How to build an elite school for all

‘This is Tanzania,” the young scholar announces deadpan as she gestures to the door of a plain aluminium-coloured trailer. It isn’t. It’s Tsakane, a township on the East Rand just south of Brakpan. 

But on a square of especially barren land, so treeless the sun makes your neck sweat even in August, a group of education innovators is trying to help children to dream their way into a wider world.  

This square of land houses the two-year-old African School for Excellence (ASE). It’s a nonprofit school, one of a group of private education institutions stepping in to fill the void left by the public education crisis.  

These are boom times for private education in South Africa. Over the past decade about 60 new private schools have opened every year, an annual growth of more than 6%, according to Stefan Botha, an education analyst with Impak, a company that provides education products in South Africa.  

The for-profit schools now constitute a R1.5-billion market. In this lively marketplace, the ASE has caught the attention of major players such as Ian McLachlan, the education specialist Kgosi Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi of the Royal Bafokeng Nation hired to develop his region’s schooling. At R200 a month for parents, ASE is among the cheapest private education available.  

By contrast, the low-cost schools run by Curro, South Africa’s biggest chain of private-school operators, cost around seven times as much.  

Comparable quality
Yet, despite its rock-bottom fees, the ASE claims it offers quality comparable to the R100?000-a-year top-end choices.  Its first set of Grade 8 pupils took the Grade 9 annual national assessment (ANA) exams this year, and the results seem to back that claim.  

Pupils who had entered the school a year earlier scoring deep down in the lowest quintile and counting on their fingers reversed their performance to outscore South Africa’s wealthiest quintile of students by 22% — despite taking the English portion meant for native English-speakers.  

Nearly 30% made the Maths Olympiad semifinals;  5% scored over 80% on the annual national assessment, an achievement posted by only the brightest 0.4% of the nation, consisting of pupils almost always educated at former Model C or expensive private schools.  

The ASE achieved such results in two ways: by focusing on problem-solving and by demanding excellence.  

Much of the ASE school day takes place without the direct intervention of a teacher. Pupils work in small groups to solve algebra equations and pick apart literature so they not only memorise but also understand problems. They discuss their work with teachers afterwards.  

Work hard and excel 
The school sends the pupils messages that, despite their poverty, they can — and are expected to — work hard and excel along with Bishops and Roedean pupils.  In “Tanzania”, ASE pupils read English poet Ted Hughes and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Each month they compete against each other to win the title “Top Dog” in reading, maths and science.  

“I Am Destined for Greatness!” reads a prominently placed poster in the temporary encampment of trailers that serves as the ASE’s building.  The school offers a British curriculum that will allow its pupils, in four years, to complete their internationally recognised A-level tests. 

This will allow them to apply to the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town.    

Sharai Chizivano, who gave me a tour of the “Tanzania” reading room, has taken the message to heart. She told me that not only is her favourite subject science — she’s a “Top Dog” — but also that she intends to study it at Harvard University.  It seems unlikely.  

Sharai’s mother is a domestic worker, and with her father absent she helps to care for her baby sister. But the girl is determined. 

“I want to work with pharmaceuticals,” she announced as a vuvuzela toot marked the end of a class period. “I aim to come up with a cure for HIV and Aids. I want to be the best black woman working on a cure.”  

Jay Kloppenberg, one of the ASE’s cofounders, tells me he heard this kind of dream a lot when he first came to South Africa from the United States seven years ago to join the international management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.  

After leaving McKinsey in 2008, Kloppenberg spent two years in private equity in Johannesburg before attending INSEAD business school, where he drew up a business plan for a network of elite-quality high schools costing R7 000 a year to operate — 90% less than the wealthy prep schools the network would emulate.  

For the many families unable to pay that modest amount, he recruited sponsors to pay up to R6?000 a year. To cover the substantial cost of getting started, he enlisted individual donors such as Hlumelo Biko, the son of Steve Biko and Dr Mamphela Ramphele. 

Kloppenberg was struck by the ambitions of poor high school pupils and the existing public school system’s inability to help them to realise their dreams.  He had met 12th graders who intended to be doctors or business executives but didn’t know their multiplication tables. 

“Somebody’s been lying to these kids,” he said.  It was often presumed that the fairest way for the system to handle such children was to break it to them that their opportunities would be circumscribed.  

A more powerful approach
“People would say, ‘Let’s offer FET [Further Education and Training] training,'” he said. Kloppenberg wondered whether the opposite approach — to hold poorer pupils to higher standards — wouldn’t be more powerful.  

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute — every-body I went to school with [at a private school outside Boston] was meant to go to college. Why aren’t these kids meant to go to college? Because they’re from the township?'”  

The idea to offer cheap private education at a world-class standard to lower-income children crystallised when he met Nonhlanhla Masina, a master’s student in pharmaceutical science at Wits. Masina had faith that children from the poorest townships could make it to university because she had done it.  

As a Wits undergraduate microbiology student, she was one of the few black students to make the challenging honours programme, even though her father had lost his R500-a-week job as a janitor and she had to scrape together money for rent by handing out fliers for mattress discounts at street intersection.  

She also experienced how difficult it could be even for the best township students to survive at a competitive university. For her first-year chemistry class, she was instructed to type up an assignment in the computer lab. But she had never used a computer.  

“I sit down. The screen says, ‘You must press Ctrl-Alt-Del to unlock,'” she remembered, howling with laughter. She pressed the keys one by one, but nothing happened. Too embarrassed to ask what to do, she got up and left.   

“I was always exposing myself as an outsider,” she said. “As soon as I realised the gap was so massive between me and my [privileged Wits] peers, I thought, ‘I need to go back home and try to prepare people for what they’re going to see after matric.’  

“When Jay [Kloppenberg] and I met, I was trying to think, ‘What else can I do to help my people?'”  Together, Masina, Kloppenberg and a childhood friend of hers, Melusi Radebe, developed the idea to start a much more challenging school in Tsakane, where Masina and Radebe grew up.  

The model would have to be low-cost, they decided, both to allow township parents to afford it and to allow it to expand. “It wasn’t like we chose Tsakane because we thought we would find exceptional students there,” Kloppenberg explained.  

The choice for a seed location was a function of convenience, because Masina had connections and trust in the community.  “But what’s amazed me is that we don’t have to search for kids who are really passionate, who want to learn, and who are ready to be exceptional,” he said.  

More than the norm
Just by demanding more than the South African norm from their pupils — all of whom, on my recent visit, eagerly listened to teachers during lectures, fought for the privilege of doing maths problems on the board, and begged to stay after school to practice classical music on instruments such as the violin and the oboe — the ASE posted much greater test-score gains than they had hoped for in their first two years and fully expect a majority of their pupils to win good marks on their A-levels down the road.  

Kloppenberg and Masina dream of opening dozens of ASE-type schools; the obstacles are finding the buildings and training the teachers.  

I asked McLachlan, the Royal Bafokeng educational specialist who also served as headmaster of the elite St Stithians College in Johannesburg, whether he thought pupils from Tsakane were well served by an educational environment that encouraged them to accept no less than Harvard when the time for university came.  

After all, bursaries to international and the best local universities are limited.  And the modern job market is increasingly fluid, requiring not only high test scores on conventional academic subjects but also ingenuity, resilience and entrepreneurial spirit.  

“It’s an important question,” McLachlan said. “The skill most needed in the 21st century is problem-solving.”  

Educators such as University of Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen have lamented the “parrot learning” that passes for achievement even at the most expensive schools.  

Huge motivator
For pupils, the idea of Wits or Harvard when you would be the first in your family to attend any university is a huge motivator.  

But McLachlan points out that even those pupils who make it to university aren’t making it through and completing their degrees — or finding opportunities beyond it.  For McLachlan, the problem-solving method inherent in the ASE’s curriculum, more than the eye-catching test scores, “is what interests me.”  

He, and Masina and Kloppenberg, hope it is the magic key that will give students “a much greater chance of leading a more meaningful and economically viable future” than they would otherwise have in South Africa.  

That, of course, is harder to judge than exam scores; the test of it is only just beginning.

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