In a world that has all but accepted that acts of kindness take a back seat to the demands of everyday life, the women of the Woodstock-based Norkitt Education Leadership Initiative (NELI) not only disprove the norm, they inspire others to do the same.
Founded by Frances Eberhard and Kerry Petrie, Neli rallies communities to support school governing bodies (SGB) with the ultimate goal of helping youngsters get a good education.
Ms Eberhard has a background in human rights law. Ms Petrie’s expertise is in the organisational and development sector. The two of them have known each other since the age of three.
“As we live in Woodstock, we wanted to use our respective skills to do something for the community. During our research, it became clear that the SGB structure in the area’s schools has been wholly undersupported,” Ms Petrie said.
“Our idea was to ask how comfortable were SGBs in the area in terms of their budget, and how were they able to mobilise on that budget.
“The former Model C schools take money and mobilising for granted, but the 13 schools in our area – from Salt River to Zonnebloem – are allocated very little funding from the Education Department. We wanted to establish how we could assist by getting the community involved, and creating situations where the SGBs could network with people who would be willing to help.”
According to the law, SGBs are comprised of the school principal, teachers and parents, but they can co-opt members of the community to serve in an advisory capacity without voting rights.
This is the space the two women decided to target. Launching in July 2014, they visited schools in the area to lay out their plan to mobilise the community. Since then, two schools, Walmer Seconday and Zonnebloem Boys’ Primary, have come to epitomise the Neli success story.
Walmer Seconday was named the Western Cape’s most-improved school in terms of matric pass rate in 2015, while no fewer than seven Zonnebloem pupils have won scholarships to top schools in Cape Town.
So what makes Neli so successful?
“We conduct interviews with the governing bodies, while simultaneously asking them to do a self-assessment. This quickly shows where the school’s weaker and stronger points lie,” said Ms Eberhard.
“It is then up to the school to decide on which areas they would like to focus.
“Once that has been established, we go about introducing the SGB to members of the community who are interested in assisting them.”
Ms Petrie described the organisation, which is funded by a family trust, as being a “cheerleader for SGBs”.
One of Neli’s biggest challenges lies in the current quintile system, which places all government schools into one of five categories; quintile 1 designating the poorest schools and quintile 5 the least poor.
“While many schools in the Woodstock-Salt River area are placed in the higher quintiles, it is more as a result of the more affluent area in which they are located than their actual financial position.
“One of the pressing issues for us is that the current quintile system is a blunt instrument. It looks at the community you’re in, not the community you serve.”
Ms Eberhard said it did not seem fair that a school that was asking R4 000 a year in school fees was expected to perform as well as one that asked R40 000, even though they were in the same quintile. For the time being, however, Neli will be looking at other ways to help schools as well as how to extend the initiative beyond the pilot project phase.
“When we organised volunteers to tutor Walmer Secondary pupils on Saturday, we were overwhelmed with the response. What’s even better is that people have again expressed an interest in helping this year. It is clear people want to help, and it’s great to see.”
Call Frances at 073 957 2822 for more information.