2019 was the year I publicly announced taking over as CEO and my first full year running Streetlight Schools. Man, was it hard year. Reflecting back on it, I decided to write a letter to my past self as a way to capture the challenges we faced as well as the impact we nonetheless had and will continue to have.
To My Past Self,
I don’t want to alarm you, but I also want to be candid.
2019 is going to be a tough year for you and Streetlight.
Streetlight is going to face xenophobia, violence and looting that will start in Jeppestown and metastasize across the city. Families will lose their homes, possessions, businesses and livelihoods. The school will close for two weeks in the midst of this period.
Streetlight is going to have to reckon with the financial sustainability of its model, with over 90% being donor funded in 2018.
Streetlight is going to experience changes on many dimensions from staff complement to growth strategy.
BUT, through this adversity, Streetlight will survive and thrive.
Streetlight’s team will demonstrate its unyielding commitment to our students and each other, to hold steadfastly to our values and to fight for love, diversity and unity in the face of xenophobia, fear and trauma. In fact, even South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa will recognise their courage in a speech to Parliament where he names Jeppe Park Primary a wonderful example of community engagement and dialogue.
Streetlight will receive the government subsidy in record time as a first-time applicant; continue reducing cost per learner while improving outcomes; diversify its fundraising pipeline; and reduce donor funding reliance from over 90% in 2018 to 78% in 2019 to 66% in 2020.
Streetlight will grow its flagship school to over 250 students in 2019 and 300 students in 2020, empowering students through introducing extracurriculars like coding, entrepreneurship and chess and teachers & leaders through workshops, mentorship, coaching and professional development.
Streetlight will have two years of data from the early grade reading and math assessments (EGRA/EGMA) that will demonstrate that we foster strong academic growth and learning.
AND so, the challenges and tough decisions are ones that will enable Streetlight to lay a solid foundation so that it can thrive for the next 100 years.
As a result of the lessons throughout the year, Streetlight will deprioritize growth by launching more schools (for now) and focus on continuing to improve its flagship school and fostering the conditions for teachers to consistently facilitate rigorous, creative and joyful teaching and learning.
As we begin 2020, know that you and Streetlight are on the right track for defining and exploring strategic options for ‘how might we’ grow our impact. But much more than before, you will learn to do so with humility, openness and collaboration rather than certainty, rigidity and a go-it-alone mentality.
In conclusion, I want to remind you to keep your head held high — to be extra understanding, forgiving and supportive of yourself and your colleagues. It’s not going to be easy but remember to focus on what’s actually within your locus of control, to take time to reflect and celebrate the wins, and to know that this too shall pass.
Sincerely, with love,
Your Future Self
Below, you’ll find some favourite anecdotes from the year. Soon, we plan to publish our Annual Report that includes more depth on our academic results, sustainability improvements, our initial hypotheses and revised assumptions, some insights we’ve gained, and principles that will guide us going forward.
Living Your Values With Conviction
During the xenophobic riots, my team showed me what it means to live your values with conviction.
First, members of our team — like our cleaner Mabongi and our security guard Sphe (who also happens to be her son) — helped our school survive with minimal damage by stopping rioters from entering the grounds and connecting us with the local community leaders (inDuna).
While the school was closed, we brought the team together to air out their emotions, fears, worries, doubts. In the process, they showed deep love for each other, for our kids and for our families. Our South African colleagues explicitly condemned the violence and assured their colleagues that they supported them 100%. Our foreign colleagues explicitly differentiated between the people who were perpetuating the violence and their colleagues.
Collectively, we agreed that any requirement that would require separating, alienating or getting rid of our foreign staff or students would be unacceptable terms for reopening the school. As a leader, I could not be prouder when — even on one of our darkest days — the team refused to yield and sacrifice our core values.
Letting Students Lead Your Teaching Practice
During a seminar organised by one of our anchor funders the Kavli Trust, our Principal Tatenda and Grade 4 Team Leader Brian (both founding teachers at our school) were given the opportunity to share some lessons. I was proud as they shared deep insights into their own transformative moments as teachers, and how these ‘a hah’ moments changed their teaching practices.
Teacher Brian shared how he used student-driven learning to turn a Grade 9 topic into an engaging project for Grade 2 learners. In order to engage with simple and compound machines, his class worked in groups to design amusement park rides using the machines. Further, they decided to put everything together to make ‘a very big amusement park.’ As a class of 30 learners, they collaborated to put it all together, made roads and trees, connected the amusement park rides, and labeled the simple and compound machines used in each ride. For a teacher who at the time was only in his second year teaching, it was a powerful demonstration that one of the keys to unlocking project-based learning and 21st century skills is to change the way teachers view students and their role in facilitating engaging, real-world, creative learning. The laughter and reaction from other leaders in the room showed just how impressed they were with his insights and approach.
Building New Horizons and Gender Norms
A favorite moment of mine was thanks to Code Ngwana and Nolu Mpekelana who facilitated coding lessons for Streetlight Schools Grade 4 learners. For a coding club graduation event she organised, she invited a black female engineer working on the largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere (a collaboration between South Africa and Australia) to speak to our students.
She asked our students how a radio works, and one of Grade 4 students raised his hand and explained how it uses waves to transmit sound through the air.
In addition to the life lessons she shared, it was so powerful to have someone who looked like them — and especially a female role model — thriving in a STEM field.
The reaction from the boys in the crowd turned from surprise to excitement to delight as she stood on stage and confidently described her work, the telescope and her life lessons. We often forget that boys are also a critical group to influence as they can play just as much of a role in reinforcing existing gender stereotypes and norms.
I want to close with a huge thank you to every single person who helped Streetlight on the journey in some way, shape or form.
And especially, I want to thank every single person on the team for your tremendous dedication, growth and love. It would not have been possible to weather the difficulties of 2019 without you. And in 2020, it’s a joy and a privilege to continue watching you grow and transform the lives of children, families and communities every single day.
They say if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.
To more togetherness in 2020 and beyond.