Vulnerable youth as agents of change: a YPAR approach to making schools enabling spaces for learners
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Schools are supposed to be enabling spaces, environments that allow and support children to reach their potential. Yet, education in rural and township schools in South Africa is affected by grave social problems such as HIV and AIDS and increasing poverty which render learners vulnerable. The role of the school as a site of care and support becomes increasingly important in this context, but schools themselves are often disabling due to stigmatisation, discrimination and bullying by peers and even teachers. This results in feelings of inferiority, fear and unhappiness, which negatively impacts on learners' academic performance and their general well-being. As a teacher in one such school, I was motivated by my values of love and social justice to do something to turn the situation around. Previous work has failed to address this problem as the majority of studies focused on the negative outcomes for young people and the challenges faced by them; rather than understanding adaptive protective processes that contribute to their resilience. Positioning vulnerable youth as helpless, denies their right to participation in matters that concern them and reinforces their inability to change their lives. In this study, I proposed that learners themselves have to realise that they can turn their own lives around because change is more likely to be lasting if it comes from within. The research question guiding the study was: How can vulnerable youth actively contribute to making school an enabling space? Drawing on an emancipatory critical paradigm, I engaged a group of 14 Grade 11 learners with an equal mix of boys and girls in a youth participatory action research (YPAR) to develop a research agenda to bring about change in their circumstances and influence policies on issues that impact directly on their lives. Data was generated through participatory visual methods of photovoice and drawings; triangulated with group discussion and my reflective diary. Data was analysed thematically through the lens of the socio-ecological view of resilience, self-determination theory and the concept of the health promoting school. There were three cycles of action learning and action research. Cycle 1: In response to sub-question 1 of the study, How do vulnerable youth perceive the current school climate? participants identified aspects that needed to change to make the school a more enabling space, using photovoice and drawings. Data were discussed during regular action learning set meetings. The findings of the study presented three main themes as areas that needed change in the school: poor infrastructure, lack of sports engagement and poor social and emotional climate of the school. Cycle 2: In response to sub-questions 2 of the study, What actions could vulnerable youth take to make the school an enabling space? participants developed strategies to implement actions to create an enabling school environment, based on their findings in Cycle 1. They used artefacts of Cycle 1 to make posters that they presented to the school governing body and displayed on the wall for other learners and teachers' view to find out if they share similar experience with them. The response indicated that themes identified by participants were validated by the experience of other learners at school. A policy brief was presented to the school governing body. Participants took actions to create awareness of issues identified and involved other learners in addressing these issues. To answer sub-question 3 To what extent could these actions benefit vulnerable youth, teachers and the school in general? I presented evidence of the beneficial effect the project had at various levels. Cycle 3: This cycle was researcher-driven, where I developed theoretical guidelines, to respond to sub-question 4 of the study "What theoretical guidelines can be developed from the findings of this study of how vulnerable youth could be effectively involved in making school an enabling space?, based on my reflections on the process and all the other data sets. This study makes a theoretical contribution to the existing body of knowledge on YPAR as a means of social and educational transformation, by showing how YPAR could be facilitated even in a context where most learners have been rendered vulnerable by poverty and where teachers themselves increase that vulnerability. Most of the studies to date have been done in urban settings in developed countries. Here, I have shown how it can be conducted in a rural setting with few resources as an extra mural activity. The findings also add to resilience theory, in that they have shown that YPAR is an effective way to help vulnerable children increase their resilience. Methodologically, I conclude that the findings indicate that YPAR is an effective means of helping vulnerable learners to increase their agency, and is a catalyst for transformation in specific aspects of the school to make it more akin to a health promoting school. Practically, the study, made a difference to this particular school on many levels. Through YPAR, participants started a process, which is ongoing and continues to bring about positive change in many areas of the school.
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