JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Xoliswa, 11 years old, was given a science assignment in class. The worksheet, written in English and handed to her on Monday, was due that Friday. The task was to build a model solar system using paper maché, newspaper, paint, wire, polystyrene, and balloons. Xoliswa’s mother, who earns a precarious living through child-care and occasional laundry orders, speaks little English and could offer no assistance. Worse yet, Xoliswa had never heard of paper maché or polystyrene. She arrived with a small packet of water balloons at the Learning Center—an afterschool institution in the affordable housing apartment block where she lives—and wondered if the Center could help her complete the task at hand.

The total cost was barely 150 rand ($15), and had to be purchased from a specialty arts and crafts shop in a shopping mall in town. By...

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