GroundUp: The Athlone school that survived and thrived

By GroundUp 9 January 2014

Peak View Secondary School in Bridgetown, Athlone was one of 27 schools marked for closure by the Western Cape Education Department (WCED). Nearly two years later Peak View's matric results are top in its district. By SIBUSISO TSHABALALA for GroundUp.

The WCED had argued that the declining academic performance in all grades justified the closure of the school.

Oswald De Villiers, the principal, is ecstatic. “I cannot wait for the academic year to start. For now, we celebrate. I need to get to the West Coast this weekend and eat a lot of crayfish,” he says.

After I finish my studies, I would like to come back and teach at this school,” says a confident Mbongeni Pani (20). Mbongeni – known as Raymond at Peak View – was the top-performing learner at the school. While he was celebrating his results yesterday, Wits University told him that he had been accepted to study for a Bachelor of Education degree.

De Villiers says, “When we received the letter stating the school would close, we knew that things had to change. We were down and [out]. Our 2011 NSC pass rate was 18.7%, [one of] the lowest in the Western Cape province. In 2012, we lifted our heads up high and moved the goalposts.” In October 2012, the WCED agreed to let Peak View stay open.

In the 2011 matric examinations only seven learners attained the National Senior Certificate at the school.

Peak View has come a long way. In 2013 the school achieved an 89% pass rate. “Five learners failed and one learner fell ill during the exams. Five of these six learners qualify for supplementary exams. We have encouraged them to write the supplementary exams. No learner must be left behind,” says De Villiers.

De Villiers explains that Peak View has not been a school of first-choice in Athlone. “We were a ‘stop gap’. If you did not get accepted at Athlone or Gardendale High, you would come to Peak View. But things are changing. 70% of my learners come from Khayelitsha, Makaza, Gugulethu, Mitchell’s Plain and Langa. We are building this school with them”, says De Villiers.

How Peak View did it

Each year, parents, teachers and learners at Peak View sign a pledge. As part of this pledge, the school hours have been extended. Learners at the school have an extra period from 2:45pm to 4pm. The school also offers classes on Saturdays.

Another key part of de Villiers strategy to improve the school’s results was to change its language policy.

Most of our learners are isiXhosa speakers. The trend is that second and even third language speakers of English take the language as an official home language at school,” says De Villiers.

De Villiers’ insisted on the introduction of isiXhosa as a home language for students. With the assistance of the WCED, the school hired an isiXhosa teacher. There was some resistance to this because many learners see English as the language of opportunity. “There’s a stigma attached to studying your home language. Encouraging the learners to take isiXhosa as a home language was a struggle. I had to call meetings with the parents,” says de Villiers.

The strategy worked. In the 2012 NSC examinations, 98% of the learners who took isiXhosa as a home language passed. In addition to this, 91% of the learners who took isiXhosa passed the subject with 50% and above. In 2013 all learners who took isiXhosa as a home language passed.

But de Villiers maintains that teaching English has its merits. The learners who take isiXhosa as a home language have English as a first additional language. But even learners who take English as a home language have done well. In 2012, 60% of learners passed English as a home language. This went up to 91% in 2013.

We are steadily building the capacity for quality teaching in English as a home language. We will get there, “ says de Villiers.

The school also formed strong ties with civil society and prominent leaders. The Minister of Human Settlements, Connie September and a WCED official, Mrs Robertson, are both devoted supporters of the school. They visit the school regularly and work with the school management team and governing board.

Looking Ahead

In March last year, the school lost a passionate and caring teacher, Mrs Abrahams. “She would take some of the learners from dysfunctional homes and house them during exam time. She ran an intense study camp at a house,” says de Villiers.

Mbongeni was one of Mrs Abraham’s favorite learners. “She did so much for the school. I dedicate these results to her,” he says.

De Villiers won’t be drawn into saying what the target for 2014 is. He reclines in his chair and says: “I am not in the business of making predictions. My goal is to produce confident and well-rounded young adults. Come to our opening next Wednesday. The parents, teachers and learners will tell you what our target is.”

As he walks toward the school gates, De Villiers says, “Peak View has not reached its peak yet. There’s work to be done.” DM

Read more about community life in Khayelitsha and other Cape townships on GroundUp.

Photo: Peak View principal, Oswald De Villiers, is justifiably proud of his school’s recent achievements. Photo by Sibusiso Tshabalala.

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