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"The ways in which poor working class communities and schools come together to create an enabling environment for learning to occur is rapidly emerging as a practice and scholarship,” says the Director of the Centre for the Community School (CCS) in the Faculty of Education, Dr Bruce Damons, who graduated with his PhD in 2017and was the recipient of the South African Education Research Association (SAERA) national award for the top PhD.

"It challenges the outdated educational paradigm where power is solely vested in the  formal  educational  sector, and demonstrates how  the  community  school  requires  the participation of the non-formal sector (NGOs and  NPOs), and the informal sector – parents, volunteers and community members making a significant difference in the educational space.” The CCS, in collaboration with participants from the non- formal and informal categories, is working with a growing number of schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro and the wider Eastern Cape to reimagine schooling under challenging conditions, especially in these working class communities.

As part of his PhD, Dr Damons researched how community volunteers were recruited, supported and sustained in a school located in one of these communities. The work of these volunteers contributes significantly to the functionality of the school in a variety of ways – from helping as teaching assistants to security and safety (identified as a priority), maintenance, cleaning classrooms, improving the school grounds and looking after orphaned and vulnerable children.

Dr Damons says: “Part of the engagement with the volunteers led to the affirmation of the principle of duality of outcome, namely that scholarship will inform practice and practice will inform scholarship. Additionally, all participants in the study are recognised in all forms of scholarship that emerge from these engagements, such as the procedure manual produced by the co-researcher/volunteers in our study. The manual is used to expand the volunteer programme in interested schools, and volunteers who were co-researchers are now co-presenters.”

One of the co-researchers is Neziswa Ntwini, a volunteer in administration at Sapphire Road Primary in Booysen Park, Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. She is continuing her work there as well as working as a coordinator for reading and maths clubs in a project supported by the Mott Foundation of the United States. Ntwini      is also one of the co-facilitators with Dr Damons of the volunteer programme they are currently piloting at 14 schools – all of them in the Manyano Network of Community Schools.

A key feature of the CCS’s engagement is to ensure that the voices of all participants, including community members, volunteers and parents, are valued, recognised and acknowledged. “They have substantive knowledge, which, as part of a decolonised education, needs to be both recognised and harmonised with formal education through critical engagements,” says Dr Damons.

The approach is strongly influenced by participatory action learning and action research (PALAR) methodology. The start-up engagement of CCS is to introduce all participating schools to the concept of the Community School and organise them into a number of multi-stakeholder communities of practice (CoP). Through these CoPs the schools present their challenges and jointly construct appropriate responses to tackle them.

Dr Damons emphasises the extensive goodwill in working class communities, where many people are volunteers in educational and other fields. “In our Mott Foundation projects, for example,   we have 14 unemployed volunteers starting and running reading clubs in high schools, supported by one of our faculty members.”

From 2017 to  2020  the  CCS  is  partnering  the  Learning  Trust in an initiative called OASIS (Organising After School and In School Support) – a community of practice consisting of various organisations working in the after school and in school space,      to support basic school functionality. OASIS is in the process of developing a school improvement plan in collaboration with two schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro – a high school in Kwazakhele and a primary school in Helenvale.

Also from 2017 to 2020, the CCS is partnering with the iKamvelihle Development Trust in the Sakhingomso programme. Three schools in the rural Eastern Cape region of Cala (one high school and two primary schools) are focusing on school management training, school governing body training and training representative councils of learners. This programme forms part of a memorandum of understanding between the iKamvelihle Development Trust and Nelson Mandela University.

The CCS is continuing with its work with the Helping Hands Trust in six high schools in the Northern Areas of the Metro and provides support to various schools and communities that are not affiliated to any specific network.

At the same time the CCS is sharing research on the community school, some of which has been published, such as a chapter co-authored by Dr Damons and Professor Lesley Wood from North West University titled, “Fostering a School- Community Partnership for Mutual Learning and Development: A Participatory Action Learning and Action Research Approach” in The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research, published by Palgrave Macmillan US in 2017.

In June 2017 the CCS and Faculty of Education presented on participatory engagement through a community and popular education praxis at the ARNA

Action Research Network of the Americas Conference at the National Pedagogical University of Bogota in Colombia. “What really inspired us was the passion of our colleagues working in the most rural areas of Colombia, which were impacted by wars and the drug trade.

“There is a growing national and international interest in our work, with great willingness to share knowledge in the education space and to be receptive to new concepts of knowledge,” says Dr Damons. “The CCS was invited to form part of a collaboration with the University of Cape Town to focus on school and community engagement in 2018. It is also part of a collaboration with Rhodes, North West, Free State and Stellenbosch universities to explore scholarship around community engagement. Faculty of Education and cross-faculty collaboration is also increasing, especially with our social development professions, and we have done work with colleagues in the human movement sciences and community psychology.”

Contact information
Dr Bruce Damons
Director: Engagement Office
Tel: 0415043541