Educating South Africa's kids, one by one

José Bright’s “Saturday school” helps poor-but-promising schoolkids – and their parents – to succeed.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
To address South Africa’s huge education gap, José Bright helps students achieve, one by one.

When José Bright arrived in South Africa in 1994, he felt daunted by the task ahead. After all, as director for regional affairs for the mayor of Washington, D.C., he had been asked by South Africa to help transform its schools, designed to benefit the white minority of 4 million, into a system to educate the 40 million black majority as well. [Editor’s note: The original version referred to Jose Bright as a consultant]
Nobody would have blamed him if he'd simply declared victory, turned, and run.
But after several short-term projects here, Mr. Bright stayed. He's now a lecturer the School of Economic and Business Science at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. He has dipped into his own pocket and donated his free time to ensure that a handful of poor but promising South African middle-school students make it through high school. [Editor’s note: The original version referred to Jose Bright as a consultant and misstated his position at Witwatersrand University]
Bright's nickname is Teboho, the Sotho word for "gift." Awarded to him by local elders, it means, "thank you God for giving us this person” – a gift.
Thus the Teboho Trust was born.

Today, with a team of volunteers working for his Trust, Bright is helping nearly 230 children – and some of their parents as well – to succeed.

"Why do I do it? That's how my mother raised me. She taught me to be compassionate," says Bright, standing outside the kitchen where volunteers were preparing a free lunch for the 230 young students participating in Teboho Trust classes on a recent Saturday. "When you are dealing with a child, it's a big commitment. That child, he has a face, a name; he has thoughts, he has a heart."

Bright's parents raised him not to pity those who are disadvantaged, but to be a problem-solver, he says. What can he do to help people improve their situation – for themselves?

In South Africa, where 35 percent of the population is under age 15, where 10 million citizens are either functionally or totally illiterate, where only about 30 percent of schoolchildren pass their exams and graduate, and where between 28 to 40 percent of the population is unemployed, improving education is about more than gaining a ticket to individual success. It's a matter of national survival.

The size of the task is daunting. But the persistence, optimism, and hard work of Bright's team show that even a few idealistic individuals can make a difference.

It all started in February 2001 with 10 children.

Bright, who had visited South Africa on multiple occasions since the fall of apartheid, was making good money as a consultant. But he was also taken aback by how much needed to be done. In the four poorest South African provinces, students were having to take classes in tents, in tin shacks, and sometimes under the shade of trees.

Many students couldn't cope: Their schooling under apart­heid had given them no skills for critical thinking. Dropout rates soared. The first generation of youths under the postapartheid government was about to be lost.

So Bright started close to his new home in Johannesburg. He asked school principals in the black township of Soweto to choose children with extreme economic needs and good educational promise.

"In these poorer communities, there is no culture of teaching and no culture of learning, and how do you build a great new democracy if there is no education?" Bright says. "So it was time to put my money where my mouth is and educate a child to 12th grade." [Editor’s note: The original version also misquoted Mr. Bright as speaking about “countries” when he was referring to “communities.”]

Bright estimated he could afford to put five children through high school. Family members and friends paid for another five students that first year. The number soon rose to 17 and then 30 students in the next year.

Bright held classes on Sat­ur­days, teaching math, English, and science. Schoolteachers started wondering why a few of their students were suddenly, inexplicably, doing well. Parents begged Bright to take their children as well, and the program grew.

The teachers at Teboho soon realized what they were getting into. Economic challenges were so severe among some families that grannies were telling grandsons to sell marijuana so the family could eat. Few children could speak English, the language of instruction in most South African universities. And few had even been told what they would have to know to pass their 12th-grade exams.

"Sometimes you do feel, 'Is there any point to this?' " says Greg Whittaker, an actuary who volunteers most Saturdays to teach math at Teboho. Volunteers were shocked recently when a new student, a sixth-grader, revealed that she still didn't know how to read.

But Mr. Whittaker says he can already see his students making progress. By downloading the full math curriculum from a government website, he has been able to give Teboho's students a better shot at passing their exams.

His fiancée, Louise Bick, a lawyer who teaches English at Teboho, adds, "It's the best day of my week. I want these kids to know there are people who care about them."

Two years ago, Simphiwe Lila was a highly motivated but struggling 10th-grader. His worst subject was math, and he came to Teboho for help. A math teach­er at his school told him he would never do well in math because he was "dumb," Simphiwe says. Today Simphiwe is the top-scoring math student in his class and looking into attending college next year.

"For older students, this is our last chance," Simphiwe says. "We need to be somebody, so we have to get it right."

Mandla Thabethe was in even worse shape when he arrived at Teboho. He says he used to "play around in [his] 'hood," until he decided to see if Teboho could help him get better scores in school.

“They taught me discipline, and after I came here, I improved my marks,” he says, noting that the improvement took his teachers by surprise. But Mandla says the Teboho instructors were never surprised at his potential. “It’s a blessing to be with people who say you can succeed,” he says.

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