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Education, Health, and Leadership in South Africa

South African StudentsAdvanced doctoral student Al Witten, Ed.M.'02, Ed.M.'03, has always dreamed bigger than himself. Six years ago -- after working for 24 years in South Africa as both a teacher and a principal -- Witten left his country to further his own education at HGSE. But instead of leaving South Africa behind, Witten focused his doctoral work on how schools engage with the community and the biggest issue facing his country, HIV/AIDS. As he enters his final stages of studies at HGSE, his dreams of building leadership and professional development back home are becoming a reality with the help of his professors.

In January, Witten, along with Professors Robert Peterkin and Jerry Murphy, former dean of the Ed School, traveled to South Africa. The trip marks the beginning stages of what is hoped will be collaboration among the Ed School, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and South Africa's government, universities, and schools. During their visit they met with university educators, the regional director of education, education leadership groups, the deputy director general of education, and several school principals and teachers.

"It can be depressing to see widespread poverty, a high level of unemployment, and lack of resources in schools, but they are rolling up their sleeves to figure out how to overcome," Murphy says. "Even though they face overwhelming problems there is tremendous optimism and hope."

While South African educators face many problems similar to other educators in the world, it is difficult to detach the effect that HIV/AIDS has had on the country. In 2005, approximately 5.5 million people (18.8 percent of the total adult population) in South Africa were living with HIV/AIDS, according to the 2006 UNAIDS Report. This figure includes an estimated 240,000 children who have been infected and nearly 1,200,000 children who have been orphaned by the pandemic. It is predicted that South Africa will have 3.1 million orphans (18 percent of all children) by 2010, UNAIDS reported.

HSPH Senior Research Scientist Charles Deutsch, who has long focused his research on strengthening programs to prevent HIV infection among youth in South Africa, discovered that principals can play an even bigger role on children than their peers.

"How effectively a school keeps kids healthy and safe enough to learn, and helps kids and families learn how to keep themselves healthy and safe, depends most of all on the principal's leadership in mobilizing and coordinating external resources and community strengths not directly under his supervision," Deutsch says. "Principals don't get a lot of support and training in this role, and it's obviously especially critical in the context of South Africa's HIV/AIDS pandemic."

There is much need for professional development and leadership skills among South African principals, many who work double duty as school leaders and teachers each day among children who have been "infected" and "affected" by HIV/AIDS, Witten says.

Witten has witnessed firsthand how HIV/AIDS can challenge infected students, often resulting in poor attendance, associated illnesses, and difficulty concentrating. Students with HIV-positive family members and friends are also affected. They often undergo psychological trauma, become caregivers in the home, look after sick family members, develop behavioral issues, and sometimes have to go to work to provide for their families.

"There are so many other issues that come into play…it's important when you think about schools not only to improve the teaching and learning, but also what impacts teaching and learning," Witten says.

"There are so many other issues that come into play…it's important when you think about schools not only to improve the teaching and learning, but also what impacts teaching and learning." — Al Witten

The complications of HIV/AIDS is not only an issue of education but also a question of how to offer the best psychological and social support for learners to ensure they receive good nutrition or whether school programs offer children healthy and promising alternatives to life on the street, Witten says.

While the country widely supports education, it lacks the necessary resources, suffers from large class size of 40 to 50 students per class, and has school principals doubling as teachers. "Principals are delegated a lot of responsibility," notes Murphy.

The collaboration with HGSE and the HSPH may help South Africa in combining not only the health aspect of HIV/AIDS, but also the educational leadership skills. During conversations that began last year, Peterkin says the Ed School contemplated how they could offer guidance and sees collaboration with HSPH as a natural fit. "We need to figure out what we could bring to make it work with South African colleagues in their country," Peterkin says. "We make no assumptions that our expertise is automatically transferable to South Africa."

Murphy adds that this collaboration isn't a case of America having all the answers to bring to South Africa but about discovering what will work best for the country. This initial trip, in what both professors hope to become many more, has sparked an interest in a range of possible future collaborations.

South African officials also reacted favorably to collaboration. "[Officials in] South Africa opened space for us to be there and are keen to collaborate," Witten says. "This trip was self-funded and that in and of itself spoke about commitment."

The professors were also moved by the experience and the opportunity to offer guidance, and share what they learned in their own classrooms. "It was very powerful," Peterkin says. "To see people work so well with so little and fully understand the impact of education on a country, especially a country that wants to make it work."

The trip was uplifting and educational for everyone involved, especially Witten, who is watching his research begin to make the difference he has hoped for. "To get a group who support not only you but your work in such a direct way is a dream come true," he says.

photo courtesy of Robert Peterkin