N.Va. couple's quest is to give South African school a library

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

Copies of "Clifford the Big Red Dog," "Amelia Bedelia" and "The Berenstain Bears" are filling donation boxes at Dranesville Elementary School in Herndon as third-grade students part with some of their favorite books and ask their friends to do the same.

By late June, the students' picture books will become part of a 20,000-title collection loaded onto a 40-foot shipping container bound for the South African city of Port Elizabeth. From there, the container will be trucked to A.V. Bukani primary school in a rural township 40 miles away. After a little redecorating, and with the addition of some windows and a door, the container will become a stand-alone library.

"These books are going right into the hands of kids just like you who don't have the books you have," Eileen Kugler, a book drive organizer, told the students as they sorted through hundreds of donated books on a recent afternoon and recorded the titles in a database.

Libraries are rare in many developing countries, where literacy rates are low and resources scarce. Many aid organizations and foundations support efforts to ship books overseas. A group of volunteers affiliated with the World Bank stocks a warehouse in Sterling with donated titles from several Washington area school systems. This year, the group sent hundreds of boxes of books to schools in Tanzania and Liberia. The volunteers now are collecting books in French to send to Haiti.

Larry and Eileen Kugler launched the library project in South Africa after volunteering at the school for two years. Larry, a retired elementary school teacher and administrator in Fairfax schools, and Eileen, the author of a book about the benefits of diversity in schools, first traveled to the country in 2006 on an educational tour of its schools.

Under apartheid, education for black children was poorly funded and limited to preparing students for menial work. The ideals of the system have become more egalitarian since the arrival of multiracial democracy in 1994, but a legacy of deprivation remains in many schools.

"We were inspired by the optimism of this new democracy," Eileen Kugler said. "We felt if there was one small thing we could do, we could go back and provide professional development equal to what U.S. teachers receive."

In 2008, along with their daughter Sara, who is a literacy specialist and former public school teacher in New York, they went to A.V. Bukani, a 950-student primary school in a town called Nomathamsanqa.

The name means "hope" in the Xhosa language, one of South Africa's most common, said Principal Zilindile Thambo. More than half of the adults in the township lack formal employment, and many people rely on seasonal work in nearby citrus groves. The illiteracy rate is high, Thambo said.

When the Kuglers arrived, Larry and Sara worked with teachers, showing them techniques for encouraging students to talk and think in English, to go beyond lecture-style lessons. They brought a book called "Swimmy," by Leo Lionni, with bright pictures and simple language. As Sara read aloud from the book, the students became absorbed in the story and the teacher asked Larry, "Do you have any more books like this?"

Eileen Kugler worked in the school's computer lab, a room filled with dusty, donated machines. She installed anti-virus software and offered word processing classes to teachers, some of whom were afraid to touch the keyboards. A few teachers went with the Kuglers to an Internet cafe with a faster connection in Port Elizabeth, set up e-mail accounts and did their first Google searches. "WE ARE NOW CONNECTED TO THE WORLD," one teacher wrote in her first e-mail.

Blog postings from the Kuglers' 2008 trip describe their growing affection for the teachers and the community. They wrote about their daily walks to school with 7-year-old Yanga, the grandson of their host family. Along the dusty road, they passed donkeys and chickens and learned bits of Xhosa. They relished the first moments of the school day, when all of the students and teachers gathered in the courtyard to dance and sing hymns.

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