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Innovative Blend Could be the Spark for South Africa

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Forty months ago a recent MBA graduate named Stacey Brewer told me she was introducing the first blended learning model approach in South Africa to "provide quality education at a cost that the country can afford."

Last week I had the chance to visit the first of four schools they opened in Johannesburg. It's an extraordinarily thoughtful school model powered by an energetic and talented staff.

Brewer and classmate Ryan Harrison were compelled by what looked like an economic and educational crisis in South Africa. After studying options, they formed eAdvance to launch a chain of affordable private schools for low-income communities. More broadly, they sought to "create a workable blueprint for South African education, which will ultimately contribute to the success of the country as a holistic entity."

Ferndale. Located in between what a local school head called "up market apartments" in a converted five story office building SPARK Ferndale is an attractive and inviting facility on a tiny lot where every square meter is utilized.

The first of four SPARK Schools serves 529 K-4 students. A grade will be added each year through seventh (although parents have already started asking about high school).

Director of School Design Bailey Thomson was a TFA teacher at the original Rocketship school. When Ryan and Stacey visited in 2012 she introduced herself. A veteran world traveler, Bailey didn't wait for an offer, she told them she was joining them for the school launch in Johannesburg.

Blended Learning Lead Dee Moodley graduated from a teacher training college in Durban, Kwazulu Natal. She taught in a state primary school in England where technology was part of the curriculum and a blended learning rotation model was emerging. After moving back to Johannesburg, Dee heard about Spark and became one of the first teachers at Spark Ferndale in 2013.

Innovative blend. Following Rocketship's lead, SPARK uses a lab rotation model in grades K-3. The Learning Lab features 128 Chromebooks (the first in South Africa). Students spend an hour every day in the learning lab.

Bailey is a big fan of game-based ST Math, and so are her students. ST Math challenges students to develop and test hypotheses and provides instructional feedback when they fail. Thompson said, "We want our kids developing grit by persisting through failure." SPARK is the first international client for nonprofit MIND Research Institute.

"It's exciting to see ST Math's impact on these students - not just in helping them approach math more conceptually, but instilling them with a thirst for learning and challenges," said Matthew Peterson, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of MIND Research Institute. "Because ST Math is visual instead of language-based, it's ideal for a setting like SPARK."

Learning Lab apps also include Reading Eggs (complete with British spelling and accents). Letters and Sounds is the classroom literacy curriculum.

SPARK students speak 8 of the 11 official South African languages. Students study isiZulu from Kindergarten as their mandated additional language.

In fourth grade, SPARK flips to an innovative five station flex-blend where students have choices about what and how to learn. This year, students in the flex model are on 16 different timetables. Next year, by adding another competency-based element, they will be operating on 64 unique schedules (a challenge given the lack of great scheduling software).

The competency-based flex allows students to progress as the demonstrate mastery in core subjects. More than half of the students have different reading and math levels and, as a result, benefit from a differentiated approach.

The fourth grade flex finds students on their Chromebooks for two 40 minute sessions where they work through ST Math and Reading Eggs. They also work on the open learning platform Gooru where they learn social and natural science content through a playlist of videos, articles and websites. Assignments and quizzes are also distributed as Gooru playlists so that teachers can assess online and decide on next steps for students learning.

At the beginning of each week, students receive five assignments differentiated by level. They can work on them when and how they want but they are due at the end of the week.

SPARK Designs is a 60 minute exploration around the engineering design process (below). Last week the SPARK Design project explored sustainability--and presentations had to be recyclable.

Google Classroom is used to deliver curriculum content to teachers in all four schools. The platform also serves as a collaborative space where principals and teachers can share ideas as well as best practices. Assessments are charted in a series of spreadsheets. (They are waiting for a super gradebook that automatically combines multiple forms of formative assessment).

Making the link. One challenge of a lab rotation model is making the link to classroom instruction.

"We are trying to create a culture of celebration and accountability by having teachers update their ST Math trackers on a weekly basis in the math classrooms, thereby cementing for students the link between the classroom and Learning Lab," said Moodley.

They encourage teachers to test drive objectives that students struggle with in the lab as well as introduce classroom objectives using ST Math.

There are a few teachers who have decided to track Reading Eggs in their classrooms. This investment has come from a few PD sessions that Reading Eggs delivered to the literacy teachers. Reading Eggs has an intensive teaching resource site that we encourage teachers to use to deliver life skills and reading content. These teachers have gone further to assign reading assignments to students on Reading Eggs. These assignments are either set to extend or support students┬┤ learning.

SPARK teachers reinforce behaviour for learning in the classroom that will promote student progress in the Learning Lab. "Many of our teachers begin their classes with a report from the Learning Lab tutors with classroom incentives for students whose behaviour allowed them to complete a certain number of games or master a certain number of objectives," said Moodley.

As a result, "Students do not feel like the Learning Lab and classroom are divorced from one another, but that they are two different modalities of the same learning," added Dee.

Transparency of data, from the lab to the classroom, is a big change for new students but they quickly become comfortable with public information.

Scalable. With school fees of 16,000 Rand, SPARK costs less than half of a medium priced private school. In fact, the fees are not much more than those charged by public schools. (As an affordable private school, SPARK is eligible for government subsidies but the management team has chosen not to apply for them given some of the red tape that comes along with the process.)

Pearson's Affordable Learning Fund invested in eAdvance in May 2014. Fund manager Katelyn Donnelly said, "SPARK Schools is a great investment for us as it is a pioneering educational model with quality at it's core that has the potential to scale to tens of thousands of children."

When four more schools open in January, SPARK will serve more than 3,000 students. Hiring teachers and school leaders has proven to be a critical success factor. The team has found it easier to train new teachers in the SPARK model than retraining veterans. They provide 250 hours of annual professional learning to build team skills.

Facilities are another critical growth factor. The SPARK team works with several developers that acquire and improve properties and lease them back to the school network.

SPARK is one of the most interesting K-12 blends on the planet. The team is building on the best US blends and are leveraging the development of tools. The independent school sector and the political climate in South Africa (where they just suspended annual tests) is open to innovation. Strong demand for each new school is fueled by parent frustration with the public system.

With Bridge International Academies in Kenya, Omega Schools in Ghana, SPARK is among most important K-12 work being done on the continent. They suggest that high quality education for every student in Africa is within reach.

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