Khayelitsha school’s success shines like a ‘beacon of possibility’

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No excuses, just success. These words, written in big bold letters on a wall in the foyer of the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT) in Khayelitsha, captures the ethos of the school and provides some insight into their academic achievements.

 

COSAT achieved ninth position in the top ten schools in the province based on their 100% pass rate in the 2011 National Senior Certificate exams, 79% of its 2011 candidates obtaining access to Bachelor degree studies and 98.6% passing Mathematics.

Premier Helen Zille announced the awards, saying: “This is a historic moment for the Western Cape. For the first time ever, a school in one of the most disadvantaged parts of South Africa is one of our top ten schools in the province. It’s the first ever township school to make the top ten purely on merit.”

Zille paid tribute to Cassie Kruger, CEO of the Falsebay College, and his colleagues for their vision in starting the programme and persuading her to support it. COSAT was established in 1999 as a Grade 10-12 school programme at the FET College.

Kruger said his role was mainly that of creating an environment in which COSAT could flourish.

After the Department of Education was split into two ministries in 2009, the decision was made in collaboration with the Head of Education Penny Vinjevold and the Western Cape Education Minister Donald Grant to establish COSAT as a school in its own right as from 1 January 2011. 

In an article in her weekly online newsletter, SA Today, Zille ascribed COSAT’s success to talented, hard-working students, dedicated teachers, an extensive after-hours support programme, performance monitoring through regular report cards, a culture of encouragement and recognition for hard work.

She said while learners at COSAT were selected based on their aptitude for maths and science and they had access to first class facilities, it did not guarantee top results if an ethos of hard work and learning was absent. “Committed and competent teachers are the crucial ingredient in excellent education.”

Phadiela Cooper, the principal, said she was especially proud of the learners because she knew how much work they had to put in and the tough circumstances many of them faced at home. “We start by working on the new learners’ attitude and impress upon them the importance of values like respect and honesty. The learners know they have to work hard and that there will be consequences if they disregard the school rules.”

Cooper said while strict, their approach was not confrontational. “We take an interest in the individual child and try to implement programmes which make learning fun.”

The school hosted regular Choc Award ceremonies to celebrate learner achievement. “We give the learners seven progress reports during the year and after each assessment the top four learners in each grade are awarded with a chocolate.”

COSAT is a no-fee school and Cooper said they would not be able to maintain the high standards without the help of an NGO, The Science Education Resources Initiative (SERI). 

SERI raises funds for and manages enrichment activities and programmes at COSAT and provides academic and pastoral support to the COSAT learners. Learners have access to counseling and some receive travel and food allowances and a uniform subsidy.

After a visit by Grant to the school in 2009, a final decision was made to relocate the school.

The relocation and building of a new school as part of the department’s infrastructure plan enabled COSAT to enroll Grade 8 learners for the first time in 2011. Learner numbers at the school were expected to rise to 500 by 2014.

Dr Jonathan Clark, who preceded Cooper as principal, said in the light of the challenges COSAT faced at the beginning of last year when it moved to its new site and into a not-entirely-completed school he was pleasantly surprised and very proud of their achievement. “But this said, for years now COSAT has been achieving some quite remarkable results for which it has been recognised by the department.”

Clark said there were a number of lessons to learn from COSAT. “On an organizational and management level, there’s a lot to be said for smaller schools than is the norm in townships. I think that one of the problems we face is that we under-estimate the complexity of managing large schools in the face of what are often limited (human & physical) resources.”

Maximizing instructional time is an important element in COSAT’s success. The school day is from 08:00 to 16:15 and includes an hour after normal lessons to assist learners who struggle with the curriculum and offer enrichment activities for others. All COSAT learners also attend two two-hour sessions on Saturdays where they receive extra tuition in maths, science and information technology.

Clark said the commitment to provide as many enrichment opportunities as possible is also important. “I remember one year when the COSAT junior debating team beat their counterparts at Westerford! And they were debating in English which is their second language...”

The school offered extra English and Life Skills classes to teach public speaking and give career guidance, amongst others, said Cooper. Learners were also making good use of the school’s library and media centre, which has been built up from scratch through the indomitable efforts of Helen George, a former teacher at the school and the current librarian.

 Clark credited the staff for “a very strong ‘can do’ approach to their core task - that of providing high quality educational opportunities to children from disadvantaged communities. COSAT teachers are in class, on time and teaching. I think ‘success breeds success’ - with there being at all times a clear and present focus firmly on learning.”

Clark said in an environment where educational failure and underachievement seems to be the norm, COSAT’s success shines like a ‘beacon of possibility’ lighting the way for others to follow...