This essay comes to LearnED from freelance writer and video producer Jana Sweeney. She has been sharing impactful stories about humanitarian projects for over 20 years. Jana is based in Nigeria.
This week I have been thinking a lot about the importance of choice. As Westerners we often take choice for granted and forget that in many places choice is a luxury—especially in the developing world.
I recently had the good fortune to visit SPARK Bramley. SPARK is an affordable education model in Johannesburg, South Africa. They are a network of primary schools focusing on achieving high academic standards but with low costs.
As an American, I didn’t realize that all South African public/government schools are fee based. The quality of school your child attends depends on how much you can pay.
At many of the schools the outcomes are dismal with children often falling way behind academically. Even for the most devoted of teachers, classroom size and limited resources make proper education nearly impossible.
The founders and supporters of SPARK decided that something needed to be done and have opened eight schools since 2013.
A Day in the Life of Expanded Learning Opportunities
What is remarkable about these schools is that the focus on improving education has been so significant that these are not just schools for low income families. Middle and upper income families are applying for enrollment as well, even though the school is just a couple miles from Alexandra Township, one of the poorest communities in South Africa.
I understand why after just a day at the school.
The school is disciplined and academically demanding, but joyful and caring at the same time. As students wait for school to start, they gather in school yard for SPARKs Fly, a morning assembly—but unlike anything I've ever seen.
The staff plays music to keep the kids entertained (and probably to help burn off a little energy before the day starts). As the music played not only did kids dance, but teachers, administrators and staff came dancing out of their office.
Teachers then lead brain warm ups and a recitation of the school creed.
As the kids moved into the classroom the difference continues with teachers facilitating student led activities. The teachers are in constant motion, encouraging activities, praising, helping and engaging on every level.
There is also daily time at the Learning Lab with a heavy focus on the use of technology ensuring that children who graduate from SPARK will be ready for challenges of the 21st century.
Parents Making Choices for Children
When I spoke with parents, they kept emphasizing how grateful they were for this choice—that they were able to make decisions for their children and not just have to accept the only school they can afford.
The children at SPARK come from a wide range of backgrounds, but I wasn’t able to tell the children of CEOs from the children of domestic workers. The families at SPARK are encouraged to be a support network for each other and they are.
A Model for Africa and Beyond
I have lived and traveled extensively in the developing world and seen the struggles of the education system. In fact, I currently live in Nigeria which faces the same educational struggles as much of Africa.
Schools with no air conditioning in unbearable heat, crumbling buildings, one teacher to 40 kids—sometimes of different age groups in the same class, children who come to school too hungry or too ill to concentrate.
SPARK has changed all that. The teachers are so actively engaged they know if a child is struggling, or hungry or having other problems and they work with the family to come up with a solution. They are passionate and committed to the betterment of their students, but also to the betterment of the educational system in South Africa.
When I asked one teacher what she wanted for her students future she said “I want them to put South Africa on the map.”
If what I saw is any indication, SPARK is already doing that and the children attending the schools are going to be part of the change South Africa and other African countries desperately need.
A Parent and a Teacher, In Their Own Words
Olga Masingi is a parent of a student at SPARK. Here, she explains how learning at the school is so special:
Banele Nghlengetwa is a teacher at SPARK Schools. Here, she's asked about why she teaches. Her answer: "What isn't there to love about teaching?"
Essay author Jana Sweeney.
The Pearson Affordable Learning Fund is proud to be an investor in Spark Schools.
The first line of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reaches back to its origins:
"An Act to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to ensure that every child achieves."
That 1965 bill was passed during President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" to:
"Strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation's elementary and secondary schools."
Over the ensuing five decades, Congress has tweaked and reauthorized the law.
This latest update of the 1965 law replaces the previous update known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB.
The new law was the result of extensive collaboration between the leaders of the Senate and House education committees from both parties, including Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representatives John Kline (R-MN) and Bobby Scott (D-VA).
In December, Congress passed the new law by overwhelming bipartisan margins—the Senate passed it 85 to 12, the House passed it 359 to 64.
A Shift to the States
"Previously, the federal government had an oversized role in educational reform," says Claire Voorhees, Director of K-12 Reform at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. "And it was not as effective as all of us would have liked."
"Assessments are still required and schools are still held accountable," Claire says, "but states have more flexibility in testing and the targeting of funding."
"This new law means more flexibility for states to innovate around school improvements for learners,"says Jessica Cardichon, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy for Comprehensive High School Reform at the Alliance for Excellent Education.
"We're most pleased with how this new law identifies high schools where one-third or more of the students aren't graduating," Jessica says. "They're targeted for intervention and support instead of being 'shamed and blamed.'"
"This is one of the biggest wins we see in this bill for kids," she says.
States Rising to the Challenge
"We hope to see all states rise to the challenge," says Jessica about progress to improving learner outcomes.
Claire Voorhees adds: "But we want to make sure that every state has the leadership and capacity to do everything we want to see for kids."
In December, Senator Lamar Alexander explained on C-SPAN why the law had such bipartisan support:
"We kept the tests so we'll know how people are doing, those are state-designed tests. But what to do about the tests now moves to the governors, the chief state school officers, the classroom teachers. That's why it had such support."