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SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

Every school has a vision statement nowadays but most don’t take them very seriously. I remember talking with a student in Baton Rouge several years ago about his school. “Everybody is always talking about helping us ‘Be Great,’” he said, referencing the school’s vision. “But they’re not even giving us the tools to be alright.”*

I recently spoke with the head teacher at a school made of mud bricks in rural Malawi. He was quick to hand me the school’s vision statement, which talked about preparing students to contribute to the future development of Malawi. But when I asked what he wanted to prioritize to make that vision a reality, he raised his arms and laughed.

James Baldwin, the great black American writer and intellectual, has a line about how artists and revolutionaries are both “possessed by a vision and that, they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it.” Most educators talk about vision as something that provides direction. But it was this more radical idea, of a vision that possesses and drives that came to mind when Elizabeth and I met Dee Moodley, Blended Learning Lead and instructional coach at SPARK schools in South Africa.

Dee is a remarkable woman. She is quick to laugh and reflexively curious. She’s concise and passionate in her views but also eager for feedback. When you talk with her, the conversation seems to almost overflow with ideas and reflections gathered through her almost two decades of experience.

Dee Moodley

Dee Moodley

When Dee talks about SPARK’s vision, the ideas are inextricably linked with the priorities to make that vision a reality. SPARK wants their children to be able to compete on an international level, so they use the most rigorous international curriculums. Most schools in South Africa let out around 1:00. SPARK goes until 4:30. The vision is also a central part of the teacher recruitment process, “We’re employing individuals for what they believe in… We need teachers to believe that children can succeed. One-hundred percent. And that’s not a dream for me, it’s a reality.” But making it a reality for other teachers can be tricky. Many teachers who come to SPARK have been in schools where the students struggle to meet the much more basic local standards. So, getting them to expect students to master the most rigorous curriculums in the world can be challenging. (For more on the holistic support systems SPARK creates for its teachers, check out our previous post)

One teacher with almost 10 years of experience talked to us about how starting at SPARK was disempowering. Initially he felt that the expectations were too high and the rigor too fast-paced, “and your planning is different because the outcomes you’re going to reach are completely different than what you’re used to.” But he was originally attracted to SPARK by the vision and values so, he chose to see the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Now, this sense of continuous growth is what he enjoys most about SPARK.

Several other teachers had similar stories. Taking the vision seriously made their work much more difficult, but it also made the work more rewarding. In every group we spoke with, people would bring up SPARK’s vision as something that motivated them and bound them together. There was a clear pride in their conviction that, the school would do whatever it takes to make sure every student could succeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable comments came from Patience Ndlovu, a staff member who was first introduced to SPARK as a parent. She spoke about how she was initially skeptical of ‘these new schools,’ but when she first visited SPARK she was struck by the warmth that welcomed her. She was further impressed by the positive feedback from her child, “I could see that this is coming from an educator who is positive. The minds that created SPARK are coming right through to my little child. I was imagining this just seeping through the whole community and I just love that. I was thinking that this is where education should be going. That’s why I love being part of this, I don’t know, this goo juice seeping through to the next generation.” You know a school is truly vision aligned when a parent sees a direct link between the founders of the school and the attitude of her child.

At SPARK, the commitment to students (and to the personal growth necessary to help students) really is like a ‘goo juice’ that seeps into every decision at the school. Talking with the faculty, there is a sense that they are part of something exciting. Something that may have the potential to ripple across South Africa to redefine what people should expect from education. But for this greater vision to become a reality it will take a lot more than SPARK showing the way. It will take many more people who are willing to be possessed and driven by a new idea of what’s possible in education.

  • Will

This is our second post about our day at SPARK schools. Our first piece can be found here.

*This student, Dominique Ricks, has since gone on to graduate from college and become a teacher. He was recently voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ at his school outside of Baton Rouge.

Penguins in Simon’s Town, or Learning the Hard Way

Penguins in Simon’s Town, or Learning the Hard Way

We started our day foiled. The Robben Island ferry had been canceled for a second time, even though the sun was shining. We didn’t have any other open days to reschedule, so we had to move something around. The weather seemed nice, so we decided to go to see the penguins in Simon’s Town.

Cape Town seemed warm on that Wednesday morning, so we changed into our Chacos and left our rain jackets at the hostel. We didn’t want to lug them around on a beautiful day. This, of course, is a surefire way to jinx your trip. Thinking about taking your rain jacket and then deciding not to almost always guarantees rain.

Getting to Simon’s Town, a small beach town near the city, is usually quite easy. Light rail trains leave regularly, and as long as you are on the correct line, you just take it to the end. We bought our tickets and then ran across the train station with one minute to spare, jumping on the noon train just as the doors closed. “We’re on the right train, right?” Will asked me. “Yes, the ticker said platform 1.”

Simon's Town 01

Will had read that the train takes about 1 hour. Our train seemed to stop for long periods of time, so we were only mildly concerned as we approached 90 minutes in our seats. Finally, we stopped at Fish Hoek and everyone got off except us. We knew there were at least two more stops, so we sat tight.

Fifteen minutes later, an older woman got on the train and asked us where it was going. “Simon’s Town” we said. “Oh, no. You are very far from Simon’s Town” She said. Panic started to brew. Did we get on the wrong train? Or was this lady just crazy? She was talking to herself…

Finally, we got a tip from another traveler who explained that they were doing work on the tracks and there were buses to take us on to Simon’s Town. Relieved, we hopped off the train and found the bus.

At this point we were quite hungry (we had planned to have lunch in Simon’s Town) and quite cold. Unfortunately, the rain had not stopped and the temperature had dropped.

Simon's Town Cape Town Travel

After a bus ride and a long walk, we came upon the center of Simon’s Town and its small, but excellent selection of waterfront seafood restaurants. I had the best shrimp of my life – butterflied and covered in something lemon and garlicy. Worth the unpredictable (and long) train ride.

We waited out some heavier rain in a tea shop, at which point I started cursing my Chacos and cold feet. We ducked into a shoe store, treated ourselves to some new socks, and continued on toward the penguins.

At first, I believed myself to be a genius for buying socks…until the rain got even harder and my feet got even wetter and colder. By the time we got to the Boulders Beach Penguin Colony, I was freaking out. I was so cold and so wet. Will tried to convince me that the penguins would be worth it, but I wouldn’t listen. He left me at a coffee shop down the street from the penguin reserve to wait out the rain.

About to order a hot drink, I realized that Will had all of our money. I ran after him and ended up walking to the penguin reserve as well.

Cape Town Penguins travel

We got into the reserve about 30 minutes before it closed. The penguins were out and about in full force – waddling around, making funny noises, and doing other hilarious penguin activities.

Cape Town Penguins 15

Cape Town Penguins 19

I ran around the boardwalk, trying to see everything quickly and enjoy as much as possible before running back to the covered area. All around us were people in raincoats, properly dressed for the weather, and enjoying themselves.

Cape Town Penguins 33

By the time we started the 3km walk back to the train station to get the bus, the rain had slowed down. We found a shared taxi to take us to the bus and the rest of the journey back to Cape Town was uneventful. Until we almost got robbed. For more on that, look here.

So what is the final word on Simon’s Town? The penguins are awesome, definitely worth the trip, as was the seafood.   Cape Town weather, however, is varied and unpredictable. This is not the trip to risk it. I learned a lesson in preparation the hard way – hopefully you won’t have to!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

How We Were Almost Robbed: The Cape Town ATM Scam

How We Were Almost Robbed: The Cape Town ATM Scam

I had read about ATM scams being a problem in Cape Town, but as we disembarked the train from Simon’s Town, exhausted and cold, I didn’t remember any of the precautions I was supposed to. The ABSA ATM looked legit enough – it was your usual bank-attached, two kiosk, ATM.

I imaged an ATM scam happening at dingier, sketchier, not as centrally located ATM. Looking back, I guess the bus/train station is a usual place for theft, so we shouldn’t be too surprised it happened there.

As we entered the ATM, another man entered after us. I stood to the back, since Will was the one taking out cash. I saw the other man was holding 40 Rand like he was going to make a deposit – which was weird because 40 Rand is about $3.50. Two other men also entered the ATM – I thought to myself “we got here just before the rush.”

Will finished his transaction, and I walked past the men to leave. As we got to the door, the first man called out “wait! You have to cancel your transaction. You left it open. You have to put your card back in, or someone can take your money.”

Will turned to look at the ATM. It was flashing two options. He tapped the screen and then went to put his card back in. “You have to hold it up, sir. You have to hold the end up and put it in. Just tap it.” The man said. Will tried to insert the card as instructed but it would not go into the machine. “Let me show you,” said the man, and he put his hand on Will’s card. Will yanked the card away.

Will went back and forth with this man for a moment, the man offering help and Will keeping his card away from him. The next man in line chimed in, “He’s right. You have to cancel your transaction. Just put your card in, but you have to hold it up.” Will tried again. “No, you will break your card. Let me show you.” The second man reached for Will’s card and Will yanked it away.

“I think it’s canceled, let’s just go.” Will said. He motioned to the next man in line to do his business. “They’re right,” the third man said. “I wanted to make a deposit, but now I can’t because you haven’t canceled your transaction.” Will tried it one more time, again unable to insert the card. The THIRD man offered to help and put his hand on the card to take it. Again, Will yanked it away, stating firmly “I don’t need help.”

Suddenly, all three men disappeared. All I heard was a flip phone hitting the glass and breaking on the sidewalk.

Cape Town ATM Scam travel

“You’ve been robbed!” called a short man in a trenchcoat, holding a briefcase and a walkie-talkie. He said he was police (a CCID officer), observed we were being hassled, and had just called security from around the corner. I was initially a little suspicious, because the logo on his jacket was neon green, but indeed, the CCID is an arm of law enforcement in Cape Town.

It turns out we were not robbed. If you are still in physical possession of your debit card, the thieves can’t access your money. The police assured us that the men had our PIN – apparently there are ways for cell phones to read your PIN just by being in close proximity. But without the actual debit card, the PIN is worthless.

Cape Town ATM Scam travel

We were lucky. Many people aren’t. We ended up at the police station later that night to fill out a report, file attempted theft charges, and ID two men who were caught. Unfortunately, there were several other tourist couples at the station filing actual theft reports – they were not as lucky as we were.  Hopefully our story will help others avoid similar situations.  Be careful out there, and never let anyone touch your card!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

The featured photo was taken from this Southern Courier article.