Glaring characteristic features of effective schools

What do you see when you visit an effective school? How does an academically prosperous school look and behave like? Having seen it all, experienced and felt effective schools, I think I am qualified to pen a story about the glaring characteristic features of effective schools. There are a handful of such schools on our shores.

From July 2018 to the first quarter of 2019, my team and I had the experience of travelling extensively on a challenging but rewarding experiment of pushing a quick and dramatic solution to the problem of academic underachievement. At the end of the tour, the team had covered eight out of the 10 regions, missing the target by a whisker.

If ever there was a team that had a complete and solid view of what is happening and not happening in our public schools, it was the group of 10 effervescent Harvard trained education managers assembled in the first half of 2018. The mission was to promote a simple, unadorned yet audacious solution to the nagging challenge of underachievement. Albeit hastily assembled, the team that championed the turnaround programme freshly imported from the prestigious Harvard Graduate school of Education, was made of strong, uncompromising principled and purposeful school leaders. Included in the team were some of the finest school leaders the country has ever produced.

Principal Baitse Mosa Kebobone, currently plying her trade at Kgari Sechele Senior Secondary School was already a household name having turned Nanogang Junior Secondary Schools into an academic power house in the south. Also selected to join the team was a principal-cum-trade unionist, Jacob Tshipo, who had already cemented and consolidated his position as an accomplished homemade turnaround champion in the northern hemisphere of the country. Others who had had successful mini turnaround success stories in their respective schools were Joseph Gopolang, a middle manager whose work at Masunga Senior School could not go unnoticed as well as Gagoitsiwe Marata at Tloaneng Primary School and Peggy Maboa’s interesting and successful turnaround experiment in far flung school at Hukuntsi in the Kgalagadi Desert. Felix Bogosi joined the team based on his scintillating and breathtaking academic strides in the little known village of Dutlwe.

With his no-nonsense approach to things and his natural love for numbers, Principal Kebame Montwedi served the team as organiser and data manager. His managerial exploits at the mine school of Orapa Junior Secondary School gave the team a different perspective and direction.

Bringing to the team a wealth of experience, a sense of calmness and maturity were veteran classroom practitioners and educational managers Racious Ramodisa and Gokgonamang Ntshiamisang. This was a complete, versatile and multi skilled team. It was a joy to do national duty with a team of dedicated patriots. I noticed the team’s quiet but a deep of sense of patriotism and loyalty to the cause when non-availability of the officials threatened to frustrate the plan, the team decided to dig in its pockets to ensure no postponement of training. There were mixed reactions to the work of the team. Some were indifferent and unconcerned and others made hostile and condescending remarks. The despondent sections of the school teaching community dismissed it outright as a non starter, another extravagant and wasteful experiment that would eventually close shop and suffer the same fate as other initiatives that preceded it. Others were neutral bystanders preferring to give the initiative the benefit of the doubt.

But many were silent optimists eager to learn and explore opportunities for change in the midst of adversity. But as the team’s powerful and irresistible message continued to ring and reverberate across the length and breadth of the republic. many Doubting Thomases were converted into loyal disciples and joyfully joined the fray. A tide of new hope began to sweep across the country and this hope was followed by action and tangible results.

For a moment, I thought a culture of underachievement was finally succumbing to pressure and preparing to getting its pants on to pave the way for a season of academic success. Having traversed the length and breadth of the country, the school turnaround team can confidently report on what an effective school looks like. Orderliness is synonymous with effective schools. Effective schools invest a lot in maintaining a safe, orderly and clean teaching environment. During its visit to Masunga Senior Secondary School, the team observed with great admiration an orderly atmosphere.

While the turnaround workshop mounted in the school took the top managers away from the normal business, this did not give the students any licence to misbehave or break the existing pattern of order and discipline. There was a seamless transition from one lesson to another and one could not fail to notice the sense of urgency. In one afternoon study session the tranquility that characterised the day was defeaning and the team wondered if students were really present in the school. It was a pleasant surprise when we learnt that the students were busy with their studies and did not entertain any distractions. Another interesting observation was the appetite for maximisation of learning opportunities. The school had earmarked a room fully equipped with computers for exclusive use by completing classes to do their extended studies. Maximisation of learning time involved starting lessons and ending them on time.

This is the culture that former principal Banabothe Letsholathebe bequeathed on the school and it is small wonder that the Masunga school remains true to its character to date. A couple of days ago, Chobe Primary School leaders visited their counterparts in Selebi-Phikwe on a benchmarking mission. Among the many experiences, the visitors found a remarkable and profound spirit of collaboration on matters of governance and pedagogy among Selebi-Pikwe schools principals. This rare trait, they believe, makes Selebi-Phikwe schools unique and distinct from the crowd.

My own personal experience with Selebi-Phikwe schools is that there is a frequent and relentless focus on student progress data. The interaction with data is not ritualistic in nature rather it is done to inform and refine instructional practices and to guide the staff development agenda. Many a times, the sub region has been asked to support a teacher professional development programme following a deep analysis of student achievement data. Effective schools are essentially data-driven schools and not distraction-driven.

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