Team ESCA: Elite Sporting and Cultural Academy

In 2020, Elite Sporting and Cultural Academy (ESCA) Wanderers in Johannesburg began the new year with a clear vision and growth strategy. Our detailed plans included a full calendar of school activities. The school had also just started a four-year Google G Suite platform implementation, composed of periodic teacher development and training sessions. Who could have predicted a global pandemic was on the cards?

But, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the closure of schools on 15 March 2020, everything changed. Suddenly, our school’s students, parents and staff found themselves thrust into the deep end of the remote curriculum delivery pool.

Going online

Preparing for the chaos, ESCA’s management team entered the principal’s office, closed the door, and strategised. Working around the clock, the team brainstormed until it emerged with a well-thought-out actionable plan. ESCA would need to act fast and move to deliver its curricula online via Google Classroom. Part of G Suite, Google Classroom is an interactive virtual classroom environment, which includes live lessons via Google Meet, notification streams, and work distribution and submission facilities. The real challenge was that Team ESCA only had five days to upskill, activate, and manage a successful launch!

The prospect of remote online teaching was unnerving. At the point that the ESCA staff learned they must teach virtually within a matter of days, they immediately lost the promised opportunity to take the time to explore and apply the fundamental tools of the new G Suite of products, since their training had only just begun a few weeks before. The adjusted emergency implementation of Google Classroom and everything that goes along with it required a major game change, forcing teachers out of their comfort zones.

The embodiment of ESCA’s four values (Empathy, Solidarity, Courage, Accountability) had never been more important as we embarked on this momentous journey. In retrospect, Team ESCA emerged triumphant in its endeavour to maintain top-quality education in the face of this global pandemic.

Those first couple of weeks

Thus, with courage, Team ESCA took the leap to become exceptional online educators.

It is not ideal to rush a system implementation project. With minimal preparation and planning, the management team knew ESCA would have to (as proactively as possible) manage the pitfalls and challenges. Out of this need, the ‘ESCA Tech Team’ was born – a group of brave teachers who took on the role of supporting their colleagues through the realities of the COVID-19 VUCA-environment (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), while still managing their own teaching commitments.

Communication was key to facing the challenge, and frequent memoranda, ‘how to’ documents, and urgent WhatsApp messages became the order of the longer days and nights. ESCA’s teachers and staff worked together in our effort to ensure that no question went unanswered, no classwork went unmarked, and no student went uneducated.

The ESCA Team in action

Continuous challenges

Just like other communities around the world, the ESCA community of parents, staff and students needed to adapt to meet this unknown world. Plans and stakes were everchanging and everyone had to be consistently agile or, as we at ESCA term it, ‘firmly flexible’.

Throughout the abnormal 2020 status quo came newer challenges, including the aptly coined Zoom-fatigue: The tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with over-using virtual platforms of communication. Like other experiences associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Zoom fatigue is widely prevalent, intense, and completely new.

As the days progressed, students struggled to stay focused during lessons, and there was a palpable feeling of disengagement and even hopelessness amongst students and teachers. Team ESCA dug deep once again, and the way forward required our teachers to keep going the extra mile(s) – delivering a variety of online content and lessons that inspired perseverance and motivation.

Empathy helped, and the support and management teams stayed strong in their efforts to safeguard livelihoods, assisting our community in any way we could (and at any hour). Every day saw each member of ESCA rise to the challenge of making the most of remote teaching and learning. Ensuring that curriculum delivery remained at a high standard required performance monitoring, and ESCA staff and students remained accountable for their interactions, emotions, and quality of work under these strenuous circumstances.

Later in 2020, when students and staff could return to campus, ESCA Wanderers made sure that we honoured the fears and concerns of parents. We did this by enabling a curriculum delivery strategy that afforded parents the freedom to make the best choice for their family.

Going online (again!)

The prospect of starting the 2021 school year with our students back on campus was exciting. Alas, and yet again, the new academic year brought divergent plans of its own. Fortunately, ESCA’s management team were proactive, and over the December holidays they prepared a firmly flexible 2021 approach to curriculum delivery – one which considered the impact of the second strain of COVID-19 on case numbers. ESCA was seamless in its readiness to begin online curriculum delivery when President Ramaphosa made his announcement on 15 January 2021 that schools would remain closed until further notice.

During our first administrative week of this year, we put our 2020 lessons to work, and our now-skilled teachers were more than capable of setting up classrooms and inviting students to join within minutes. After the holiday, our existing students, who were now accustomed to the processes at hand, seemed quite content to study from home. While not ideal, we ‘onboarded’ new teachers and students with an abundance of support, knowledge and resources, gleaned during 2020.

ESCA’s offering

At ESCA Wanderers we offer two international curricula: the Cambridge International Curriculum and GED® programme. Our international curricula offer students choices that will open doors for them, whether they choose to further their studies locally or abroad.

As of 2021, ESCA is one of the few official GED® Authorised Education Providers (AEP) in South Africa, qualified to do formal testing of our students when they are ready to take their examinations. GED® is a perfect example of innovation in education; individuals in society are each unique and beautiful in their own way, as are our minds and the way we learn. Catering for a student’s knowledge level and learning pace, the programme includes personalised lesson plans which help speed up students’ knowledge acquisition. The curriculum is skill-based, ensuring students apply the skills they have practised and learned.

GED® students can work at their own pace, so a diligent student could complete their GED® in six months to one year, with two years to complete the programme. Students also have the choice to write all four subjects at once or to spread out their examinations over time. Any individual aged 16 and above can apply to begin their studies in the programme offered by ESCA Wanderers. The GED® is the closest foreign equivalent to the South African National Senior Certificate and allows students to reach for further education both locally and abroad.

Remote learning at ESCA

Cambridge International Curriculum

The Cambridge Curriculum is a popular international certification with a global philosophy and approach. Over 10 000 schools in over 160 countries follow the curriculum, which aims to instil a lasting passion for learning and an informed curiosity that sets a global standard for education. Employers and universities across the world recognise and take into consideration the essential skills Cambridge students have learnt to make a success in their future jobs and studies.

The emphasis on deep subject knowledge and conceptual understanding encourages students to develop higher-order thinking skills. These transferable skills, which accompany students throughout their lives, include critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, presenting arguments, and independent research.

Added extras

Team ESCA always motivates to add value to our parents and students, and the year 2020 presented innumerable challenges and opportunities to prove just that!

The complexity of adjusting to curriculum delivery in a digital age came with questions, queries and requests for extra lessons from our ESCA students. Our teachers afforded their personal time for free lessons after school and during administrative periods, to make sure that their students were as prepared as possible for their upcoming examinations.

G Suite ensures that ESCA teachers have a multitude of applications to master and use, delivering lessons that are effective, and inspiring participation and clarity on the students’ part. Jamboard, Google Meet, Google Slides, and YouTube help set the tone for what is ESCA’s signature online curriculum delivery method.

ESCA’s Technical Support Team is always available to assist with any challenges which may arise, whether it be from a student, teacher or parent. The team continues to support ESCA and new students, teachers and members of staff in the activation and understanding of G Suite tools and their application in our environment.

Our open-door policy means students, parents and teachers know that we will leave no matter unattended. Regular and thorough communication from our committed team via e-mail ensures the day-to-day running of ESCA remains seamless.

ESCA learners attending classes

Introducing ESCA-DX

Online learning saw some students feeling more confident to ask questions and problem-solve independently, supported by a significant rise in grades. The world being in a constant state of change and progress left us with a choice: we can either cling to the ways of the past or adapt and move into the future. At ESCA, we welcome change that challenges us to think of new and exciting ways to make sure that future generations have the right tools, combined with quality education to keep moving forward on life’s dance floor. With that said; welcome to the ESCA-Digital eXperience!

ESCA-DX delivers a blended curriculum delivery approach, incorporating the online and virtual realities of the day, while striking a balance with the essential guidance, connection and networking requirement between school, teachers, students and peers. The fundamental relationship at the core of our model is the one between student and teacher.

We do not seek to replace the value of the classroom, but to extend it beyond the boundaries of bricks and mortar. ESCA-DX allows students to work remotely or to work from ESCA’s DX Learning Centre at our Planet Fitness Wanderers campus – a stimulating and supervised environment set up to meet the learning requirements of independent studies.

ESCA-DX is still very much a part of our main ESCA campus as students share teachers, curriculum progress and virtual classrooms. Even though DX and campus students have separate lessons, being in the same online classroom has been an incredible help, ensuring that the students, teachers and facilitators keep the ESCA community united and strong. DX students can still enjoy the benefits which come with being a member of the school; including optional participation and involvement in school activities such as extra-murals, sports days, the matric dance, social events, prize-giving and being eligible for academic and sports colours.

The road ahead

Having some of our ESCA students back on campus with us again as of 1 February 2021 has lifted everyone’s spirits, and the remote workstations, masks, and sanitiser don’t seem so bad when everyone’s doing it! Even though we long for the days of filled classes, the safety and wellbeing of our ESCA community has, and always will be, the most important thing. We look forward to the year ahead and whatever it may bring, with the cornerstones upon which we built and rebuilt) our school: Empathy, Solidarity, Courage and Accountability – ESCA!