Thirty-year-old Stacey Brewer was challenged by her professors at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg to change the education system in South Africa. In January 2013, Brewer and her business partner Ryan Harrison did just that, opening the doors of their first school, and bringing a new learning model to the continent.
“I decided to do my thesis on a sustainable financial model for low-fee private schools to understand what’s happening and I found the whole low-fee private school sector interesting…I didn’t find any innovation, I did find the obvious pay-your-teachers-less, increase-the-number-of-kids-in-class and most of them were heavily reliant on donations. I just didn’t believe it was a sustainable model. We wanted to create a higher model at a sustainable cost but obviously it sounded like an oxymoron, everyone said it’s impossible. And we thought it must be possible,” says Brewer.
She started researching that possibility, traveling around Africa and India looking for a model that would work. Finally, it was on a trip to the United States that she discovered a concept called blended learning, which had never been used in South Africa’s school system before.
“Blended learning is a combination of what we know, like teacher-led instruction as well as the use of online learning. Online learning allows for extension, review and reinforcement of what’s been introduced, but it also gives the children real-time feedback. The most attractive thing about blended learning is data. Which is strange, schools don’t use data. We know down to micro-objections, how our children are achieving and where they need to be addressed. And this is what drives the high quality,” says Brewer.
Through this unique model and a handful of wealthy South African investors, SPARK was born. The school started with grade R, one and two, and has since added a third and fourth grade.
“SPARK comes from the William Yeats’ quote ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’, and the aim of SPARK is not just to create that spark or that light in a child but the whole country.”
SPARK achieved desirable results during its first year of operation under the blended learning model and grew in numbers. Today, Brewer and Harrison have opened four SPARK schools in Johannesburg and is targeting their fifth.
SPARK’s core focus is educating learners. While most private schools have top-notch sports facilities and overseas trips, this school has a top-of-the-range learning model, and operates in an unconventional way, with no school bells and no single teacher per class. Children move around from class to class to change subjects, and they stick around after school for an aftercare program.
“I said to the teachers if you are expecting to finish at two and have lunch with your friends, then SPARK isn’t for you. A big thing at SPARK is our professional development. It’s about 250 hours a year that we develop our staff,” says Brewer.
This year, SPARK has over 1,000 children. The model will continue to evolve, and Brewer’s admission lists are filling up.