GABRIELLA SACRAMONE-LUTZ spoke to Shine’s Maurita Weissenberg and Kathryn Torres about how ‘words can change worlds’.
Every year, the IJR Reconciliation Award is given to a person or organisation contributing to national reconciliation, and evoking the spirit of equality in everyday life. This year, the award has been given to the Shine Centre, an early intervention literacy programme working in four Cape Town schools. Shine’s programmes focus on paired reading for ‘literacy hours’, parent workshops and book ‘swap-shops’.
The cornerstone of Shine’s programme is in relationships between learners and volunteers. Each volunteer is paired with a single learner, with whom they spend an hour of undivided time each week – a rare experience in classes of forty learners, and an effective means of ‘catching up’ for those falling behind in reading. It is from these relationships that changes emerge.
Shine’s impact is clear: in Observatory Junior School, literacy rates have jumped from 50% to 83%. But beyond this, Shine’s positive and hopeful spirit has permeated the schools where the programme works, and radiates through newly empowered learners.
How did you identify the need for a programme like Shine?
MW: In 1998, I began volunteering at Observatory Junior School. The learners had such potential, but it was such a tragedy. Children who were obviously bright were having this toxic daily experience at school. They couldn’t keep up, some couldn’t read, they could hardly write a couple of sentences. They were trapped in this perpetual cycle of failure. Their parents were sometimes giving up half of their salaries towards transport to these schools, and saying that education matters.
Where did the model for Shine come from?
MW: I had an idea for an early intervention literacy programme, and started looking at different models. I spent five weeks in London with Kathryn, and visited Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership. When I arrived and saw what they were doing, it made sense – there were so many second language families, but children speaking English at school were unable to get support from their parents at home. It seemed like a great, and very doable idea. These children needed a space that said, ‘You matter, you’re special, you matter.’ People shine when they feel they matter.
How did volunteers and students react to the space you created?
MW: Thirty people responded to a small ad in the free local newspaper. I gave them basic training and partnered them off with a child. It was like first love, it was instant. There was immediately this powerful connection between that child and the volunteer. The whole relationship is based on no pressure, no anxiety, no need to perform at a certain rate. One little child used to sing to his partner – she would sit there with a big smile on her face, she wouldn’t take her eyes off him until he had gotten to the last word. It was an enormous confidence-booster for children – somebody was looking out for them, somebody was their spokesperson. Coming to the Shine Centre was not seen as punishment, it was a bonus.
How has Shine evolved since those early days?
MW: 2006 was a watershed. More people started coming to the Centre, and different types of people. Whereas most volunteers were retired women, men and younger people started coming. People were happy to give up their lunch hour, or start their morning later. There was this growing consciousness, and people were saying, ‘We want to make a change and help where help’s needed.’ I realised I needed to give up my full-time job, because it was going to start moving.
How did the literacy hour come about?
MW: In 2007 there was a four-week teacher’s strike. We thought, how can we help the children catch up with what they’ve lost? That brought about a whole new look at the literacy hour, and we decided we would asses all grade 1 children to ensure that no child fell between the cracks. The literacy hour is based on Western Cape provincial government guidelines, because we felt it was important to show we were working on something they were pushing and that we wanted to partner with them.
After your self-assessment, how have you found Shine’s progress?
MW: From 2002, the education department started monitoring and assessing all grade 3s and grade 6s in literacy and numeracy. In 2002 in Observatory, only 50% of grade 3 learners were coping at grade 3 level. By 2006, it had gone up to 71%, and 83% by 2008. We saw a knock-on effect with our grade 6s – they went up from 48% to 78%.We felt this one-on-one work, and making books available to children on a daily basis, was a very powerful way of increasing literacy.
KT: In the schools Shine works in, there was a big shift towards becoming a book-loving environment. We have a created a culture of books going home – for these schools it’s revolutionary, books are not allowed out of the classroom. All of the sudden these children are excited about books. It’s a big cultural change within the school.
How do Shine’s other programmes support your work?
MW: The missing link was the parents, and we wanted to help them support their children. It costs so much to transport a child to a city school. Some are grandparents on a pension, and spend a quarter of their income on schooling. Parents really responded to the workshops. They say things like, ‘I didn’t realise how important it was to be spending time reading a book with my child.’ We tried to make it a place of empowerment. The parents are incredible and I have so much respect for them, I see how much they have been through and how much they are trying to do for their kids.
Tell us about the new Shine Centres (in Greenpoint, Claremont, Zonnebloem and Prestwich)?
Greenpoint was exciting – that was the first centre to open, and 67 children needed support. We put in an article and got 90 responses in one week, and a real cross-section of people. Within three weeks they were trained and the centre was running. It’s a testament to the fact that a Shine Centre could open anywhere, in any community.
The Shine Centre is also about building bridges between people, where there was a lot of hurt and baggage in this country. A child from Langa with a volunteer from Claremont – they live such different lives, but the bond is so clear. Because of that connection, they will never assume – no matter who you meet, it’s about that person. If that person’s lazy it’s because that person’s lazy – it’s not about a culture or community. It’s such a beautiful bridging and redressing of wounds.
What are your plans for the future?
KT: I’d like it to be in eight countries across Africa and every school should have a Shine Centre! Realistically, we are fine-tuning our four centres. We plan to increase training, parent workshops, bring in local businesses, and to say to government, we are a little model of what can work. Our vision is multiple Shine Centres. We absolutely know that the model we have is viable, doable and sustainable. It is always with that vision that we want to extend.
More information (and pics!) about the 2008 Reconciliation Award is available here.
Gabriella Sacramone-Lutz is a Visiting Researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Democracy in Africa Research Unit and a research intern with the IJR’s Political Analysis Unit. Maurita Weissenberg is the founder of Shine, and Kathryn Torres is director of Shine 20 Rollout.