The urban school and holistic education: The Westbury Youth Centre model in Johannesburg

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 26 February 2015

As one of many communities in Johannesburg racially marginalized and segregated under the apartheid system, Westbury suffers from high levels of unemployment, substance abuse, and other widespread social and economic problems, despite being just 6km in proximity to the Johannesburg CBD and to more affluent, integrated suburbs (fig. 1). With the community forced to look inward for solutions, the Westbury Youth Centre (WYC) has organically evolved to offer a holistic space and approach to guide and empower local youth.

Established as an extension of Westbury Secondary School, WYC has been operating for sixteen years, sharing space on the school grounds and running 'co-curricular' activities aimed initially at learners enrolled at the school, but growing to also serve and become an extension of the community. With a focus on education and substance abuse initiatives, WYC offers career guidance, bursary application advice, and internships to learners who do not possess the grades or financial means to enroll for tertiary education.

WYC also provides a base for several NGOs, facilitating a wide range of services, including an alcohol and substance abuse program (SANCA), Family Life Centre (FAMSA), and a restorative justice and counselling program (between victims and criminals) run by Khulisa. Other facilities provided include a radio station (WYC Radio), which publishes local radio stories and audio works made by students at WYC, currently supported and trained by two Finnish volunteers. There are also digital curiosity and photography classes, drama classes, a library, soup kitchen (fig. 2), computer room, coffee shop, and an information centre. Recently a community food garden was also established, supported by Chef Kelvin Joel's socially conscious and innovative JHB Culinary and Pastry School in the Maboneng precinct.

The holistic approach entailed within the co-curricular support model between the school and youth centre has proved to not only increase the pass rate of the high school from 50 percent up to 92 percent, but has also increased the quality of passes with an increase from 15 percent to 50 percent of learners qualifying for diploma studies.

Though funding remains a struggle, from the smallest to the larger WYC has a wide range of sponsors (Phillips SA, KONE Centennial Foundation and KONE South Africa, The Finnish Children and Youth Foundation — who are also in the process of exploring the setting up of similar school-youth centre models in Mexico and India — Investec Bank, and ABC Retailers). But WYC is also, essentially, a community effort, with school committees, parents, teachers, and volunteers all playing a part. "We need lots of legs to keep us up," says Westbury Secondary School's Vice-Principal of the project.

Westbury is a community where the entrenched and divisive spatial, social, and economic engineering of apartheid appears to remain almost intact. The resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness of WYC in the face of an unjust history and trying circumstances, however, is remarkable. Yet Westbury is not an island. Johannesburg is currently undergoing dramatic spatial transformations, such as the Gautrain rapid-rail, Rea Vaya BRT, and other supporting projects. An article published in 2013 asked how these new, ambitious transportation infrastructures could not only improve connectivity and efficiency at the city scale, but could also improve the lives of disenfranchised communities in their own neighbourhoods. This question is growing increasingly urgent, and in the case of Westbury, now with its own BRT route, of direct consequence (fig. 3). Big budgets and short timeframes — the typical BRT model — can only go so far. Where these top-down structures 'touch the ground' to effect real transformation in communities, the slower process of ground-up participation, empowerment, and relevance still remains as vital — yet perhaps as neglected — as ever.

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