In the middle of a quiet neighborhood, a modest school sits surrounded by a tall fence. It is the last day of exams at The Learning College (TLC), a school that receives funding from IRUSA in the Manenberg township of Cape Town, South Africa. One by one, a last group of seniors put their pencils down and officially begin their summer break. On the surface, the scene is not much different from the last day of exams in any high school in America. The bell rings and students spill out into the schoolyard, high-fiving each other and making plans for the break. They wear their relief on their faces and in their body language, but an onlooker would never know that the battle they have faced has been so much more than rigorous final exams. Indeed, it is the very ordinariness of the scene that shows the extraordinary strides of this program—a shining example of what can happen when a safe space is provided for a vulnerable community.
The colored township of Manenberg was established in 1966 at the height of the apartheid regime’s forced removal program. Today, it is one of the most dangerous regions in Cape Town, suffering from severe and endemic gang violence largely due to the lack of access to quality education. The denial of education access was a way that populations were kept systemically marginalized during apartheid. The lingering psychological effects of that time run deep in South Africa, where children still believe they have no future because many times, no one tells them that they do. As a result, they end up choosing the streets.
Historically, educational programs seek to help children in these areas break free from the cycle of gang violence by sending them to quality boarding schools somewhere far removed from the problems. Mrs. Norton, the principal of TLC, has a different approach. The unconventional model of the program is to bring quality education inside the worst townships with the goal of raising hometown role models who will stay rooted in their communities and eventually, give back. Its mission is simple: to provide a free holistic education compatible with human values, morals and principles to gifted learners from impoverished backgrounds and to nurture them into future leadership positions.
And the model is working.
95% of graduates from TLC applied for university last year while school dropout rates in Manenberg average between 60-80%. And the dreams they nurture there are big: doctors, engineers, social workers—the sky is the limit at TLC.
The school itself was built on a field that formerly hosted gang battles. Now, the tall fence acts as an obstruction to passing gangs who avoid the area altogether. The school is a beacon of hope in a suddenly peaceful community that has suffered for too long.
The program is offered to students for free, largely due to the funding from Islamic Relief USA. IRUSA donations also allow for teacher training, workshops on important topics like HIV and domestic violence, and afterschool activities to keep students off of the streets.
18 year-old Abduraghmaan Ariefdien was shy and lacked confidence when he first entered the program. Now, as a graduating senior, he delivers weekly sermons as the school’s designated khatib. Just as an onlooker would never know this school sat on gang territory, one would never guess that Abduraghmaan, standing tall and commanding the room with his confidence, was once afraid to dream.
When asked what his post-college plans were, he was very matter-of-fact: “I want to come back and teach at TLC.”