Game-Filled Park Is School for South African Kids

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
National Geographic News
January 31, 2005
Schooltime at Southern Cross School near South Africa's renowned Kruger
National Park makes for a pleasantly odd scene. Teachers and pupils are
not cloistered in classrooms. Instead, they wander through the grass and
bush, or sit in the shade of trees, joined in earnest discussion.

The school has the same syllabus prescribed for the rest of the country's schools by the educational authorities. But the teaching methods employed are radically different.

Southern Cross uses nature as a teaching tool. The teachers and their pupils go out into the veld in search of phenomena that can be used to study anything from mathematics and the physical and social sciences to language.

Jumbo Williams, the school's headmaster, speaks of the school's mission with almost evangelical zeal, speaking of turning students into disciples and "spreading the word" on the importance of environmental care.

"When they leave school, we want them to be champions of the natural environment," Williams said. "We must make people understand the impact of what we are doing [to the environment]. We need a global citizenship that buys into the idea that we need to look after our planet."

To emphasize the point, he shows the school cap. The front has a depiction of the Southern Cross, a celestial constellation that ancient sailors used to help guide them when they were lost. The back of the cap says, "A School for the Planet."

Nature as a Blackboard

The school sits on 100 acres (40 hectares) in the corner of a game estate near Kruger National Park. Animals live in the wild on game estates, but can be hunted.

The adobe-style, thatched-roof buildings blend with the surrounding bush and look rather like an upscale hunting lodge. A 40-bed boarding house has a sweeping view of the northern Drakensberg, South Africa's longest mountain range. To get to class, students travel a path known as the Warthog Trot, a winding trail through the bush that's also used by giraffes, kudu, wildebeests, and impalas.

Warthogs "mow" the lawn. The school's idea of a pet includes an injured python that the students are rehabilitating so that it can be re-released into the wild. One experiment involves training bats to live in special bat houses rather than in the attics and chimneys of local lodge owners, where the flying mammals wreak havoc. Classroom shelves are crowded with Stone Age artifacts collected in the area.

The classroom for preschool tots is set slightly apart from the rest of the school. The first lesson of the day might be mathematics, but it's anything but typical.

Rather than using abstract lesson plans such as "Count how many apples Mary has in her basket," the children visit the nearby water troughs to count how many different animals came to drink during the night, based on the number of different tracks they find. Older students might be asked to calculate how much water will be consumed over weeks and months, based on the overnight drop in the troughs' water levels.

"It's amazing how much math is to be found out there," Williams says.

Language, speech, and debate classes focus on current conservation issues. A recent student debate centered on whether animals in the wild should be watered during a severe drought. In another example, the discovery of a dead animal could lead to an investigation of where it fits in the food chain, how and why it died, and what constitutes its environmental niche.

Preparing Future Conservationists

The idea for the school originated with Sue Godding, who at the time was managing a game lodge in the Thorny Bush Reserve, which is attached to Kruger National Park. When her children reached school age, rather than leave for the metropolitan areas as many lodge-management couples do, she decided to try to start a school that offered a top-shelf education and also made use of the exceptional natural environment.

Godding views nature-based tourism as one of South Africa's national treasures. She is driven by the conviction that the country needs to generate leaders with a firm understanding of the environment and the need to preserve it.

"We do not want to turn out game rangers but leaders in all fields who, when needing to make an important decision, can do so with a sound knowledge of how this world is to survive in these modern climes," she says.

Another parent, Heidi Smith, soon joined Godding. Williams, who as director of studies at a school in Johannesburg was well known for his enthusiasm for hands-on environmental education, also became involved. The three agreed on a basic concept "which amounted to taking education and dropping it on nature," Godding said.

The land for the school was donated, and three businesspeople with connections to the area helped raise funds. Southern Cross opened in January 2002 with 40 pupils. Enrollment today is well over 100.

Passion, Williams says, was his ultimate criterion for the teachers he selected from 250 applicants.

Outreach and fund-raising efforts continue. A scholarship fund has been established to increase the number of pupils from the poorer black communities in the surrounding areas. Students studying to become teachers through correspondence schools can gain practical experience by sitting in on classes and observing.

A third program is being developed to train teachers to spread the word on the importance and value environmental protection, sustainable development, and conservation.

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