Tessa Stromvig believes that every citizen who has access to any resources whatsoever has a duty and responsibility to help those who don’t. That was just one of the reasons why she was motivated to open Steducentre, a facility which aims to equip learners with critical skills that are neglected under the current education system
Tessa explains that her journey with Steducentre began when she fell pregnant in 2009. Like many other parents, she started dreaming of her child’s future – but the more she found out about the South African schooling system, the more she realised how it may impact on those dreams. ‘Did you know, for instance, that 70% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa are unable to read at the required level?’ she asks, pointing out that without this fundamental skill in place, the ability to tackle more complex learning tasks is severely compromised.
Her determination to fill the gaps her child may encounter during school triggered a slew of research until Tessa’s knowledge was such that she was able to design her own educational solutions, which created opportunities to develop competencies as varied as art and critical thinking. However, it was only when her child started attending aftercare that she started applying this knowledge. ‘I was frustrated by the time wasted during aftercare,’ she says. ‘On the one hand, there are clearly areas that our schools aren’t addressing. On the other, we had large gaps of time that could be used to eradicate these gaps.’
That’s precisely what Tessa did. Her courses were a great help in supplementing her child’s education – so much so that when other parents heard of the project she had undertaken, they asked if their children could take part, too. ’What started out as a mother caring for her kid turned out to be something so much bigger,’ she recalls.
Tessa was only too happy to share her knowledge and insights – in fact, the courses had been designed with this in mind. That made it easy for Steducentre to reach beyond its initial audience. Slowly, it began to grow past its original scope, too, with Tessa designing a number of projects that addressed different needs. For example, Steducentre undertook a maths gap analysis to identify gaps, enabling the team to design fit for purpose programmes speaking to the needs of each learner. This initiative was based on research which included a sample of 200 Grade 8 students from Evander High, Tessa explains, while a similar project focused on the needs of learners at Osizweni High and Primary Schools. The Steducentre then partnered with Marietjie School, which caters to the needs of disabled students. The work was completed with one of the school’s teachers, who is particularly dedicated to integrating opportunities for children with impaired hearing, stands out as a special highlight for Tessa.
Now, she’s looking for even more ways to expand the Steducentre’s influence – although the constraints imposed by the pandemic have created some significant challenges. For example, as part of its work with Osizweni School, the team was engaging with children who were struggling with their English syllabus, with a special focus on reading. Once their marks improved, they exited the programme, making room for someone else to advance their skills. However, the lockdown and closure of the schools has meant that volunteers are no longer able to visit the school. It was during these visits that the team handed out equipment that made learning easier, such as flash drives loaded with crucial materials. Tessa has tried to find a way around this by posting instructive videos on YouTube, but unfortunately, many of the learners who were part of this initiative do not have access to the Internet. Still, she remains undeterred: the team is still trying to find ways to help individuals access the necessary information.
Other challenges the team has grappled with are less new: they have been stonewalled by teachers who are unable to break down basic concepts, or who have tried to evaluate the material handed out by Steducentre without ever having been inside one of its classrooms. In extreme classes, teachers have failed to attend class, or classes have been devoid of furniture – all scenarios which contribute to the difficulties faced by learners, and which make Steducentre’s job even harder. And that’s before taking into account the issues affecting the students themselves: some are so crippled with low self-esteem that they feel unable even to attempt simple tasks. Others feel so uncomfortable within the education system they don’t want to try. Then, there are the obstacles that have threatened to cripple the team: Tessa says that, as a group of mainly women, they are frequently treated with disdain. Then there was the occasion Tessa’s home was broken into and all resources intended for Steducentre stolen.
Throughout it all, Tessa has remained steadfast. ‘Whenever we hit a stumbling block, we look at what we can do better or differently, we evolve and, most importantly, we carry on. We believe it really is a privilege to be able to help others.’ This understanding pushes her to keep improving and innovating. ‘Once, our team, bolstered by members of an NGO and youth volunteers, were all ready to teach a holiday reading programme with 250 students at Osizweni Primary School, when we found out the students wouldn’t be attending. Because of riots earlier in the week, their homes were now behind a cordoned-off area, meaning that the school bus was unable to transport them. We decided to use the time we had to paint the reading programme all over the school.’
It’s not only the programme participants that have been assisted through Steducentre. The programme has also provided work experience for a number of unemployed volunteers, leading them to find their passion. Tessa gives the example of a graduate who held a master’ss in molecular biology but found that her heart was in teaching – and is now working as an English teacher in Korea. Another volunteer decided that her psychology honours degree could be put to good use in the classroom and now teaches biology in Newcastle. Even if team members don’t find their true calling, Tessa points out that their participation help them acquire some valuable skills such as work ethic and professionalism, helping them to become more employable and make a contribution to the economy.
Now, Tessa is looking to improve the programme. She’s recently introduced a robotics component and is excited to launch a scalable programme to reach more schools. She’s also been working on an Afrikaans programme. In the meantime, she’s delighted that the YouTube channel that became a focus point to overcome COVID-19’s restrictions has racked up more than 50 000 views − a sure sign that the content Steducentre is delivering is hitting its target.
How you can help
Tessa believes that it’s within everyone’s power to help – even if it’s by taking one small action. She suggests that the best place to start is by taking notice: what is happening around you? ‘Look around you. If everyone in your circle looks the same as you and has the circumstances as you, you’re not living in a diverse world. You’re not making the difference you can. We take so much for granted, because knowledge like how to open a bank account or apply for a job was handed down to us without us even noticing – but there are so many people who haven’t had this advantage. Use whatever resources you have at your disposal but be deliberate about how you help. Don’t just give handouts. Make sure you follow up with those you have held out a hand too. And don’t expect an easy ride.’