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Ex-gardener takes over run-down school and turns it into one of nation's best

From Diane McCarthy, CNN
updated 9:21 AM EST, Fri February 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fannie Sebolela is the principal of a primary school in S. Africa's Soshanguve township
  • He has turned the once ailing school into an institution that is now the pride of the region
  • He is effective in striking business partnerships to support is initiatives
  • Sebolela's remarkable work has been recognized with several awards

(CNN) -- It's early in the morning on a sunny mid-January day and Khensani primary school is buzzing once again. Cheers and laughter fill the schoolyard as groups of arriving pupils line up in rows under a big red kiosk. After a long summer break, it's back to school time -- and rules need repeating.

"The school starts at 10 to eight," principal Fannie Sebolela reminds the students sporting immaculate blue and crimson uniforms.

"You are supposed to be here by half past seven," he continues, "so no late-coming because we have now started."

Khensani primary is a no-fee school at the heart of the Soshanguve township, some 20 minutes north of South Africa's administrative capital city Pretoria. This is a disadvantaged area, ringed by informal settlements where poverty and HIV prevalence is high.

Read this: S. Africa's first black dean teaches reconciliation

Sebolela: 'Knowledge builds confidence'
Can gardening promote education?

When Sebolela took over leadership of the primary in the late 1990s, Khensani was an ailing and run-down school that was struggling to keep its doors open. But now, thanks to the hard work and determination of its principal, the school has become the pride of the region -- Sebolela has transformed Khensani into a model institution that is one of the top performing schools in the country.

"Every year we are making an improvement and this is what actually made more parents say 'I am taking my child to Khensani primary school,'" says Sebolela. "And yes, we want to change everything but it's not possible to accommodate every learner."

Sebolela's remarkable achievements have been acknowledged by his peers with several awards, including a win at South Africa's National Teachers Awards recognizing his excellence in primary school leadership.

"I firmly believe that nothing yields better results than working very hard," says Sebolela. "You've got to work very hard for you to achieve anything and this is what I am striving throughout the way."

From gardener to top educator

Most of Sebolela's students, aged five to 12, come from very poor homes, much the same as he did. The award-winning educator was raised in a single parent family by a domestic worker mother.

I firmly believe that nothing yields better results than working very hard.
Fannie Sebolela, Khensani primary school, headmaster

Poverty prevented him from staying in school so Sebolela went on to become a gardener, paying for his education with the money he made -- Sebolela did his Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Africa before gaining a Masters Degree from the University of Pretoria and a PhD from the University of Johannesburg, to name just a few of his educational qualifications.

Read this: Elite boarding school aims to create Africa's future leaders

It took him 18 years.

"Most of the people think when you are a principal, you are coming from a well-to-do family," says Sebolela. "It's not like that," he adds. "It's how prepared are you, how do you see life -- you've got to see life beyond where you are and nothing is impossible. This is what I tell everybody, especially my children at school: if you want to achieve something, nobody will actually stand in your place. It's you who can turn things around."

Changing lives

Sebolela says one of the ways he manages to ensure his school keeps on achieving great results is to continually upgrade the facility and make sure his pupils have access to competitive teaching materials -- from new display boards and books to functional computers and bigger classrooms.

if you want to achieve something, nobody will actually stand in your place.
Fannie Sebolela, Khensani primary school, headmaster

Government schools struggle to maintain standards on the amounts of financial aid they receive from the education department. This has prompted Sebolela to often turn elsewhere --especially in the local business community -- to find support for his initiatives.

"I don't ask a donation or a sponsorship but I want to partner with this people," he says. "As a partnership, there is a common goal that we want to achieve and that is education. And of course many people are eager as long as they see that the school is doing well. You've got to show people how well are you prepared and what is it that you are doing and probably they will assist you."

And although Sebolela is sometimes frustrated by the challenges he faces as he tries to keep his school in top shape, he refuses to give up.

"I don't fold my arms, and then sit and cry, I am going out and doing something," he says. "And it's only that my resources are limited but I am prepared to go extra mile -- should I get any resource I would make it to the fullest and I think I would be able to change the lives of this community around."

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