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Educating South Africa's kids, one by one

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In South Africa, where 35 percent of the population is under age 15, where 10 million citizens are either functionally or totally illiterate, where only about 30 percent of schoolchildren pass their exams and graduate, and where between 28 to 40 percent of the population is unemployed, improving education is about more than gaining a ticket to individual success. It's a matter of national survival.

The size of the task is daunting. But the persistence, optimism, and hard work of Bright's team show that even a few idealistic individuals can make a difference.

It all started in February 2001 with 10 children.

Bright, who had visited South Africa on multiple occasions since the fall of apartheid, was making good money as a consultant. But he was also taken aback by how much needed to be done. In the four poorest South African provinces, students were having to take classes in tents, in tin shacks, and sometimes under the shade of trees.

Many students couldn't cope: Their schooling under apart­heid had given them no skills for critical thinking. Dropout rates soared. The first generation of youths under the postapartheid government was about to be lost.

So Bright started close to his new home in Johannesburg. He asked school principals in the black township of Soweto to choose children with extreme economic needs and good educational promise.

"In these poorer communities, there is no culture of teaching and no culture of learning, and how do you build a great new democracy if there is no education?" Bright says. "So it was time to put my money where my mouth is and educate a child to 12th grade." [Editor’s note: ”]

Bright estimated he could afford to put five children through high school. Family members and friends paid for another five students that first year. The number soon rose to 17 and then 30 students in the next year.

Bright held classes on Sat­ur­days, teaching math, English, and science. Schoolteachers started wondering why a few of their students were suddenly, inexplicably, doing well. Parents begged Bright to take their children as well, and the program grew.

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