Beyond the school wall

Could this be the catalyst for the major change that we are all so desperately seeking in our ailing education system?

I walked across the little garden into the EMEP (the Extra-Mural Education Project) offices in a small house in Observatory, Cape Town, and immediately felt the buzz of the happy people working there. Their enthusiasm was tangible and the atmosphere warm and friendly.

I was greeted by Jonathan Gevisser, their director and founder, whose heart had the feeling and whose mind the range to put into being a dream of transforming schools into creative hubs of learning, art and play, and thereby feed more nourishingly the lives of thousands of school children and their families living in poor, historically disadvantaged areas of the Cape.

It started many years ago in the 70s, when Jonny was a post-graduate student in UCT’s sociology department. He was living in Hout Bay and had befriended a group of poor children and their families living in a scattered informal settlement on the mountainside above. He spent time with the children, informally teaching literacy through story-telling, art and games.

With the support of Ellen Khuzwayo, a stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, and Betty Wolpert, a filmmaker living in exile, he started an educational film group for the squatter families, using a generator for power and a sheet as a screen, which led to craft-making and sewing groups for the women. Quite imaginable when you meet this eccentric, fun filled person, so obviously motivated by a strong desire to help children flower at each stage of their childhood, to make schools the most fertile, exploratory, creative and useful places to be, and to provide teachers with real, sustained support to shift from being ‘loudspeakers for textbooks’ to ‘animateurs’”.

Jonny and his dynamic team at EMEP have formed a unique, boundary-pushing partnership with progressive Education Department officials in three districts of the Western Cape to pilot an innovatively holistic extra-mural programme to reshape the school day so that the curriculum is not only about ‘bums on chairs, paper learning and IT’ but enables a range of creative opportunities for the kids beyond the walls of the classroom, at a time when they would otherwise be on the streets, as well as for beseiged teachers who don’t have time for their many roles and responsibilities outside the ‘traffic jam’ of the classroom.

Jonny says that his motto was originally about ‘putting the fun back into functional’ but that it’s increasingly about opening up space in the very pressured school system for ‘children to be children’ and teachers and parents to tap into this, and rediscover the wonder and happiness that comes from creative interaction as they play, explore, imagine, share and also, yes, contest together, and so discover and grow their humanity. As he says this, I notice a quote on the wall:

Dear Teacher: I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human. – Author unknown; in Haim Ginnot, Teacher and Child.

“On a typical school day,” says Jonny, “poor schools are empty before 8am in the morning, when so many arrive hungry and bullied, and after 2pm for junior schools and 2. 30pm for high schools, except for those very few teachers who voluntarily give of their time to share their extra-mural passions, usually sporting plus a few arts like choir, dance, or drama. These extra-murals rarely involve more than 5 — 10% of the students, and usually only those with the most visibly developed talents. The rest pour onto the streets, or go home alone and unsupervised as latchkey kids, extremely vulnerable, and clear targets for abuse. But this neglected space may equally be seen as developable space: it presents a huge opportunity to us to target our efforts in a strategic and imaginative way, to the place where the largest developmental infrastructure in the land — our schools, is most neglected and yet most open to change. ”

Jonny points out that throughout the developing world there are poorly managed, under-used schools, surrounded by communities in need, yet empty in the afternoons, nights, weekends and holidays, for at least three months of the year! These schools are usually the only resources in these communities.

“It doesn’t take much looking,” he says, “to see that this space can be used to transform the school system, to provide achingly-needed opportunities for our wondrous children to explore and play together, learn service, learn community, learn how to lead and how to follow, learn how to love well and fight well, and most importantly, learn that they’re okay, that they’re beautiful and strong and worthy!”

Jonny adds wryly, “It is such an unfortunate view underpinning too much educational theory and practice that education is about leading children to adulthood … for if you look at this deeply, the ridiculous assumption is that a child is a non-adult! A strong case can be made that children are, well, children, and need to flower at each stage of childhood if they are to have the best chance of being balanced adults. And for this, the curriculum needs to be humanised and activated, its content and pedagogy must harmonise with child development, bringing the spirit of childhood, which is discovery through play, into the foreground.

“To do this, teachers need to be exposed to a range of experiential learning, develop a wide set of skills in their pedagogical toolbox, and be supported by the system via flexible timetables and ‘small steps, small wins’ projects in high priority areas for the children, and that give an experience of success. This is what EMEP is addressing. ”

So who is EMEP and what exactly does it do, you may ask? It is a registered not-for-profit development organisation (an NPO, or NGO as they are also called), governed by a board of trustees, with a small staff of ten, almost all of them educational and community development practitioners.

EMEP aims to facilitate a national movement of schools growing extra-murally as community hubs, not only for their young learners but also after hours (nights, weekends and holidays) for youth out of school and adults (unemployed, under-employed and employed), as well as for early child development and child care. EMEP’s mantra is ‘schools as hubs of lifelong learning, recreation and support services’.

Says Jonny, “It’s not only about learning and results and standardisation, but also about service projects, langarm on a Saturday night, social games and crafts during weekday evenings (like EMEP’s popular soapmaking programme) and about having access to support services like counselling, curative therapies, legal aid, an i-cafe … and also critical space for community voices to be developed and heard, like what they call ‘town hall’ in the USA where local people meet around their needs and issues, from where they can engage with local authorities, make themselves heard, play a meaningful role…

Schools are our key public resources and can be used much more imaginatively and optimally. We are restricted only by our imaginations. There are many hands willing to help. ”

How does EMEP do this?
They have three strategies. The first is demonstrating their model and keeping their own practice fresh. And here EMEP has been working for almost eight years with a small pool of four schools in Grassy Park, Lower Crossroads, Rocklands, and Nyanga.

EMEP’s oldest partner in this pool, and their flagship school, is a poor but phenomenally dynamic primary school in Grassy Park called Sid G. Rule Primary. It is run by an entrepreneurial principal, Greg Vlotman.
The school has won many awards since EMEP first started working there eight years ago. They recently built their own school hall which they will use as a centre for community arts. Jonny says that EMEP can take only a small amount of credit for this, noting that all the capacity, energy, leadership, staff creativity was there, and that all that EMEP did was provide some strategy and structure and facilitation.

EMEP’s second strategy is to spread the model through development training. They take on intakes of twelve schools at a time for a two year period, training two teachers (one a senior manager) per school, as Extra-Mural Development Practitioners to facilitate their schools’ extra-mural growth. The programme is provisionally accredited and is the first move to professionalise the sector. This was at the request of their donors and the provincial education department.

EMEP is midway through the pilot. The second intake of 12 schools starts in January 2007. Each intake then joins a growing network of schools. It is this network that will form the thrust of a national movement of schools growing extra-murally as community hubs.

EMEP’s third strategy is to influence the environment through engaging and supporting decision-makers and inputting policy. Some of EMEP’s innovative practices and proposals have already been included in government agendas, the most recent being the Western Cape’s progressive Human Capital Development Strategy.

It started in 1991, when Jonny was awarded a much sought-after and highly acclaimed international fellowship from Ashoka-Innovators for the Public. This gave him three years to take forward the work begun in the 70s and 80s in black schools and then further refined over the next seven years as a language and games teacher at a more holistic Waldorf school.

Like most things ahead of their time that challenge existing systems, it is not an easy ride. After 17 years of hard work, with often more failures than successes (“Though we don’t see them as failures,”says Jonny, “but valuable lessons how to improve, become more awake”), EMEP’s phoenix is finally rising and this innovative organisation is now on its way to realising its dream of creating community hubs within the schooling system that allow the children to flourish and the teachers and parents to become part of a working, creative community. Sixteen schools and communities are now actively benefiting from this extra-mural programme and the numbers are growing by the year.

Their 10 year vision is ambitious and involves a national spread. This will depend on steady injections of funding and the continued partnership with government, to contribute towards training and support costs.
“This isn’t easy, “ says Jonny. “Government’s hands are full. We have to step up. They shouldn’t be expected to do everything. Yes, they are the lead player on the democratic map, but only one player nevertheless. We all, civil society, business, labour, need to get gardening, let a thousand flowers bloom! There is too much policy and not enough poli-do!”

And his own biggest challenge? “Myself,” says Jonny after a moment’s pause. “We work with wonderful people and my biggest challenge is not to push, to work with their flow, somehow to do that dance between ‘making things happen’ and ‘allowing things to happen’ … to project less, empty myself, listen more. Which means I have to work with my flow more … which I haven’t quite figured out yet!”

He says that an underlying metaphor for this work is of the ancient Chinese game of solitaire, with four quadrants of pegs in holes. However there is one open, empty space in the middle … and it is that that allows the whole game to move, to open, release and change, and thereby ultimately to come single-pointedly to the centre.

“We all need such open space,” says Jonny. And it is our log-jammed schools, for him and his team, clearly the most important institution in society, that need this desperately. The potential extra-mural sector is just such a space, says Jonny quietly, passionately.

“It’s about empowering the teachers to bring a little more space and creativity into their contacts with the children, to build their choice and voice and let them actually experience being changemakers by managing projects that interest them, have purpose for them.

“Teachers and students need to learn how to work effectively in groups, express themselves with awareness, own their own stuff, and feel okay about admitting mistakes”, says Jonny. He quotes a teacher of his from India who said that “You must seek awareness as a person whose hair is on fire seeks the river. ”
And the second biggest challenge?

“Funding!”, says Jonny unhesitatingly. “EMEP has been working quietly behind the scenes for many years with a very small pool of international and local donors. We now need to grow like bamboo, so our major task is now to find a few strong, developmental partners who see the gap, recognise the innovation, and are willing to invest in it and in us to make this marvellous project a reality. ”

All signs point to EMEP and their extra-mural project taking off. They have strong school, community and governent support and a dynamic team. Hopefully corporate and philanthropic support is next.

Biophile will be watching their progress with great interest.