Campus & Community

Schools as centers of community

6 min read

Al Witten sees — and makes — connections between groups

Al Witten worked as a teacher and principal for more than two decades in areas ravaged by poverty, crime, violence, and disease. Now the South African native is at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE), where he is figuring out ways to make schools central to facing these daunting challenges.

“One of my dreams is to set up a nonprofit that would go into the very same communities I came from and work alongside schools to build partnerships to support students,” said the doctoral candidate at HGSE and the interim director of the School’s Principals’ Center.

Since 2001, Witten has been at the HGSE developing a type of blueprint, one he plans to bring back to his country, which addresses how schools can respond to social challenges by becoming centers of community life. In particular, Witten is studying how schools can support students and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

His work, he said, aims to address the questions “How are we supporting the students who have been infected as well as affected by HIV/AIDS? … How are we supporting the orphans?”

According to the 2006 Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) report, approximately 240,000 South African children have been infected with AIDS and 1.2 million children have been orphaned by the disease. The report estimates that by 2010, 18 percent of all children in the country will be AIDS orphans.

To help develop his framework, Witten is studying schools in his native country that have created partnerships with health clinics, faith-based organizations, and businesses in an effort to combat the disease. The programs, he said, “range from getting medication out to students and their families to providing psychosocial support to setting up vegetable gardens, because nutrition is a very important component of the challenges of the pandemic,” he said.

For the South African, the concepts of dedication and commitment were learned early on. Witten grew up under apartheid, and though the repressive system was collapsing as he finished high school, options, he said, were still limited for black South Africans. The lingering racial conflict and instability made pursuing further education almost impossible.

“We were caught up in that phase of unrest and it actually affected what a number of us did after that,” he said. “Trying to study and trying to move on to college was just so difficult.”

With the help of a scholarship to a community college, he received his teaching certificate. Later, he earned three degrees on a part-time basis, a bachelor’s and education degree and a master’s in public administration, all while teaching in some of the country’s toughest townships.

It was over the course of a 22-year teaching career that Witten found his calling and his means of giving back: working to bring schools and community together.

During his tenure from 1993 to 2001 as a teacher and principal at Zerilda Park Primary School in one of Cape Town’s most violent townships, Witten faced an almost unbearable list of challenges: levels of poverty he called “astounding,” malnourished and sick students, and ever-present crime and gang violence.

The breaking point came when suggestions were made to erect electrified fences around township schools to combat recurring crime. As the principal, Witten met with members of the school and the community, and together they refused to yield to the drastic measure.

“A few of us got together and really pushed back. … It wasn’t about keeping the community out; it was about bringing them in and really building partnerships to support the students and their families.”

Expanding on the idea that integrated support and involvement could bring about significant, lasting change, Witten reached out to stakeholders in the area: parents, community members, even local gangs, and enlisted their feedback and support.

Together they established a number of projects at the school that included extracurricular sports and music programs, the creation of a social support team composed of local university students who could counsel the youth at the school, and a work project on the school ground that employed local parents.

The result was overwhelming success.

“People saw that this school was really a center that was concerned about the whole community, [one] that was trying to speak to many of the problems the community was facing.”

Witten established himself as a “no-nonsense, demanding, challenging leader,” an “education activist” who suspended the normal way of doing things to incredible effect, said Colby College professor Catherine Besteman, whose recent book “Transforming Cape Town” (University of California Press, 2008) in part chronicles the success of Zerilda Park Primary School.

Witten’s work, she said, was “an example of one of the best models for South Africa’s educational future.”

Besteman made her remarks at a GSE-sponsored Askwith Education Forum on Feb. 19, where both she and Witten addressed the importance of grassroots involvement in the country’s educational system.

His efforts in South Africa, Witten told the crowd gathered in Longfellow Hall, were about “reshaping the social realities that many of our students were facing,” which affected their learning and development. To do that, he added, “We needed to look really much further than just the school walls.”

During his time as principal, visitors were regularly bused in from around the country and came from abroad to observe the school’s successful programs. It was on one such visit in 2001 that Witten was encouraged to develop a conceptual model for his work and apply for a yearlong Harvard South Africa Fellowship. He did and was accepted.

But one year wasn’t enough time to establish his framework, so Witten applied and was accepted to the GSE doctoral program, to continue his work.

“I developed a generic model for how schools could respond to some of these challenges,” he said, “but I had to narrow it down for my dissertation work and look at one particular challenge.”

The choice of a challenge was a sadly simple one for Witten.

“By 2010 almost 3 million orphans will be in South Africa. … We have yet to effectively work out ways in which we deal with that.”

As for his plans once his work at Harvard is done, Witten’s tone is low and sincere when he talks about returning to South Africa.

“I haven’t doubted that for one moment.”

He quotes his mentor, a fellow educator and one-time political prisoner who was once housed two cells away from Nelson Mandela.

“He always taught me never to give up,” Witten said. “He helped me believe that we can change any situation. That’s been a profound lesson for me.”