Rotarians From France And South Africa Address Local Club Via Zoom

Rotarians Preggie Naidoo, far left, and Martin Bucher, third from right, in September 2021 with math tutors at Mariannridge Secondary School in Pinetown, South Africa, just west of Durban. Courtesy photo

Vice President
Rotary Club of Los Alamos

The wide world of Rotary International was especially meaningful on February 1st when guest speakers Martin Bucher from France and Preggie Naidoo from South Africa, both Rotarians, joined members of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos via Zoom.  Although well into the evening in both Paris and Durban, Bucher and Naidoo gave a presentation about the project the Rotary Club of Durban Umhlatuzana (RCDU), just outside Durban, has initiated to provide math tutoring to disadvantaged students.  The presentation was entitled Mathematics Tutoring and Enrichment at Mariannridge Senior Secondary School:  A Pilot Project.

Bucher, a 1982 graduate of Los Alamos High School and an astrophysics researcher at the University of Paris, teaches during the summer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban.  He began the presentation by describing Durban as a large port city with a population of three million in the greater metropolitan area alone.  It lies on the east coast of South Africa in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.  “Once part of the Zulu Kingdom led by King Shaka, the city of Durban is a highly diverse melting pot of cultures–principally Zulu, Indian, and English, with a large population of young people. The first language of today’s Durban residents is 50% English, 33% Zulu, 6% Xhosa, and 3.6% Afrikaans.”

Bucher used PowerPoint slides to demonstrate the need for the RCDU’s mathematics tutoring program. “The university system is well-funded with strengths in engineering and medicine.  Pre-university education, by contrast, is extremely unequal.  Many students from disadvantaged schools are accepted to university, but are not adequately prepared.  Most faculty would agree that the main problem is lack of preparation and lack of enough qualified primary and secondary school teachers.”  

Bucher noted that “South Africa provides significant subsidies to independent schools, and encourages schools, where possible, to charge fees.  As a consequence, the most qualified teachers go to more privileged, tuition-charging schools.”

In South Africa educational opportunity is a direct tie to economic success.  It is “among the countries with the most unequal distributions of income and wealth.  Youth between ages 18-24 are experiencing the highest unemployment rate, 66.5%.”  The need to serve disadvantaged students could not be more evident. 

It was, however, as Naidoo explained, a circuitous path that led to identifying the need for this particular pilot program. Naidoo had learned that the Mariannridge Secondary School, about 15 miles west of Durban, had a vacant plot of land that could be used to start a community garden with seedlings donated by the RCDU.  Upon visiting the school on a Saturday to look at the garden space, he met the principal, Lucky Mtungwa, who was spending the day tutoring math to students who needed instruction beyond the classroom.  Soon, through the RCDU’s impetus and support, Saturday math classes with multiple students and tutors sprouted as well as the garden.  

Instead of teaching the lower Mathematics Literacy track, which Naidoo described as a “watered-down math,” the tutoring program encourages students “to attempt the more ambitious Pure Mathematics track, which is an entrance requirement for university studies in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) as well as in medicine and economics.”   The Saturday school curriculum aims “to strengthen competence in the areas defined by the South African national curriculum” and “to provide enrichment, emphasizing the many applications of mathematics to technology and almost all areas of economic activity.”

There was an immediate and enthusiastic response from the school management team, parents, and students.  In addition to helping students achieve success in math, the program encourages “the love of math at an earlier age,” Naidoo remarked.  Algebra and geometry are the predominant subjects covered.

Bucher explained, “Unlike the US, but like many countries, South Africa has a national curriculum, defined in the CAPS [Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements] documents.  At the end of grade 12, students take what is known as the ‘matric’ exam, which is graded in a manner coordinated at the national level.  The performance on this exam determines university admissions and whether one has successfully graduated from high school.  The CAPS is not very constraining.  There is a rather wide latitude of what to teach.”  

Volunteer tutors, most of whom are post-graduates in math or physics from UKZN, are brought to the school on Saturdays to teach math classes.  In 2021 the program was limited to 8th graders but will be expanded one additional grade each year.  The students participating, close to 80 per grade, all attend voluntarily.  

Naidoo told us that the program in its first year has been so successful that “we are likely to get more students enrolling.”  There are plans to expand the tutoring to upper grades, and Naidoo would like to see the “curriculum became less rote and more imaginative.”  He expressed a need for more tutors, as that limits the number of students they can serve, and they would like to see money raised for stipends for tutors.  “We also want to include an enrichment component in our curriculum,” Bucher added.

Bucher, Naidoo, and Dr. Thomas Konrad, head of Physics at UKZN, and other members of the RCDU are currently spearheading efforts to receive a Rotary International grant to fund this project and extend math tutoring to upper secondary grade levels and into surrounding communities.

And, the garden?  Members of the RCDU were encouraged by “some initial successes” until COVID illnesses interrupted the project.  The RCDU expects to “revive” the project in the year ahead.

Dr. Martin Bucher is the Director of Research at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and works at the Laboratory Astroparticles and Cosmology at the University of Paris.  Born in Germany, he graduated from Los Alamos High School, attended Yale, the University of California, and Caltech, earning degrees in physics.  Before moving to France, Bucher held positions at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University, and the University of Cambridge.

Preggie Naidoo, an audiologist and speech therapist and businessman, is the past president of the Rotary Club of Durban Umhlatuzana.  His first direct association with Rotary came when he was chosen years ago to participate in a Rotary Group Study Exchange between South Africa and Northern California-Nevada.  “It was a turning point in my life,” he says.  When he returned to South Africa, he joined Rotary and became an enthusiastic supporter of its programs, especially travel and study exchanges for youth and adults.

The Rotary Club of Los Alamos, through its Club Foundation, is a 501(c)3 non-profit and one of over 34,000 clubs worldwide.  Rotary, which now has 1.5 million members, was founded in 1905; the local Club was chartered in 1966.  Rotary areas of focus include promoting peace; fighting disease, particularly polio; providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene; supporting education; saving and enhancing the lives of mothers and children; growing economies; and protecting the environment.

The Rotary Club of Los Alamos meets in person Tuesdays, 12:00-1:00, in the Community Room, Cottonwood on the Greens, at the golf course.  A Zoom option is available by contacting Linda Hull, Rotary Club vice-president, 505-662-7950.  Hull is also happy to provide information about the Club and its humanitarian service.