Lighting a Spark: Rocketship Inspires Innovative School Network in South Africa

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by Preston Smith & Bailey Thomson
Co-Founder & CEO, Rocketship Education
Director of School Design, SPARK Schools; Teacher and Rising Leader, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, 2010-2012

From Preston:

I was recently invited to present at the Global Schools Forum. My first instinct was to (politely) pass up the invitation. The forum was largely focused on education in the developing world, which I know very little about. But after further conversations with the forum organizers, I learned that they knew a lot about Rocketship. What’s more, their attendees were eager to learn from our model – and to explore how to hack it to serve communities in some of the poorest places on earth. And while we are squarely focused on eliminating the achievement gap in the United States, I realized that if we can make even a small dent in the global education crisis by inspiring others to learn from and adapt our model, surely it was worth a few days of knowledge-sharing.

What we are all working toward in the United States with education reform is transformative in so many ways, and inspires others across the globe. Case in point: SPARK Schools, a network modeled on Rocketship, which is now demonstrating what is possible for kids and families in South Africa. The Economist recently profiled SPARK Schools and asserted “the most important thing that schools like SPARK can do is nurture aspiration in more South African children than (just) the offspring of the elite.”

I reconnected with SPARK at the forum and asked one of its founders, former Rocketship teacher and emerging leader  Bailey Thomson, to share her journey from San Jose to South Africa. Her story is powerful proof of the impact that all of us are making as leaders on the front lines of a global movement to create universal access to excellent education for all kids.

From Bailey:

SPARK Maboneng, the third school in the SPARK Schools network, is located in the city of Johannesburg’s Maboneng precinct. Maboneng means “place of light,” and SPARK Maboneng’s founding principal chose innovation as the school’s unique “sixth core value” when the school was founded in January 2015. As you enter the school, the Learning Lab’s exposed brick walls display a gallery of innovators along with the slogan “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

At SPARK, we know that we stand on the shoulders of Rocketship, a personalized learning pioneer and a network that stands firmly in the truth that all children can achieve and deserve an opportunity to attend an excellent school.

Bailey Thomson works with a SPARK scholar in South Africa, a country where quality education is not guaranteed.

Bailey Thomson works with a SPARK scholar in South Africa, a country where quality education is not guaranteed.

I am a Rocketeer. In 2010, my career in education began at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, where I taught second grade math as a Teach For America corps member. In 2011, I looped up with my students to third grade math and entered Rocketship’s leadership development program. This program was one of the ways I began to understand importance of professionalizing education and my purpose in the fight for equitable education.

In January 2012, while attending an evening leadership development session, I met Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison. These two South African entrepreneurs were visiting Rocketship on a two-week research trip to learn about the power of blended learning to increase accessibility to high quality education. The state of South African education is in dire straits. Ranked annually among the very worst countries in education, South Africa continues to experience the historical and systemic vestiges of apartheid, as well as a societal set of low expectations about the potential of children to achieve academically. I was compelled by Stacey and Ryan’s vision to revolutionize the South African education landscape by establishing a network of schools that would leverage blended learning to ensure that all South African children had an opportunity to attend a great school and to pursue university and a career of their choice. Out of this vision grew SPARK Schools, a network that has grown from a single school opened in Johannesburg in January 2013 to eight schools spread throughout South Africa.

In its first year of operation, 91 percent of SPARK scholars achieved 1.5 years of growth in reading and more than half of students ended the year above international grade level standards in mathematics. Since then, SPARK has opened eight schools in urban, suburban and rural South Africa, serving students who vary greatly in socioeconomic background and whose home languages include all 11 official languages of South Africa and several foreign languages, as well. Some scholars we serve live in families with an income of R3000 per month (about $190), while others are the children of bank executives. The movement for educational improvement in South Africa is championed by people of all backgrounds, because it’s clear that even the “best” government and private schools are not offering a globally competitive education.

SPARK teachers leverage technology to boost student results, resulting in scholars meeting and exceeding grade level expectations.

SPARK teachers leverage technology to boost student results, resulting in scholars meeting and exceeding grade level expectations.

We are continuing to build on those results. Last year, all SPARK scholars were assessed on their mastery of the South African national curriculum and on SPARK’s promise of 1.5 years of growth in one instructional year. In an analysis done by Pearson South Africa, SPARK scholars’ average scores met or approached the national average for the grade level above them. In a country that consistently ranks among the worst-performing education systems in the world according, those results are transformational.

When I made the difficult decision to leave Rocketship to become a founding team member of SPARK in 2012, I felt fortunate to have Rocketship in my DNA. And it’s obvious now, as you walk into our schools, that Rocketship’s genes flow through our education model and culture. Personalized learning guru Tom Vander Ark recently wrote, “SPARK is as good a blended learning model as I’ve seen anywhere on the planet. Rocketship didn’t have to cross the ocean for that to happen and now students in South Africa are benefitting from a model that was created in the US.” As pioneers of blended learning in our respective countries, we collectively work to bring a globally competitive, well-rounded education to children in historically underserved communities every day.


Preston co-founded Rocketship Education in San Jose in 2006. Prior to founding Rocketship, Preston was founder and Principal of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School, part of the Alum Rock Unified School District in San Jose, CA. After its first three years of operation, L.U.C.H.A. was the fourth highest performing low-income elementary school in California. Preston began his career in education as a Teach for America (TFA) Corps member at Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School (CA). In 2003, Preston was named “Teacher of the Year” at Arbuckle and was also nominated as one of six finalists for TFA’s Sue Lehmann award, given to TFA corps members with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation. Preston is also an Aspen New Schools Fellow. Follow Preston on Twitter: @prestondsmith 

Bailey Thomson serves as the SPARK Schools Director of School Design.  In her role, Bailey is responsible for ensuring that SPARK’s blended learning model delivers SPARK’s promise of high quality education at an affordable cost for all South African children.  After graduating from the College of William and Mary in 2010, Bailey began her career in education as a Teach For America corps member at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, where she taught Grade 2 and 3 math and participated in Rocketship’s Emerging Leaders Program.  In August 2012, Bailey moved to Johannesburg, South Africa to join the founding team of SPARK Schools.  In the past four years, Bailey has led the design and innovation of both the foundation phase (K-3) and intermediate phase (4-7) personalized learning models in each of SPARK’s eight schools. Follow Bailey on Twitter: @baileythomson

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