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In An Old Chicken Coop, Blacks Build a School That Works

May 17, 1993

ORANGE FARM, South Africa (AP) _ When M.A. Khumalo moved to this rural shack community in 1989, there was no school for his three children. So he built one on an abandoned chicken farm, and 10,000 students turned up.

Khumalo, a dynamic pharmacist-turned-educator, has relied on community self-help and basic business skills to create one of the country’s largest and most innovative private schools. He did it in less than four years.

″The state of education is a mess. It’s for us to rectify,″ said Khumalo, whose kids attend the Voice Educational Center, more commonly known as Chicken Farm. ″You know nobody is going to help you out here.″

One of apartheid’s most enduring legacies is the disastrous education system for the country’s 30 million blacks. The white government and black leaders constantly lament the problem, but Khumalo - working with little money and relying largely on untrained teachers - is one of the few people who’s been doing something about it.

Khumalo, 36, moved his family to Orange Farm to escape the crime, violence and acute housing shortages in Soweto, the huge black township on the edge of Johannesburg, 40 miles to the north.

Orange Farm lacked running water and electricity, as well as schools. The lure was that all comers could claim their own land, a feature that has produced a community of self-starters.

Shortly after arriving, Khumalo decided to make use of Orange Farm’s one distinguishing landmark: the vacated chicken farm, where nine huge coops were rapidly disappearing among the weeds.

He took a loudspeaker and marched through the dusty streets, seeking help to build the school. He collected old bus seats to serve as school benches. He badgered school officials for leftover textbooks and persuaded unemployed women to become teachers.

The result is remarkable.

Old wooden pallets have been taken apart then rebuilt as picket fences. Tires have been cut up and made into swings. The walls are freshly painted in a mishmash of colors, but that’s what happens when you have to rely on donated buckets of paint.

The grounds have been landscaped, mostly by the students, who must learn skills such as planting vegetables and carpentry in addition to academics.

The place is alive with energy, as students run to their classes and respond to their teachers in unison. It’s a sharp contrast to most government schools for blacks, where strikes and boycotts are common among both students and teachers and discipline is lax to non-existent.

″At my old school, the teachers would show up at 9 or 10 or 11 - or maybe not at all,″ said Rachel Mkhize, a high school student who left a government school two years ago when her family moved to Orange Farm, which now has some 250,000 residents.

The white government intentionally neglected black education for decades, and though it is now committed in principle to equal education for all races, it still spends almost four times more to educate a white student.

Black leaders, realizing they could be in power soon, are trying to temper the expectations of ordinary blacks, many of whom believe the inequities of apartheid can be ended overnight. The black leaders warn that a post-apartheid government will need years to address the shortages of schools and teachers.

Khumalo says the solution is closer at hand in the form of self-help.

″When people look for money, they are not going to get it,″ said Khumalo. ″We don’t look for money. We look for things that aren’t being used.″

The government now provides 15 percent of the funding for the school, enough to pay the teachers $95 month. The rest is raised from annual student fees of $9.50.

There are fewer than 100 teachers for the 10,000 students, but the school appears orderly, a result of the discipline Khumalo preaches. When the opening bell rings at 8 a.m., the front gate is locked for the day.

″No one is allowed in after that, not even me,″ said Khumalo, who ignored the pleas of several tardy students outside the gate. ″I guarantee they’ll be here tomorrow at 7 a.m.″

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