B is for Blast Off

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 27 2013

B is for Blue Chairs

I moved to Johannesburg, South Africa almost 13 months ago to join the founding team of Spark Schools, Africa’s first blended learning school network.  This week, as we sign the lease on our second school building, start the interview process for our second staff, and open enrolment for our second student intake, I want to take a moment to commemorate how far we’ve come in a year.  When I look back at my notebook from last August and compare it to my current notebook, the differences in our priorities and competencies are striking.

We had our first team meeting on 8 August 2012, where we talked about operating as thought leaders in South African education reform, building a strong and sustainable academic and financial model, and the teacher interview process as an opportunity to start building team culture.  My notes from 8 August 2013 are about building a whole network metric tool to measure success in operations, student achievement, and staff achievement.  We are in the process of creating accountability measures for our schools, for our students, for our educators, and for the Spark Schools Support staff that handles the administrative functions of the network.

On 13 August 2012, our founding team decided on the Spark Schools core values: service, persistence, achievement, responsibility, and kindness.  We started drafting the Spark Schools creed, our students’ daily promise to act as Spark scholars at home, at school, and in the community.  On 13 August 2013, I worked with the principal and assistant principal of our first school to plan a retreat for teachers interested in pursuing school leadership in the future.  A year later, we have so solidified our commitment to these core values for our students and staff that we have been able to recruit teachers to join our leadership development pipleline and carry these values forward in our expanding network.

On 14 August 2012, our CEO and I brainstormed about recruitment and the student enrolment process.  On 14 August 2013, our eAdvance team and Spark Schools school leaders had an extended meeting to flesh out what great school and organizational culture looks like.  We asked the question: how do the behavioral expectations, values, and procedures of school drive a “culture of achievement?”  We thought critically about how beliefs, mission, and values should align with the systems and procedures we create.  We are having these important conversations daily now, but a year ago, we were consumed by the details of filling our schools with students, appealing to families, and recruiting staff.

On 20 August 2012, I did an inventory of our first school building, which had been an insurance company in its past life.  Written in big letters on my inventory notes is “BLUE CHAIRS ONLY.”  The insurance company had abandoned the building for two years, leaving literal piles of mismatched office furniture.  As we prepared for our first Open Days and staff interviews, we were scrambling to keep what we needed of the leftover furniture and start making orders for the 2014 school year.  On 20 August 2013, I had a meeting with our new Associate Director of Student Achievement to discuss our roles in supporting the first Spark School and our second school to success.  We sat in a bright, comfortable office watching students play on our beautiful playground and transition to classes in their fully equipped classrooms.  See below for our Learning Lab’s before and after shots.

The Learning Lab as we found it when we moved into our first school building in August 2012.

The Learning Lab at Spark Ferndale for the 2013 school year.

On 22 August 2012, we had our first round of teacher interviews.  We held them at a business school in Johannesburg, because our facility was not yet ready.  On 22 August 2013, I met with a teacher about her expectations for observations and feedback from school leaders.  We spoke with a team from the local independent schools association, who took a tour of our school and told us how impressed they were with our program and our students’ achievement.  I ended the day on a Skype call with an American education technology company who hope to learn from our blended learning implementation in an emerging market.  From no staff, to a full staff demonstrating high achievement, what a difference a year makes.

In the next three months, we will start our school founding process all over again, as we open the second school in our network.  I can’t help but think, however, how strikingly different that process will look this year.  We have the benefit of a committed staff, some of whom will move to our new school, a built-out curriculum, hindsight about our growth and mistakes, and confidence that our implementation will work in this community.  Here we go again!



2 Responses

  1. Dieketseng

    This is amazing all the hard work has led to such a school. I believe next year will be a year that all our flaws can be fixed and achievements celebrated. Thanks for reminding me of the bigger picture which is our learners their education and most of all change to this countries educational history.

  2. Wow! Bailey!

    I love how you have given us a realistic and vivid look back in the past. The coming months and years as Spark are going to be challenging yet rewarding. I cannot wait :)

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About this Blog

Bailey Thomson, Bay Area Corps Member 2010

Bay Area
Elementary School

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