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Tradition meets the future at Cape Town Torah High

| November 16, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Sheila Valentini,Rabbi Avi Shlomo and Teresa Dennis

Cape Town Torah High (CTTH) began in the home of Sheila Valentini.

Educating a few teens of her own, Valentini was able to tap into innovative global trends and explore a childcentric approach to education in the safety of her home. An observant Orthodox Jew, with a BA honours degree, her education approach started to attract other families of the Orthodox community who needed a high school for their children. A team of visionary community leaders and educators from across the community joined forces, and the Cape Town Torah High concept became a reality. The school soon needed a senior high phase, so an accomplished and highly qualified educator, Teresa Dennis, came on board in 2013 to establish and head up grades 10–12/13. In 2015, Rabbi Avi Shlomo was appointed as the religious principal, and took the school to the next level of permanence and stability.

The school soon moved from the Valentini home to the historic Ponevezh Shul on Maynard Street in Gardens, Cape Town. Two properties on the same block were leased from the city to become “school houses”, and a functional campus in the heart of the city emerged.

Being part of the Jewish community, many of our afterhours activities are generated by this vibrant and dynamic environment. The community provides many diverse volunteering opportunities, leadership programmes and skills development groups. We are very fortunate that Herzlia, a large Jewish school, allows us to join it for its extramural activities. As an observant Orthodox Jewish community, we practise separate gender learning.

One of the challenges that we face is finding quality, enduring, South African Council for Educators (SACE)4 registered teachers. While we have had a measure of success, it became obvious to us that through ISASA membership, we would be able to find and attract the kind of talent that our school is seeking. However, since joining ISASA, we have discovered that the support given exceeds our initial need. For example, we find great comfort in being guided in legal matters by ISASA experts. Hearing the challenges that our peers in the ISASA network face has also been a source of reassurance.

Curriculum and matriculation

The school has a dual curriculum consisting of religious studies and general studies. Our junior high general studies follows the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) curriculum,5 but is not limited to it. Our senior high general studies students matriculate with the American State Senior Certificate through an online platform hosted by the University of Nebraska High School (UNHS) in the United States (US). In addition, they write the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs)6 in accordance with the Matriculation Board requirement for a matric with exemption.

After graduating our first class of three girls in 2015, all going on to tertiary education, this year CTTH will graduate our first boys’ class. The results from our first SATs were stellar – all students placed in the top 20th percentile worldwide, with one in the top fourth and another in the top third. SATs qualifications are recognised by universities around the world, and so our students have been approached by a number of institutions, including Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire in the US; the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Columbia University in New York City. Our students are equally successfully able to apply to local tertiary institutions with these results.

Our learning ethos

Our senior high approach is along the following lines:
• A senior certificate is earned by completing 20 credits over a period of four years (or less). This is done be moving through different modules, earning half to one credit per module.
• Content is modular-based. Students learn in modules that are broken into units, and write final assessments upon completion of the module. In other words, there is not a “month of tests” at the end of a term; rather, the test dates occur organically as and when a student finishes a module. Students progress at their own pace, within minimum time parameters set by the teacher. Students who excel are able to complete more courses in a given amount of time, or they can finish school earlier.
• Modular-based learning allows for students to have a taste of many content areas. For example, if a student completes a year-long module of biology, but finds that they would like to move onto physics, then they are able to do so for their next module of science – they are not locked into a selected subject for three years.
• Students learn independently, asking teachers for help when they are struggling with the content, or needing inspiration, or just want to discuss the topic by brainstorming and debating with the teacher as the guide at their side. For this approach to work well, careful choice needs to be given to the books used to teach each subject. This does not negate wonderful group sessions, but we have found that subjects such as maths, science, geography, accountancy and English writing lend themselves to independent learning.
• Students proceed at their own pace. Obviously, this is balanced with a minimum time requirement – the teachers help them set time frames to map the content and the projects, tests and exams on their calendar. This requires a deep shift from performing due to external stimuli such as school-mandated discipline, peer competition and pleasing the teacher, to internal self-discipline, motivation and gratification. As children get older, self-motivation develops as a result of wanting to achieve in their chosen paths of life. But this area is definitely a challenge.
• We use progress reporting. This means that achievements are updated daily, as and when the student achieves in unit tests and modular assessments. The end-of-term examination rush and writing up of reports is not something the students or teachers experience at our school. Detailed remarks are given for results, so that the student is empowered to improve their knowledge. In other words, results are not marks – they are guidelines for what can be celebrated and what needs improvement. Both students and parents are given live access to these progress reports using the Google Drive platform.
• Blended learning allows us to use technology to teach the mundane. In maths, for example, the student watches a video of the material. If they do not understand, then they simply rewind and listen again, without feeling the embarrassment of “holding up the class” or irritating the teacher. Only if the concept is still not understood does the student approach the teacher. Furthermore, technological support allows three different levels of maths to be mastered in one given class of different ages.
• Experiential learning is one of the pillars of our education ethos and we frequently take the learners out into the real world. Thankfully, Cape Town has much to offer. We are especially strong in this area with our junior high, but find that as the academic work becomes more rigorous in the higher grades, we are less able to pursue this ideal.
• Senior students set their own daily timetables. The mentor provides the structure of how much time should be allocated per subject per week, and then the student decides how they want to structure their day. Sometimes a student wants to spend the whole day doing maths, because he wants to grapple with a concept until he has figured it out. That’s fine; then he adjusts the rest of his subjects/week accordingly. Learning to plan work and time by using projections sets students up for post-school success, both in tertiary education and the workplace.
• Another way to empower a teenager is through the ergonomics of their learning environment. Teenagers should be in group settings when they are sharing ideas – preferably as low to the ground as possible. Beanbags and couches come to mind. Their bodies are awkward; let them sloth. On the other hand, they need a separate, designated learning space that is only theirs – a den. In our school, we identify desks just by looking at the “decoration”. We say, give them chairs that move with their bodies. They need to rock, they need to swivel, they need to turn. Sometimes they even need to hang upside down. As long as they are not disturbing others, does it really matter how they sit? What matters is that they learn.
• We give our teenagers responsibilities. Our children need chores. They may moan, but while you are not watching, they feel better about themselves. They feel they are needed and valued members of the family/school.


One of the challenges CTTH faces each year is to recruit a critical mass of incoming students to create enough of an environment for students to thrive socially. Our “pond” is limited to the Orthodox Jewish community, which is not very large. We have started to attract foreign students, but face visa and accommodation challenges on that front. Another challenge is that although the school structure and model is far less costly than other alternatives, it is still largely reliant on donors and outside funding. A third challenge is the premises. While our campus carries much historic meaning, the school will hopefully outgrow the current venue and will be needing a larger premises that will have aesthetic appeal.

Enhancing motivation

We aim continually to reflect and assess which ideas work and in what settings while we embrace growth. A challenge that is still under our review is that students with low levels of inner motivation, who do not have a strong accountable parent at home, tend to fall behind on the least amount of work needing to be covered in a certain time frame. In a traditional system, these very students would be swept along by their peers and driven by exact examination dates. They may or may not do well, but there is room for coasting and then crunching. In a system that celebrates knowledge as opposed to marks, these students need a different source of motivation. We achieved a measure of success with such a student recently where we used a reward system. But for this to succeed, we and the parents had to keep him accountable. In addition, we have found that not all teachers trained to teach the CAPS curriculum adapt to learnerdriven education. They tend to want to be in control of the entire system, and battle to trust the learning process of independent learning. Perhaps our next step is to open teacher training centres.

The past, present and the future

Have we embraced an enabled modern education? Pre-Industrial Age, some of the best education happened outside the classroom. Galileo developed clocks as we know them because he watched a pendulum while he was bored, Newton “played” with an apple and Edison asked good questions. Yeshivas7 show us how to engage with fellow minds and thinking. TED Talks8 are examples of social media platforms that allow modern thinkers to engage with ancient values. Education should be a spiral development, not linear. Currently, education has largely stood still on a linear path laid out by the Industrial Age. However, society is not only evolving, but also revolving. And education should be revolving, too. Let’s revisit ancient wisdom while addressing a modern generation.


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Category: Summer 2016

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