SPARK Schools: Scaling Affordable Excellence in South Africa

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Surrounded by hillside vineyards is the village of Lynedoch. It’s across the railroad tracks from its posh neighbor Stellenbosch in the heart of South Africa’s wine country, and shares a view of the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

Serving over 600 children of this working-class village is SPARK Lynedoch, an affordable private Kindergarten through seventh grade school, one of 20 elementary schools in the SPARK Schools network. For about the same fees as top-level government schools, with no subsidy or philanthropy, SPARK educates children remarkably well.

SPARK took over the Lynedoch building after a failing government school closed. It is adjacent to the Sustainability Institute—and shares values and projects with the University of Stellenbosch degree programs offered there.

Lynedoch is a joy-filled school that begins each school day at 7:45 with a morning meeting full of music, dance and inspiration.

Morning meeting at SPARK Lynedoch. Image courtesy of Tom Vander Ark.

Chief of Schools Bailey Thomson Blake explained that primary students spend about an hour a day in a computer learning lab featuring game-based ST Math and Reading Eggs (complete with British spelling and accents). 

SPARK labs are equipped with Google Chromebooks; they were the first to use them at large scale in Africa. Blake is happy with the addition of the itslearning platform this year, introduced as SPARK’s new learning management system.

Students in grades four through seven flex between small group instruction and online personalized learning (below). School lasts until 3:30pm, which is a longer day than the country’s government schools.

Sixth grade flex classroom at SPARK. Image courtesy of Tom Vander Ark.

SPARK schools follow the national curriculum, teaching in English and providing 40 minutes of local language instruction. At SPARK Lynedoch, the additional language of instruction is isiXhosa, which is introduced in Kindergarten.

Visiting with the former head English teacher at Cape Town’s most prestigious private school, we observed impressive high-level writing instruction, including personalized feedback on argument construction in several intermediate classrooms.

The innovative learning model and an early release day each week provides 245 hours of professional learning for teachers each year.

SPARK spells out a set of shared values evident in every classroom: service, persistence, achievement, responsibility, and kindness. Social and emotional learning is woven into the fabric of the day, starting with the morning meeting and progressing through the day as a common language of engagement.

Parents are welcomed at school (not always the case in South Africa) and volunteer at least 30 hours each year.

Sparking a Revolution

As an MBA student in 2010, Stacey Brewer concluded that education was key to South Africa’s future. She and classmate Ryan Harrison started researching education—both pedagogical and business models. They scraped together some funding and traveled to California in 2012 to visit a number of schools, including Rocketship Public Schools, an early leader in using technology to personalize learning.

At the original Rocketship school, they met Bailey, a Teach for America teacher. A veteran traveler to Africa, Bailey didn’t wait for an offer; she told them she was joining them to launch a school in Johannesburg.

SPARK Chief of Schools Bailey Thomson Blake. Image courtesy of Tom Vander Ark.

Seven years later, the SPARK network serves over 10,600 students, including a new high school (about the same population as Rocketship, the network that inspired it).

Lynedoch is the only rural school, and the only location in the Western Cape (the southern province including Cape Town). It’s one of the few locations in a traditional school building. “We’ve converted a night club and wedding venue, a college dorm, and an office building. We like shopping centers,” explained Blake. The nontraditional locations typically offer large flexible spaces required by the SPARK model.

SPARK fees are a modest $1,560—or $156 per month for 10 months—similar to government schools and about half that of a medium-priced private school.

SPARK’s investors include Omidyar Network and Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF). The company plans to conclude another round of funding early in 2020, fueling more growth around Johannesburg and in the Western Cape beginning in 2021.

What Brewer and Blake have accomplished with their team is remarkable—providing a great benefit to South African families and an example to education entrepreneurs worldwide. Their success illustrates that capital increasingly flows anywhere in the world to a good idea, that innovation spreads more rapidly and more unexpectedly than ever before, and that a couple of young people with a dream can change their corner of the world.

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This blog was originally published on Forbes.

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