When SPARK Schools, South Africa’s first blended learning school network opened its doors in January 2013, it got a brutal awakening. Of its 100 K-2nd graders, only seven could read at a Kindergarten level.
A year later, 96% of SPARK’s 150 students have jumped 1.5 grades in reading, scoring above 65% of the country’s average 3rd graders. “Our students are doing in grade one what other South African schools are doing in grade three,” says SPARK Schools CEO Stacey Brewer. These are refreshing statistics in a country where only 31% of students pass the final public school exam and whose education system ranks 146th out of 149 nations according to the World Economic Forum.
SPARK Schools founders, Brewer and Ryan Harrison, two South African natives, credit a combination of technology and a no-excuses attitude as the key to disrupting the country’s failing education system. And they found their inspiration in a surprising place: San Jose’s Rocketship.
Trying On Schools
When Brewer and Harrison began designing SPARK, they knew they wanted a scalable solution that would deliver results with or without government support. “The failed state of education [in South Africa] lent itself to rethinking this from the beginning,” Brewer says.
So the two MBA grads turned education entrepreneurs scoured the globe to find models they could replicate in their own country.
There are some surprising--and technology-driven--models emerging across Africa and India. For instance, Bridge International Academies in Kenya has pioneered the idea of a “school in a box”: Bridge, which has over 200 schools in Kenya, educates students for as little as $5 per month. Teachers (who need not be certified) are high school graduates, who go through a five- week training program. They read standardized lessons out loud from a handheld computer to classes that range from 50 to 70 students. The computer also includes an online grade book and software to track how teachers spend their time.
While the model makes it possible to educate many children for literally a few dollars, there are plenty of critics, particularly those who worry that the model “robotized” the role of the teacher. Brewer and Harrison figured their audience, lower to upper middle class families, would want a different experience for their kids.
The US was an unlikely place for the pair of entrepreneurs to look for inspiration. “We never thought we could adopt a first-world model because of the resources and skills that we just don’t have. In a developing market, we have more constraints,” says Brewer. But one of the school’s angel investors, David Gibb pointed the two toward Rocketship. “When we found Rocketship, our search was through,” says Brewer. Rocketship, a pioneering blended learning school in San Jose, uses technology to deliver individualized instruction to some students, while the teacher teaches a small group through direct instruction.
Brewer and Harrison liked Rocketship’s fusion of high quality instruction with a tight rein on costs. “Blended learning allows you to run a more cost-efficient school,” Harrison says--and that means delivering education to a bigger swath of students. And Rocketship was getting positive learning results. “We liked that Rocketship was targeting underserved students, and yet still able to compete with affluent schools,” adds Brewer. Rocketship has been known to produce scores in the top tier of California schools who serve underprivileged students. In calendar year 2012, Rocketship scored 855 on the California Academic Performance Index one of the top ten scores for schools that serve underserved students. In 2013, the scores dropped to 822 across the network, however, still managed to top the states average score of 800.
The entrepreneur spent two weeks visiting San Jose. They also met with other US education leaders including KIPP founder, Mike Feinberg. And then they started designing SPARK Schools.
When Brewer and Harrison opened SPARK Ferndale in January 2013, their students came from homes as varied as the languages they speak. Children of bank executives and of domestic workers all attended the school together.
To meet such diverse needs, SPARK uses a Learning Lab rotation model where students could go at their own pace and focus on the skills they needed. Groups of 60 students spend 90 minutes per day in the computer lab, where they use programs such as ST Math and Equatia for math practice and Reading Eggs and Accelerated Reader for language arts. Three tutors monitor the lab; one supports the students and responds to questions; the other two pull students aside for small-group instruction. Students typically spend an hour on the computer and 20 minutes in the small groups, with breaks in between.
“Our lab rotations provide students opportunity to progress, no matter where they started,” says Bailey Thomson, SPARK’s Director of Schools and a former teacher at Rocketship, “Blended learning provides a narrative, so when they use ST Math they talk about Jiji and what Jiji did to learn quadrilaterals.”
Students spend the rest of their day in a low-tech environment. Traditional classrooms contain up to 32 students for every one teacher. Ninety minutes are spent in math class, 40 minutes in physical education, 40 minutes learning Zulu (one of South Africa’s most widely spoken languages), and 180 minutes in literacy class. Most of the classes are more traditional; teachers run guided readings, lead group discussions, or engage students in hands on projects. “We don’t want to put tech into the class until it magnifies great teaching,” says Thompson. Sticking with tech in the lab makes the model much cheaper because the school only has to maintain one tech rich environment, rather than many.
While blended learning is part of what differentiates SPARK from other private and public schools available in South Africa, its high expectations culture is also unusual. “What’s different between us and other schools is that we are not making excuses,” says Harrison. The school asks students to stay an extra two hours each day; talk of attending universities is ongoing.
Big Hopes for the Future
Brewer and Harrison opened their second school, Cresta (K-2nd grade), in January 2014 with 160 kindergarten and first graders. They have ambitious plans--to open as many as 64 schools over the next ten years and to serve more than 63,000 students. They plan to open schools that support 996 students, kindergarden through seventh graders, a common age range for South African schools.
That pace sounds staggeringly ambitious. Even experienced charter operators like Rocketship are struggling to execute their rapid growth plans in the United States where blended learning is more established. “We keep a close eye on Rocketship… from a growth perspective and an academic perspective. We rely on the learning’s and challenges of those who have come before us,” Brewer admits.
But Brewer believes that the education industry in South Africa might not present as many barriers as those US schools face. “We currently do not face red tape such as political resistance… not having to carry the burden of issues such as these allow us to scale at pace with less barriers to entry, she says.”
And Brewer and Harrison have all the energy--and impatience--of teachers or entrepreneurs on a mission. “South Africa does not have time to wait and waste generations on tests and observations,” Brewer says. “Systematic market disruptions is needed immediately to ensure South Africa is able to take the steps needed to accelerate the countries development,” she says.
To support the rapid growth of ten more schools, these education entrepreneurs are looking to raise $3.5 million from both South African and International Funds. They estimate the cost to start each school is $350,000, not including facilities. (SPARK typically rents its locations.) The extra funds, Brewer says, will support equipment and technology infrastructure and also to cover each school’s costs for a few years until it breaks even based on tuition. As of late 2013, they are 10% of the way to their goal.
Brewer and Harrison hope their model will spread to other private and government-managed schools in South Africa. The school charges students R12,000 (US $1,100) per year, comparable to what the government spends to educate each student. (South Africa on average spends R11,000 ($1,000) per student). “We set the price close to what the government spends per child, so with a private/public partnership we could start charging nothing,” says Thompson, “Without blended learning it would be impossible… because it alleviates a certain amount of staffing structure.”
The hope is that their schools not only change the academic opportunities for the students who attend, but eventually the attitudes of the country. And they say they are seeing signs of impact.
“If we do disrupt the market, when we disrupt the market, we won’t only be a proof point for our students but it will make other schools more accountable. They are going to start saying, ‘We are failing our children.’ Ultimately the customer gets a better product, and that’s what we want to do: Create competition, push schools in South Africa,” says Harrison.