December 10, 2008

“Are there any underlying social problems?”

It’s the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation in South Africa so I found myself at the high school on Tuesday, picking up report cards for the five students whose education is supported by African Medical Mission and who have been meeting with me for the past year.

I had been thinking about this moment for a long time. I built up the report cards in my mind not just as an indicator of their progress but also as a judgment on my own ability to make a difference here. In all that anticipation, I had been very negative. All five had basically failed the first semester and there wasn’t much reason to expect that things would be any different now. All the energy I had invested in them since January - would it be worth it?

Before I answer that question, let me explain the South African grading system. Passing a grade requires a minimum 30-percent average over all the classes. That’s it! A measly 30-percent! But - as I have explained many times before - the obstacles these students face, particularly the language barrier, make 30-percent a pretty high bar to cross. To advance to the next grade, a students to have over a 40-percent in an at least three classes, over 30-percent in three more, and can fail one.

When I was in high school, passing a class was taken as a given. When I opened my report cards, I always wanted to know by how much I had passed the class and how well I had done. Here, the first - and often only - thing these students looked at was the check box on their card that told them if they had been promoted to the next grade or not.

I’ve buried the results for long enough so here goes. Of the five students, we support in Itipini

  • one passed with an overall average of 55-percent, which is stellar - the teacher even commented what a good student she was;
  • one passed with a lower average and failed math - that didn’t matter to her, though, she’s going to grade-11;
  • one failed by the skin of her teeth - she failed two classes and, as her teacher explained to me, “she’s only supposed to fail one to pass,” an odd way of formulating the standards, I thought;
  • two failed because they failed three classes each.
(My English class ended up with nine students in it because some students brought their friends. As we don’t pay those fees, I had no right to get their reports but I know two of them passed, haven’t heard from another, and the fourth is in another grade and won’t get her results until next week.)

Three happy students who passed. We support the two on the outside and the one in the middle is a friend of theirs.

When I gave the report card to the student on the left in that picture, she shrieked so loudly when she saw she had passed. You could almost reach out and grab hold of her joy and relief, it was so palpable. When she started crying, it was hard not to join in.

There was an interesting story behind one of the students who failed three classes. When I went looking for her report card, they didn’t have it because the student had not shown up for two exams and they assumed she had dropped out. I dragged the student back to school and put her in front of the vice-principal and her teacher. They proceeded - in a very loving and teacherly way - to ream her up one side and down the other for squandering her potential while the student sullenly looked in the other direction and provided no explanation for her behaviour. Knowing this student as I do and knowing her sometimes lax commitment to attendance (and also her great potential), this was not a surprising revelation to me but it was still an uncomfortable moment. Eventually, they calculated her averages - with zeros for the exams she missed - and naturally she failed, getting a 7% in one class.

The vice-principal and I know each other pretty well and when the student wasn’t responding to the tongue-lashing, he turned to me, very apologetically, and said, “I don’t know what happened. We make every effort to accommodate students if they have emergencies or need to change their schedules.” I know this to be true because he had done it for two other students. Then he said, “Are there any underlying social problems at home that might explain this? We want to address those.” I wanted to respond, “SHE LIVES ON A DUMP IN A SMALL SHACK WITH LOTS OF SIBLINGS AND HER DAD IS AN ALCOHOLIC! YES, I THINK SHE HAS SOME PROBLEMS!” But I appreciated his intentions.

In the end, I’m left with these observations and questions:
  • The students who did best have the best command of English. But even still, what have they learned? Fifty-five percent may be good enough to be a “good student” and pass but it doesn’t exactly demonstrate a confidence-inspiring competence.
  • Uncomfortably, there appears to be an inverse relationship between attendance at my after-school sessions and success. The two who passed had the worst attendance likely because they had the best English and saw the least need for the classes. If, after a year of trying, I haven’t made any difference in the English ability of those who most need the help, what’s the point of continuing in the new year?
  • Should we pay for the students who failed to repeat the grade next year? As the one student who skipped some exams shows, they don’t all place the proper importance on school. (But they also have a zillion other responsibilities outside school that can draw them away at times.) But second chances are at the heart of my reading of the Gospel and I think, ultimately, we’ll end up paying for them to try one more year to see if they can pass then.
Forty-percent of the students are moving on to the next grade. If 30-percent is passing, to the extent I had anything to do with it - and that’s questionable - I passed. I guess I’ll take it.