Starting a SPARK

Sometimes all it takes is a little spark to start a revolution. Just ask Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison, EO Johannesburg members who are redefining the educational ecosystem in South Africa. In this special feature, the co-founders of SPARK Schools discuss the state of education in their home country, the far-reaching value of their hybrid learning model and how, through entrepreneurship, they’re changing lives, one student at a time.

Historically, South Africa ranks among the worst-performing education systems in the world. Why do you think that is, and how are you hoping to reverse that trend?

SB/ “The state of education in South Africa is stark at the moment. We’re spending the greatest portion of our budget and GDP toward education, but it’s not translating into anything of value. Overall, we are performing at the bottom of the world in education, particularly in math and sciences. In terms of the teaching profession, it’s the easiest degree to get in South Africa. When you can’t sign up for any other degrees, the universities recommend you become a teacher. The respect of the education industry is at an all-time low; no one really wants to be a teacher. When Ryan and I decided to get involved in the education sector, comments from peers were along the lines of: ‘Oh, that’s sweet’ and ‘Are you doing that full-time?’ We want to change the local mindset when it comes to education.”

RH/ “And really, that’s where SPARK Schools comes in. In 2011, we launched the first primary school chain in Africa that employs a blended learning model. We’re making a mark through disruptive change, but we realize we can’t compete with the 25,000 schools throughout South Africa alone. What we can do, however, is help bridge the gap.We can provide exceptional education at equal or less than what the vast majority of government-funded schools are running on. And in doing so, SPARK can become an inflection point. People will see that we’re achieving greater results at a quarter or half of our competitors’ prices; results that are a year or two ahead of students in other institutions. In pursuing this approach, we hope to permanently shift the way South African education is currently being run.”

You both hail from a business background, not an educational one. What ignited the idea to start an independent school system?

SB/ “Ryan and I have known each other for a long time, and we’ve always been passionate about giving back to a country that has given us so much over the years. As it turns out, entrepreneurship was the vehicle to do just that. While pursuing an MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, we saw an opportunity to leverage our business acumen to drive growth in South Africa’s educational sector. Our ‘a-ha’ moment came after we visited the United States to learn more about the learning models that are employed there. We reviewed the successful methodologies in place, and when we found a model that we felt could drive the mission and vision of SPARK, we knew we had to fit it into the South African context. Although we didn’t have any experience in the industry, we believed our innovative approach to education, combined with our strong business knowledge, would offer a sustainable solution to the education crisis in South Africa.”

RH/ “Like any true entrepreneur, rather than wait for others to effect positive change, we decided to make a mark on our own. It’s not enough to sit on the sidelines and wait for solutions. We wanted to create schools where we would be proud and confident enough to send our own children one day. So after exploring our options, Stacey and I formed SPARK Schools, a series of private schools for underserved communities. Our mission is to provide a model that is affordable and produces internationally competitive scholars. From a more macro perspective, we want to create a blueprint for South African education; a foundation that could contribute to the success of our country as a holistic entity. Since our founding five years ago, we have been committed to offering high-quality education at a cost the country can afford, and the results have been spectacular.”

You’re strengthening communities through an innovative approach to education. What makes your learning model so unique?

SB/ “Our model is the first of its kind for primary school students in Africa. We promote individualized learning by combining teacher-led and computer-based instruction, and emphasizing face-to-face and online learning, while traditional schools focus largely on book learning. We designed our academic program to encourage students to develop a genuine love of learning. Students rotate from classroom to classroom for subject-specific lessons, as in a traditional high school. This model allows our students to learn from teachers who specialize in a single subject and are extremely effective at customizing lessons within that subject for students of all abilities. By offering personalized educational opportunities for students of varying backgrounds, we’re able to drive home the importance of quality education, as well as character development, physical fitness and technology.”

RH/ “Building on what Stacey said, our education model is a combination of technology- and classroom-based learning, which significantly reduces the amount of resources it takes to run a school. Because of this, for the first time ever in South Africa, we can deliver high-quality education in an emerging market. Our model relies on excellent teaching and family support to ensure students’ success in the classroom and beyond. We invest a lot in our teachers, devoting 250 hours of training per year, which is more than the average state schoolteacher receives in a decade. And we ask all families to complete 30 volunteer hours over the course of the school year. These service hours can be completed in a variety of ways, including assisting with classroom tasks, taking part in a parent committee or attending school events. When parents start engaging with the school, when they realize the responsibility to encourage the child is on both sides, the results are mind-blowing.”

Core values play an integral role in the success of your organization. What are yours, and how do they define and drive your operations?

SB/ “Our continual pursuit of educational excellence is not only fueled by academic achievement but by character development. To that end, our schools emphasize the following core values: Service, Persistence, Achievement, Responsibility and Kindness … or SPARK. We are a non-denominational school system serving children from all backgrounds, so these core values are essential to setting our scholars on a path toward success in the classroom and beyond. These values are deeply engrained in the culture and fabric of SPARK. We expect everyone to live by them— from the teachers and tutors, to the principles, students and parents. It’s a universal set of values, so no matter where you go, it will empower you.”

RH/ “Additionally, each of our eight schools has its own theme or ‘sixth core value,’ as we sometimes call it. It’s an opportunity for the founding principal to make a mark on his or her school. They get to choose it, and it becomes a part of the school’s creed and culture. But more importantly, it’s something for the school to focus on; to differentiate themselves slightly from the SPARK model, have something unique to live by and guide their projects. Examples include ‘Compassion’ and ‘Integrity.’ Our values also drive our schools’ daily routines, like ‘Sparks Fly,’ a morning celebration that emphasizes our creed, delivers an academic review and offers a choreographed song and dance for the kids. It’s a fantastic time for the parents, teachers and students to bond, and it’s a great example of how our core values unite us as one family committed to learning and growing together.”

SB/ “Families from all backgrounds—underprivileged and privileged alike—arrive at SPARK after hearing about our unique approach to education. Often, their children are told by other teachers that they have learning problems and will never do well in school. But within a few months at SPARK, you can start to see
the changes. For example, one of our Grade R students was at a birthday party with peers from other schools, and he was the only one in the room who could read his birthday card. It was quite a reality check for the parents regarding what SPARK can offer in terms of quality education. Ryan and I believe that any child can
achieve when they’re in the right system.”

A William Yeats quote aptly summarizes your mission: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” How do you intend to keep that fire going?

RH/ “We’ve been fortunate to be able to build SPARK Schools from the ground up. Most educational institutions in Africa, specifically those offering direct instruction, are plagued by a culture derived from an archaic time, and they are just now trying to reform it. On the other hand, we got to build a solution in our own image, which has afforded us a lot of opportunities to innovate without restriction. The results so far have been incredible, and the best is yet to come. Personally, it’s been amazing to see how an idea in 2011 has turned into a strong institution that’s changing lives from the ground up. We’re excited to expand our influence and impact, while incentivizing communities throughout all of Africa to see education as a solution for familial, communal and economic growth.”

SB/ “Education is a long-term investment; it’s not a quick fix. That being said, South African parents deserve better educational opportunities for their children, so we’re not stopping in Johannesburg. Since launching our first school, where we started out supporting approximately 160 students, we have achieved substantial growth. Today, we have eight schools, teach more than 2,500 students and employ 270 staff … and we’re just getting started. Our short-term goal is to have 20 schools by 2019, and our long-term goal is to make a similar mark in other African countries where quality education is lacking. It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far, one that’s gone far beyond our expectations. We’re excited to see what the future will bring!”

To learn more about how Stacey and Ryan are using entrepreneurship to ignite education in South Africa, contact them at [email protected] and [email protected]. For more information on SPARK Schools, visit

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