A principal’s war against apathy

June 20 is World Refugee Day. We celebrate one of Cape Town’s school principals who is using the challenges of xenophobia to build momentum around creative learning.

One school principal is using the challenges of xenophobia to fuel a programme countering her students’ apathy. When Mrs. Little started working at Vista High School, which accommodates over 550 learners, she found the levels of apathy among students to be highly concerning. “The learners have high potential and high capacity; they could be sponsored for tertiary education. It is the apathy that is keeping them back, and it is tragic”.

The cure to apathy, says Mrs. Little, is diversity. By diversity, she means diverse teaching methods, diverse content, diverse context and the genuine integration of diverse learners. Central to bringing about diversity in her school is the Unite as One Programme, a project initiated by the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a non-governmental organization that promotes the integration in the Western Cape. Unite started in the wake of the 2008 xenophobic violence in South Africa, and provides four schools in the Western Cape with a specially devised curriculum that seeks to encourage intercultural understanding.

Why is this so important for Mrs Little? It is not only that diversity counters apathy, which leads to better results for her learners. More widely, Mrs Little knows that these learners are the future South Africa. “When xenophobia flares up in South Africa” Mrs Little tells me, ‘learners are at risk of latching on. I tell my learners at assembly, ‘don’t listen to these xenophobic comments. This is not you. This is society now. You young people are the future society, and you can make it different’.

“I tell my learners at assembly, ‘don’t listen to these xenophobic comments. This is not you. This is society now. You young people are the future society, and you can make it different”

Mrs Little was the principal of Maitland High School for seven years, a school with around 60% non-South African learners, from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Somalia. She recalls her dismay at realizing that some of her learners were perpetrators of the xenophobic violence that occurred in 2008. The school quickly kicked into action; non-South African children mentored younger South African children, while an after-school programme hosted motivational speakers and workshops. “That period was heavy” Mrs Little recalls.

“For some migrant learners, the school was their only safe space. These programmes helped heal the wounds that were created by xenophobia. Learners from different counties actually started to rely on each other for learning.”

She has noted that, sometimes, non-South African learners are more eager to learn and more engaged at school than their South African counterparts. This might be due, she explains, to the fact that migrant learners come from countries where an education is not guaranteed, or where the quality of learning is lower. Furthermore many migrant learners are desperately trying to catch up their education in a different context and in a different language. Mrs Little hastens to add that “after a few years, though, these kinds of learners are also at risk of catching the bug of apathy”.

This is where Unite comes in. The philosophy of Unite is to learn in a fun way. 

Facilitated by young people after school, the programme uses drama, singing, art and debate as tools of learning about diversity. Jade Bell, who runs the project, considers the main aims as “working on identity, integration, and diversity. “We work in the hope that improving learners’ self-worth, self-confidence, self and social understanding will aid integration and diversity.”

“It changed the way I see society. I used to take one view of how I see society and not consider anything else. When you would tell me, that you are gay I would not care about you. Now I am able to see and understand your point of view”

“Of course, genuine integration of learners will take a very long time, but at least such events are a sign that change can happen. But this all starts with understanding what makes learners tick. Once they want to learn, the opportunities for learning are endless”.

This article is part of Scalabrini’s World Refugee Day campaign #myhomeisyourhome, celebrating those who create welcoming spaces – wherever they are from, and wherever they live.

Pictures: Learners of the Unite Programme, Credit: Scalabrini Centre