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Fanning the flames: SPARK Schools joins ISASA

| March 17, 2014 | 1 Comment

“You can’t start a fire without a spark,” sang Bruce Springsteen aka ‘The Boss’.1

Two new education ‘bosses’ are in town, and they’re determined to blaze a fresh trail in education in South Africa with their group of SPARK Schools, located in Cresta and Ferndale in Johannesburg. Ryan Harrison and Stacey Brewer completed their MBA degrees at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria (GIBS). “Our lecturers continually highlighted the dire condition of education in South Africa and challenged us to address these issues as future business leaders,” recalls Brewer. She did just that, conducting research into South African education to find a way to make a positive contribution. “My thesis focused on a sustainable financial model for low-fee private schools in South Africa. ”

Seeking a sustainable model

“I found that in terms of existing low-fee private school networks, either the total cost to educate was prohibitive or the quality of education offered was questionable.”

Teaming up with Harrison, Brewer sought out a model that would integrate technology into the school system to accelerate students’ learning and allow for individualised education. “At that time,” says Harrison, “schools were merely using technology as a supplement to a traditional model.”

The team’s research led them to investigate schooling models in India, Kenya and Ghana, and eventually they came across a blended learning model in the United States. “It has allowed SPARK Schools to fulfil its mission of providing high-quality education at an affordable cost,” says Brewer with satisfaction.

Brewer and Harrison say Springsteen had nothing to do with their choice of name for this brave new education initiative. Rather, it was inspired by a quote often attributed to William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”2 “Each of the letters in SPARK stands for one of our core values,” Harrison explains. “Service, Persistence, Achievement, Responsibility and Kindness.”

Brewer’s MBA thesis proved to be crucial in helping the pair establish SPARK. Through her work, she learned how to draw up a comprehensive business plan that considered all aspects of launching and operating a school network.

Two SPARK schools and special teachers

SPARK Ferndale, the first school in the SPARK Schools network, opened in January 2013 with 160 students currently in grades R, 1 and 2. This year, the school will offer Grade 3, extending its numbers to 250 students. As they age, so the school will accommodate their needs by adding grades 4 to 12.

SPARK Cresta, the second school in the SPARK Schools network, opened in January 2014 with 200 students in grades R and 1. Brewer and Harrison anticipate that it will grow in much the same way as its Ferndale counterpart.

That growth will be in large part due to the expertise of the qualified and SACE-certified3 SPARK teachers. Harrison talks about them with noticeable pride: “They have experience in both government and private schools in South Africa. Using the SPARK Schools model, they specialise in maths, literacy or isiZulu, which allows them to become content experts and guarantees that our students receive excellent instruction in our core content areas.”

An aspirational curriculum

The SPARK Schools curriculum is CAPSaligned4 but, as is the right of independent schools, it has been tweaked by Harrison, Brewer and two full-time curriculum developers. They call it “aspirational”. Brewer provides more detail: “For example, a Grade R student in a government school may only learn to count and write numbers to 10, whereas a Grade R SPARK scholar will be able to count to 100 and add and subtract by the end of the academic year. In addition, our Grade R students can read independently by the end of the school year, which sets them on a trajectory to be able to comprehend short chapter books by Grade 2.” The team’s aspirations are laudable: they’re not afraid to aim to advance each students’ learning by a year-and-a-half within a given school year. Over the long term, says Harrison, “SPARK Schools plans to open at least 64 schools over the next 10 years across South Africa. Our intention is to lead systemic change in South African education by providing high-quality education at an affordable price.”

These schools will be very busy implementing the SPARK model – which, says Brewer, “combines traditional teaching and technology, allowing us to set high academic expectations for our students and customise their learning individually. At SPARK Schools, our teachers introduce new concepts in the classroom and work with our students in small groups to do guided practice. Then, students practise what they have been taught on adaptive software in the Learning Laboratory. This online system caters to the student’s ability and provides realtime feedback, which allows teachers to adapt their teaching strategies to suit each child. Our model ensures that whether a student is struggling or advanced, they are able to make appropriate progress.”

Going big with blended learning

There’s no doubt that SPARK students are being immersed in this blended model culture. The school day extends from 07:45 to 16:00 and includes classroom instruction in literacy, life skills, maths and isiZulu, in addition to an hour in the Learning Lab and in the computer lab, and an hour of sport daily. They also have breakfast, lunch, a snack and break time. Harrison calls it a “university culture” that “encourages students to think beyond matric and to aim to attend university and have their choice of careers”.

The idea of blended learning is not new, but few of our South African schools practise it in such an intense fashion. It’s a way of life at SPARK, says Brewer simply. “Using the data from the Learning Lab, our staff can monitor student progress and individualise learning plans for each student, based on classroom and online assessments. This allows our teachers to provide targeted instruction, based on our students’ abilities and individualised goals. It acknowledges that teachers are heavily burdened and allows them to successfully ‘spend a little time doing a lot of things’. Our lab rotation also enables our teachers to benefit from two dedicated 40-minute non-teaching blocks per day for teacher planning and collaboration.”

Cost savings crucial

Money is uppermost in all school owner’s lives and, adds Harrison, blended learning is a cost-savings tool. Because pupils spend a significant amount of their day working independently on adaptive software, fewer staff members and fewer physical classrooms are required. The financial resources ‘freed up’ allows SPARK Schools to invest in higher teacher salaries, professional development for teachers and school leaders, enrichment opportunities for students, and other enhancements. “Blended learning offers a path to strategically reduce costs while enabling a high-quality learning environment.”

So focused is SPARK on this path that it’s decided to outsource ‘non-core’ functions like catering and sports. In addition, says Brewer, the SPARK group centralises functions like procurement, enrolment and tuition collection. “We want our principals and assistant principals to be focused on supporting our teachers, not on administrative duties.”

Both Brewer and Harrison are determined believers that those schools which don’t integrate technology effectively are going to get left behind. “We believe that technology should not add to the total cost to educate, but should rather increase efficiency and effectiveness in schools. The SPARK Schools blended learning model decreases our cost to educate, allows for individualised learning for our students, and lowers tuition fees for our families. It allows teachers to maximise their planning and instructional time and streamlines operations with costs similar to, or less than, traditional schools.

“SPARK Schools are fully sustainable using school fees alone as a source of revenue. Our schools do not require subsidies or donations to operate effectively. We have set our total cost to educate as equivalent to well-functioning government schools.”

The right focus and support

One cannot help but catch the ‘spark’ from Brewer and Harrison, who’ve convincingly combined common sense and passion. They’re more than happy to share what they’ve learned: “As a leader starting one school or a network of schools, you must know the extent of your resource and capabilities and then work within them. If resources are limited, then innovate. This will allow for groundbreaking education models to emerge. Sustainability of schools is essential for longevity and needs to be a key focus. Do not rely on sources of revenue that are unpredictable and erratic. “Choose an association like ISASA with an unblemished reputation for protecting the rights of its member schools that operate in a tightly regulated and yet uncertain environment. We know we can forge ahead with our plans, because we have ISASA support and resources to draw on.

“Focus on student performance. Never create an education model that is substandard. In order to lead systemic change in education, ‘edupreneurs’ should aim to create education of the highest standard.”

1. See, for example:

2. See, for example:

3. SACE is the professional council for educators that aims to enhance the status of the teaching profession through appropriate registration, management of professional development and inculcation of a code of ethics for all educators. (Source:

4. The national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) is a single, comprehensive and concise policy document which replaced the previous Subject and Learning Area Statements, Learning Programme Guidelines and Subject Assessment Guidelines for all the subjects listed in the National Curriculum Statement Grades R-12. (Source:

Category: Autumn 2014, Featured Articles

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  1. Joseph Hungwe says:

    The ambience is great…the moment of truth is awesome, more than any prospective learner/parent/educator or any interested party would anticipate.

    I loved every bit of the time I spent when I visited SPARK Cresta.

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