Allistair Witten EdM ’03, EdD ’10: ‘Dreaming Big’
Educator is changing the face of schooling in his native South Africa
With this feature, we introduce the first in an ongoing series that reveals the depth and breadth of Harvard's alumni community at home and abroad.
For Allistair Witten EdM ’03, EdD ’10, one childhood memory stands out from the rest. When he was very young, he and his family headed to a beach near their home in the South African city of Cape Town. But soon after Witten and his parents arrived, police forced them to move along. It turned out that their day-trip destination was reserved exclusively for “whites.” Witten says that even though he was a small boy, he knew then and there that “something was wrong.”
It wouldn’t be the first time a young Witten would experience the sting of apartheid. The racial segregation policy known as the Group Areas Act compelled his family to move from their Cape Town home and settle into a high-density township in what they called the “Cape Flats,” a vast, dusty parcel of land on the outskirts of the city. Witten attended segregated schools, which he notes were generally housed in poorly constructed buildings with a dearth of resources and facilities.
What the schools did have in their favor, however, were great educators. “The high school I attended had teachers who were committed to the liberation of our country and who believed that education was a powerful tool to achieve this,” Witten recalls. As he grew older, Witten grew ever more aware of the repressive system he lived under and the need to challenge it. Starting that day at the beach, “this sense of social justice stayed with me,” he says.
“The high school I attended had teachers who were committed to the liberation of our country and who believed that education was a powerful tool to achieve this.”
Today, Witten is the founder and director of the Centre for the Community School at the Missionvale campus of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. After almost a decade in Cambridge, he returned to his native land in 2010 with a master of education degree and a doctor of education degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). But the seeds of his distinguished education career were sewn long before that—in his high school classroom and at home. Witten says his parents were keen for him and his brothers to become teachers “because it was one of the few respectable professions that people of color could move into,” he recalls. “They also believed we had a role to play in contributing to the uplifting of our communities and saw education as the ideal means to do this.”
South Africa may have emerged from apartheid two decades ago, but Witten calls the country’s liberation “an incomplete freedom, a yet to be fulfilled dream.” He points to a nation of two worlds: modernized cities on the one hand and country areas beset with poverty and inequality on the other. “Our work in education is located in the latter world,” he says, “and we need solutions to our education challenges that take the conditions in this world into account.”
A new approach to education
Among Witten’s solutions is a community-based approach to schooling. Two years ago, he founded the Manyano Community Schools Network at the Centre for the Community School. Based on his doctoral studies at HGSE, which explored what made effective schools effective despite tremendous educational and social obstacles, the Manyano network (“Manyano” is an indigenous isiXhosa language term meaning “coming together”) is a grouping of schools that serve poor and marginalized communities in urban and rural townships in the troubled Eastern Cape of South Africa. The schools have adopted an approach to improvement that not only focuses on teaching and learning but also addresses some of the social challenges that affect these core functions.
These challenges are daunting. “Hunger and ill health among the students and their families, crime and violence on and around the school premises, and social unrest due to growing inequality all have a disruptive effect on schooling,” Witten says. “This leads to unpredictable and unstable school environments, and no child deserves to live and learn in these conditions.”
“Hunger and ill health among the students and their families, crime and violence on and around the school premises, and social unrest due to growing inequality all have a disruptive effect on schooling.”
Besides working with teachers to improve what goes on inside the classroom, Witten’s network also collaborates closely with principals to build partnerships—with parents and community members, faith-based and civic organizations, universities, and businesses—that are aimed at addressing some of the stumbling blocks to effective education.
Witten is so invested in his fledgling initiative that he lives in the Eastern Cape, flying to Cape Town to see his family. That the network is attracting national attention is a major source of pride, he says. Witten is also emboldened by the innovative work of the principals and by the increasing participation of parents. “Many parents have low levels of education and some do not have any formal education,” he says. “Our work has allowed them to speak more confidently about the issues that affect the learning and development of their children and to get more involved in supporting the schools.”
Beyond quick fixes
Witten describes his journey as having come full circle. Before he left for Cambridge on a Harvard South Africa Fellowship in 2001, he was the principal of Zerilda Park Primary School in Cape Town for eight years, having earned a teacher’s certificate, two undergraduate degrees, and a master’s in public administration in South Africa but having received no formal training as a principal. Zerilda Park served an area afflicted by high levels of crime and gang violence, and it was one of the first to become involved in a government initiative called the Safe Schools program, which implements security measures—such as burglar bars and alarms—in schools.
Arguing that these were only short-term solutions, Witten instead embarked upon a series of mostly after-hours community activities that engaged families and young people around skills training, job-creation projects, and personal development. “We had no incidents of vandalism and burglaries at the school during this time,” Witten notes proudly. “Parent meetings relating to school matters were well attended, and the school became a hub of activities that attracted national and international attention.” And so the blueprint for his community schools idea was drafted.
But Witten’s somewhat radical approach did not find support among Safe Schools leadership. “This is when I took up the challenge of studying further,” he says, “and bringing the conceptual and theoretical work back to South Africa with me.”
'Our work is on the edge'
Jerome T. Murphy, the Harold Howe II Research Professor of Education and former dean of HGSE, once called Witten “a troublemaker for educational excellence.” It’s a characterization Witten doesn’t challenge. He acknowledges that his approach to education certainly uproots existing mindsets and assumptions: “The slogan ‘Try out new things without asking permission and apologize later if you have to’ has worked well for me,” Witten says. “Our work is on the edge and sometimes we have to take risks. I think, at the end of the day, it’s important for people to know that you are doing this because you have the interests of the child at heart.”
Alongside Murphy; Robert Peterkin, professor of practice emeritus; and other faculty, Witten cofounded the South Africa Education Leadership Initiative at HGSE, connecting educators in his homeland to Harvard. Today, the mission of the initiative lives on at the University of Johannesburg’s Education Leadership Institute, which provides support for leadership through training and development. “I always believed in dreaming big,” Witten says. “I thought about bringing something back to South Africa that would be bigger than me and the degree I would obtain.”
“Education remains the most important tool that will allow South Africa to realize its vision as a democratic state.”
Witten calls HGSE a “wonderful, life-changing experience. I was in the company of a great community of scholars, practitioners, and friends, who welcomed me, sharpened my thinking, and supported my vision for education in South Africa.”
That vision will continue to shape Witten’s work and his life as he hones his model for school improvement in South Africa. “We have a vision to have community schools all over the country,” he says. “Education remains the most important tool that will allow South Africa to realize its vision as a democratic state.
“I was fortunate to be in a meeting where Nelson Mandela spoke during his last few months as president of the country. He told us that the work in transforming our country had only just begun, and that he was handing the torch that carried the ‘flame of hope’ over to us to continue and complete the work,” Witten says. “This is the work I will continue to do for the next decade.”