Connecticut Post, 4/18/2011

Africans find inspiration, ideas in Bridgeport schools

By Linda Conner Lambeck Staff Writer

BRIDGEPORT — All Bertha Mohube, a South African educator, could say is, “ It’s so big,” as she toured the shiny new 68,333-square-foot Inter­district Discovery Magnet School on Park Avenue, which at the moment is home to 85 students.

Back home in the rural South Africa mining town where she teaches, space is in short supply and it is not unusual for class sizes to swell to 40. There, Mo­hube has only her story­telling skills to motivate students — not all the bells and whistles available at the Discovery School.

For three weeks, Mo­hube was part of a six­member delegation from the Royal Bafoken Region of South Africa visiting schools in Bridgeport and Fairfield County. The trip was made possible by Ro­tary Club International and local Rotary clubs, which together raised $75,000. The grant also helped send a local team to the North-West Province of South Africa in January.

Nancy Riella, a Rotary International member who helped organize the trip, said the two-way exchange is a pilot program between the Connecticut and South African Rotary clubs. The American team went to South Africa to develop a training program that would best assist the South African team. That is not to say the Americans did not learn a lot as well. The two groups will continue to exchange ideas through a Housatonic Community College online course.

Lindsay Davis, a kin­dergarten teacher at Wil­bur Cross School, said it was amazing to step out of her comfort zone.

“We might not think that we have all the resources we need, but when you take a look at some of the pro­grams over there, you see how much they can do with so little,” Davis said.

Davis was also struck by how well students behaved.

“ In the three weeks we were there, I don’t think I saw a single behavior is­sue whatsoever,” she said.

She said she was in­spired by how the South African teachers har­nessed the use of music and movement.

Heather Ferguson, a speech and language pa­thologist for Bridgeport schools who went on the trip, said she was amazed to watch Mohube tell a sto­ry with no props, just her eyes and expression. “ The teachers there were amaz­ing.

When you look a their needs, it’s hard to com­plain about things we don’t have here,” said Ferguson.

The South African visi­tors live in an area ruled by Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, a 43-year- old king who wants preschoolers pre­pared for early childhood education. Rustenburg, the main city in the region, sits in a valley where the main source of income is work­ing in platinum mines.

Sean Tunmer, program manager for Early Child­hood Development in the region, said education in that area has suffered over the past two decades. The region is home to about 15 preschools serving about 1,200 children. There is not much in the way of teacher training.

Like anywhere, Tun­mer said, parents want the best for their children.

“ It’s the access to quality that is lacking,” he said.

Schools in both coun­tries have similar issues.

Both Bridgeport and Rustenburg have schools where students speak multiple languages and who have lost parents. In South Africa, the loss is due largely to HIV-AIDS.

Maria Semenya, a se­nior teacher from the Se­mane Early Learning Centre, liked the parent involvement she saw here.

Others were interested in the way preschool classes are organized with centers.

At Housatonic, the visi­tors met with Laurie Noe, coordinator of Early Child­hood Education programs at the college, to set up an online training program that will involve 12 teachers from South African and 12 teachers studying at Hou­satonic. Noe, who was on the trip to South Africa, showed them online links that would help them de­sign “centers” that focus on such topics as blocks, num­bers, art and reading.

Obakeng Khunou, a teacher from the Boepa-Tsopa preschool, said her surprise was in seeing no squatters whatsoever in Bridgeport, even though the area, like theirs, is labeled as having high poverty.

During their visit to the Discovery School, preschoolers and kinder­gartners stood in three straight lines and ser­enaded their visitors to a song about the days of the week, sung to the tune of the Addams family theme song. Along the walls, the academic progress of the school’s kindergar­ten class was documented with graph charts.

In the library, the visi­tors got tips from Teresa Cherry- Cruz, director of speech, language and hearing for the district, about ways to build vocab­ulary and oral language skills. The visitors left with a packet of ideas and homemade yarn dolls to use back home.

Contact Linda Lambeck at 203-330- 6218 or