Against the odds

Youngsters face a number of challenges in making their way to independence, but support is out there.


Nelson Mandela once said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. And yet, the outcomes of education are not all equal. Indeed, while many children who come from stable homes with all the resources they need are practically guaranteed success in life, children who aren’t as fortunate can and do struggle, bringing to mind Tolstoy’s remark that all happy families are the same while all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

Still, many will succeed despite the odds. That’s why this qualitative research seeks to understand to what extent positive factors in a child’s life can counteract the negative ones. In other words, how do these variables interact and impact how well an individual performs? The first major finding is that boys and girls generally start out with equal ability and performance, but their outcomes diverge as they
age. Janet Ferone, who has worked extensively with inner-city kids in Boston since the 1980s, often sees a level of maturity ‘kick in’ as students get older, while Antonio Cruz, who tutors high school juniors and seniors, expressed a belief that “success requires a degree of maturity that not all students have”. Adri Marais, who has spent the last five years working as the CEO of a school for underprivileged kids, pointed out that girls are beginning to outperform boys across the world, which is why her school has a policy to divide classes in Grade 7 so that boys can catch up with a male teacher and through special weekend programmes. The differences are also clear when it comes to why students fall behind, which can and does happen Youngsters face a number of challenges in making their way to independence, but support is out there. Against the odds regardless of their gender. Marais believes that girls tend to struggle because of stereotyping or a feeling of imposter syndrome – that they’ll never be good enough or that they don’t have natural abilities in a particular area. Meanwhile, she often sees boys fall victim to outside influences like drugs and gangs, both of which are a major problem in the area of Cape Town that her school serves. Many of these external factors are not entirely within the child’s control, which is what makes addressing these systematic problems so difficult.

Good connections

What should be done? The answer comes from the second major finding: the key factor for student success is the quality of their relationships. Ferone spoke about how many kids came from broken mhomes where fathers were “in jail, murdered, or otherwise unknown”. Many of them were in the foster care system and suffered from horrific abuse as a result, including one kid whose teeth were knocked out in afight and who had to wear tinfoil on his gums because his single mother couldn’t afford dental care. And yet Marais, who also works with children from violent communities, found that this doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is doomed to stay stuck in the vicious cycle. The key is for them to have some level of stability and support, even if it’s not with biological parents who are themselves educated and employed. Indeed, students who might not have the most stable family environment can find support in other relationships, whether it’s through teachers who can guide them or peers who are a positive influence in their lives. Ferone expressed the belief that
part of the reason why many kids fail is because their communities have such low expectations of them. This is why Marais often advocates for removing students from their homes and into a nearby orphanage that makes space available to vulnerable kids who might otherwise be held back by the sometimes well-meaning people in their lives. From there, students can start building healthy friendships, although Cruz and Ferone both cautioned that romantic connections, which tend to be volatile for teenagers, are best avoided for people who are already struggling with so much instability in their lives.

Sense of self

Ultimately, the most important relationship is the one the student has with themselves. This brings us to the third major finding: the children who succeed are those with an internal locus of control. This starts with them being fully and realistically aware of who and where they are in their lives (“without sugarcoating it,” as Ferone said). It also requires a sense of vision for the future and their career or academic goals for beyond high school. This is one of the reasons Marais spoke about her school as being “character-based and career-focused” and why Cruz is passionate about helping kids tailor their applications to colleges that
offer good financial aid. The idea of taking responsibility for their lives also depends on what kind of factors motivate them. Ferone, who is a strong believer in rewarding relative progress instead of absolute results, mentioned that she saw a lot of positive outcomes from offering kids extrinsic rewards like gift cards or meals in restaurants where they can order whatever they want. However, as was clear from the pandemic, these external treats can only go so far. That’s why Marais saw the kids with inner drive doing well while those who expected handholding struggled. Cruz experienced similar outcomes with social students who needed support from teachers and/ or peers having the hardest time while the quieter ones showed “remarkable success” from being at home.

Text | Eugene Yiga Photography |
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