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Serving Urban Populations … A Continent Away

Serving Urban Populations … A Continent Away
Bronx Community College works to expand educational, employment opportunities for Black South Africans
By Ben Hammer

Bronx Community College President Carolyn Williams has prepared most of her professional career for what she calls a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” — developing a junior college system in post-apartheid South Africa that mirrors what exists in the United States. For 10 years now, Williams and BCC’s National Center for Educational Alliances (NCEA) has been working to transform South Africa’s amalgam of primary schools, technical and training schools, and universities into a more interconnected network that will widen employment opportunities across the country, especially within the Black community.

While BCC’s work is focused on improving South Africa’s educational system, Williams says her institution benefits academically by applying and testing its theories of educational reform in another country.

“One of the things that we have found so amazing is the similarity in serving urban populations,” Williams says. “As we share what we do and our best practices, we tend to come out with a model that is even stronger than the model we went over with.”

Williams, who was named president of Bronx Community College in 1996, was not there long before the Ford Foundation asked the NCEA to take the work it had been doing on the transfer of U.S. community college degrees into four-year college programs, also known as articulation, and expand it into South Africa.

Although Williams studied the transfer of junior college degrees into four-year college programs while working on a Ford Foundation grant at Highland Park Community College in Detroit in the early 1980s, she knew little about South Africa before the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” arose. However, soon she was leading an effort to help reform the country’s educational system. Specifically, the Ford Foundation asked BCC to assist in developing educational partnerships in five regions in South Africa.

Preparing for Lifelong Learning

After a year of developing a framework for operation, Williams led a delegation of 175 Americans from participating cities in the Ford Foundation’s Urban Partnership Program — a $7 million project that developed K-16 educational partnerships with the private sector to spur the advancement of underprepared students throughout the system — and 125 South Africans on a study tour throughout the South African regions to examine the barriers to transferring between various sectors of education. The Urban Partnership Program focused on helping students in 16 urban areas with failing schools, including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Seattle and Phoenix.

What the study-tour participants discovered was an educational system more rigid and segregated than in America. Many of the schools in South Africa’s townships did not offer the courses required for students to qualify for further education at universities or technicons, South Africa’s closest equivalent to community colleges.

Technicons offer degrees in engineering, computers and other technical areas, but do not offer a liberal arts curriculum. In addition to universities, further education and training schools (FETs) offered training for the work force. This system locked many South Africans out of advanced job opportunities.

After ending apartheid, the South African government’s intent was to expand educational opportunities and implement policy initiatives that would help people move up the educational ladder, Williams says. So the Ford Foundation and USAID funded a project to establish a virtual college in KwaZulu-Natal — the iNdlovu Partnership College.

The crux of the project is working with the faculties of 56 training institutes to develop core competencies and to give participants the kind of credentials they can take from one area of the educational sector and have it recognized elsewhere. This program, begun six years ago, aims to make it easier for South Africans to move from one level of education to the next and have their training recognized when applying for jobs.

South Africa’s government is now reviewing the U.S. community-college model and considering adapting the FET colleges to the U.S. system. A key way to achieve this is to strengthen the FET core curriculum, Williams says. This would involve adding literacy, numeracy and information technology training to the curriculum.

“It means adding courses that will prepare people for lifelong learning,” she says. “It would be similar to our core courses.”

As part of this initiative, BCC’s National Center for Educational Alliances is helping South African educators identify different business skills students need when they begin their careers, for example the ability to work in teams, working with partners and clients, and entrepreneurial skills. In addition, NCEA is developing a workshop for the engineering faculty at FETs in the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa to raise awareness about the skills businesses need.

The second part of the initiative is an exchange of faculty in the United States and South Africa to introduce concrete examples of how to foster these kinds of skills in the student body. Exchanges between BCC and the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the KwaZulu-Natal province, will begin this fall.

Another Ford Foundation initiative aims to improve the transfer arrangements among the FETs, technicons and universities. NCEA is planning a workshop for educators in KwaZulu-Natal to discuss ways of working collaboratively on specific curriculum initiatives. South African participants will be invited to apply for eight small pilot projects. The goal is to develop a model for transfer in KwaZulu-Natal that can be replicated throughout South Africa.

“We’re facilitators, and we’re really trying to create dialogue that will build bridges,” says Barbara Schaier-Peleg, associate director of the NCEA. The goal of the work in South Africa, says Schaier-Peleg, is to create further opportunities for students so that their work at one level of education does not become a “dead end.”

“It’s a matter of really beginning to learn more about what you’re doing by looking at what other people are doing,” Schaier-Peleg says. “As you’re beginning to teach, you’re learning more about what you’re doing and how you teach a diverse student body.

“What we’re doing is involving faculty and students in many of the things that we learn about here but from a different perspective, and it’s broadened our ability to provide a global education and a real liberal education for our faculty and students,” she says.

Williams says the effort has provided new and innovative ways for her school to look at educational reform and has brought the school wider recognition for and validation of the work it has done in that area.

She has been directly involved in the dialogue about educational reform in South Africa at the highest levels, including making presentations in policy discussions with the ministry of education. Still, she says the most rewarding part of her own involvement has been the advancement she has seen in South Africa’s educational system.

“To see that change is phenomenal,” Williams says. “Over the 10-year period, there’s been a closing of the gap and many of the students who were in elementary school when we started, are going into universities and technical colleges.”

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