. Edkins says some students are not allowed by their parents to study because of the cost of using kerosene lamps.

And while black students are now taught mostly in English, it is often not spoken regularly in the home.

After a month-long holiday, there was uniform happiness at being back at the Saturday school. As Adelaide put it: ''At home I only do cleaning but at school I study and get to test my mind.''

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