Twelve year old Samkelo Magaqa wants to become a lawyer when she completes her studies. “I admire my uncle who practices law. He deals with tough cases and I know I can do it too.” To realise her dream, Samkelo knows that she has to excel in school.

Despite the disruptions in learning as a result of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown measures since March of last year, Samkelo who is a grade 6 scholar at SPARK Kempton Park, continued with her studies at home. SPARK Schools (SPARK) is a network of schools in South Africa that seeks to provide high quality, internationally benchmarked education at a fraction of what private schools charge.

With the offline version, Samkelo's day began at 9 am after breakfast. She would work on the packs, taking breaks every two hours. Once completed, her parents delivered the packs to school for assessment. Her parents followed a schedule that required them to submit the assessments within 24 hours. Feedback was then given through allocated pick-up days with “drive-through” opportunities that allowed them to collect their child’s stationery packs from the school. Teachers and parents kept in touch and connected through regular phone calls.

After the family got stable Wi-Fi connection, they transitioned to the online version. “I love learning and the work packs kept me busy throughout the day. I missed seeing my teachers and other SPARK scholars,” Samekelo shares. “When my dad bought the Wi-Fi router, I could connect with them online.”

Blended, Flexible and Personalized Learning: How It Made a Difference

Combining technology and traditional classroom work, the portal incorporated the blended learning model that has been an integral part of SPARK’s curriculum. “The real power of blended learning is in the data; the class assessments and online learning programs create a cycle of feedback that allows us to provide personalised learning for the scholars,” said Bailey Thomson, Chief of Schools at SPARK Schools.

The portal was made sophisticated with each passing week through the introduction of offerings that were carefully crafted with the needs of learners and their families in mind. Eventually, the home learning portal migrated to itslearning, SPARK’s learning management system, and included timetables for remote video lessons, synchronous lessons and an automated marking system. Synchronous lessons consisted of interactive online lessons delivered in real time by SPARK teachers; these sessions were recorded and uploaded to itslearning for learners who missed the lessons due to various reasons such as poor internet connectivity or scheduling conflicts at home. The automated marking system ensured that scholars could upload their online assignments and get feedback from their teachers through the learning management system.

To reinforce the school's core values during this period, the school encouraged scholars to log in for a virtual weekly session of Sparks Fly and to share recordings of themselves reciting SPARK’s creed. Sparks Fly is an exciting and fun morning assembly where scholars and teachers come together on a daily basis to focus on their core values. Teachers received heartwarming feedback from parents on the social and emotional skills that were on display during the lockdown period. Samkelo for example, took care of her younger sibling and helped with the housework whenever she could. Scholars who needed to reach out to their friends and teachers could connect on virtual care circles that allowed them to share their experiences in a safe space.

Providing Support for Educators During Challenging Times

In November last year, SPARK’s attentive curriculum saw their scholars shine in mathematics and language benchmark assessments regardless of the learning mode of choice. Their model is proof that with deliberate effort and inspite of the disruptions, learning loss during the pandemic can be mitigated. Part of this effort includes investing in professional training and support for SPARK’s teachers so that they can excel in their roles. During the lockdown period, SPARK’s instructional leaders devised innovative ways of checking in with teachers and scholars such as remote observation during online classes. This allowed teachers and the schools' leaders to share best practices and exchange feedback with each other. Educators at SPARK Schools are encouraged to share data on scholar progress with the scholar’s family, so that information on scholar academic results is available to support the child’s success. This keeps everyone, including teachers, parents and learners invested in improving learning outcomes.

Supporting Families and Meeting Them Where They Are

High levels of unemployment and economic struggles exacerbated by the pandemic place parents in a challenging position. Many of SPARK’s parents are frontline workers who have to play multiple roles as parents and teachers while working to support their families. Understanding this, the SPARK team has been connecting with parents through regular phone calls to ascertain the needs of each family. These personalized calls create an avenue for parents to have sensitive and authentic conversations about their needs. Part of that support also includes flexible payment plans that allows learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to remain in school.

Also, the transition to remote learning had its own fair share of challenges. Some families could not afford the data and devices required, while others needed support to navigate the portal. Many parents had a new challenging reality: juggling demanding jobs, caring for their children and supporting their new learning environment all at the same time. “Facilitating home learning is not about painting with a broad brush; you have to understand the context of individual families. For example, to ease the burden on some parents, we’ve had to directly equip scholars with the technical skills to navigate the portal as an intervention,” said Bailey.

Contributing to South Africa’s Future

Earlier this year, when schools in South Africa reopened, the teachers at SPARK were thrilled to welcome their scholars back. Life was back in the school halls and in everyone’s hearts.

“The South African government acted courageously when they reopened the schools. As educators, we have to act with urgency and change the narrative of the current generation that has been impacted by the pandemic. If not, part of their legacy will be fewer opportunities in the future,” said Stacey Brewer, CEO and Co-founder of Spark Schools.

The South African government acted courageously when they reopened the schools. As educators, we have to act with urgency and change the narrative of the current generation that has been impacted by the pandemic. If not, part of their legacy will be fewer opportunities in the future.
Stacey Brewer, CEO and Co-founder of Spark Schools

Despite the uncertainty of what the future holds, sparks of hope continue to emerge. SPARK scholars are demonstrating their resilience, observing the rigorous health and safety protocols in place. Amidst the uncertainty, SPARK Schools continue to do what they do best: nurturing scholars who are responsible, persistent, and kind and who will positively contribute to South Africa’s future.