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Christel House South Africa: breaking the cycle of poverty

South Africa’s wealth inequality tops global rankings. A small elite holds most of the nation’s wealth. Meanwhile, millions of children are born into poverty. Lack of opportunities keeps them there. But one non-profit school has answers: using a ‘whole child’ approach to education, Christel House South Africa is unlocking the potential of some of the country’s most disadvantaged young people.

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Though rich in talent and natural beauty, South Africa has the unfortunate distinction of being the most unequal country in the world: the nation’s richest 10% owns 90% of all its wealth. Efforts to build a diverse, broad-based middle class appear at an impasse. This situation hurts everyone – arguably even the top 3 million earners who pay 97% of all personal income tax. But it especially harms the most vulnerable: South African children born into poverty, most of them black.

Poverty begets poverty
About 13 million children in South Africa live in poverty, out of a total national population of under 60 million. These children frequently suffer from malnutrition, disease, and various forms of trauma. All too often, it becomes a life sentence. 

Lack of stable educational and career opportunities is one of the biggest drivers of such persistent poverty. Barely half of South Africa’s students finishes grade 12, and youth unemployment stands at 53%. Young people’s ingenuity and passion to learn are lost, condemning them to lives at society’s bottom. And the country is deprived of untold human potential: creativity, diversity, innovation – not to mention interpersonal connections and a sense of wider solidarity.

A school with a mission
With the support of the Julius Baer Foundation and other funders, one special non-profit school is countering this vicious cycle: Christel House South Africa. Located in the city of Cape Town, the school provides top-quality education to more than 700 underprivileged kids ranging from grade ‘R’ to grade 12, and offers ongoing post-graduation support to over 200 recent alumni. Classes are kept small to ensure a high-quality learning environment. A focus on career goals and opportunities is maintained throughout.

Crucially, Christel House does not cater solely to children who show the most academic potential. Its main criterion for admission is not demonstration of talent, but rather evidence of need. Children aged just 5 years are recruited from the most marginalised communities of the ‘Cape Flats’ region. They are given 13 years of quality schooling, and 5 years of post-school career support.

The school adopts a ‘whole child’ approach to the young people it takes in. Besides educating them, it addresses the many other obstacles of poverty by providing them with meals, transportation, health care, help with issues of self-esteem and so on – aiding development of the total person from childhood to early adulthood.

Building bridges
One new school initiative, supported directly by the Julius Baer Foundation, strives to bring students together across the wealth divide. In the context of shared coursework, Christel House students will be encouraged to collaborate with more privileged peers at other elite schools in Cape Town. Besides learning with and from each other, the hope is that long-lasting relationships will be fostered among students on either side of the wealth spectrum.

Results that count
The success of the school is unmistakable. The attendance rate for grades R–12 is 97%. Mathematics and English test results from grades 3, 6 and 9 show that Christel House students outperform the schools they would have attended by 400%. Crucially, a total of 99% of students graduate, and 93% go on to tertiary education or are placed in their first job.

With its support of Christel House South Africa, the Julius Baer Foundation is supporting the school in enabling new groups of disadvantaged children to ‘dream big’ – and to make those dreams a reality. The Foundation also aims to inspire wealthy stakeholders to fund new, inclusive educational offerings that bring privileged and underprivileged students together. Among other things, these new collaborations should enable disadvantaged students greater access to top-notch teaching and education infrastructure, as well as cultivating student connections that bridge wealth gaps.

It is a long road ahead to solving South Africa’s inequality crisis, but Christel House is successfully nurturing young people who can lead the needed change.