The school that strives for African excellence

Children who attended the ASE Accelerate! program in the township of Tsakane

The African School for Excellence plans to open its first full-year secondary school in January, 2013 in Tsakane, an underserved township in the East Rand of Gauteng. In the first year, ASE will enroll 120 Grade 7 Scholars, who can expect to graduate in six years with world-class academic skills.

A rising star with her feet on the ground
It is 3:00 am on a cold June morning in 2004, and 15-year-old Nonhlanhla Masina has just awoken. She is not too cold to sleep. There is no noise outside waking her. She awakes at 3 am to study, as she did the day before, and as she will do the day after.

“I used to wake up at 3 am every day,” Nonhlanhla says today, “it was the only time I could study.”

Thus begins a long, arduous day for young Miss Masina. After studying for three hours she sees the sun start to rise, and she sets out on her four-kilometer-walk across the East Rand township of Tsakane to Buhlebemfundo High School.
“There were other high schools closer,” she says. “I used to walk by them on my way to school. But my parents and I thought Buhlebemfundo was the best school, and it had a great science program.”

After school, Nonhlanhla tutors fellow learners, attends choir practice, and walks 4 km back home, to clean the house and cook for her parents and her two brothers before her mother gets home.

“My mother worked very hard as a domestic worker, and generally got home late,” she says. “I began cooking dinner in grade 4, and would cook pretty much every day. By the time she and my father got home, the house had better be spotless!” She laughs. “By the time we ate, I usually felt so tired, I just went straight to bed. That’s why I had to get up at 3 am.”

At Buhlebemfundo, Nonhlanhla found one particular teacher whose passion for science and belief in his learners inspired her to reach her potential. “Mr. Mononyane used to walk around with a stick, threatening us. You did not want him to get mad at you! But he had so much energy, and he made chemistry so much fun. I fell in love with science in high school. I decided this was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Nonhlanhla did not care that few girls approached science with the determination that she did, or that there were very few black women in high-level science fields, especially black women from townships such as Tsakane.
“My father always told me I could be anything I dreamed of. He had such belief in me, and my high school teachers did too. It really helped me overcome the adversity.”

And there was adversity. After earning a coveted Carnegie-Bale Women’s Scholarship to study science at Wits, Nonhlanhla found herself matched up against learners with science backgrounds she could barely fathom.

“Most of my peers came from much wealthier backgrounds—they came from high school science programs with great facilities, well-paid teachers, small learner-teacher ratios, and a disciplined approach that allowed their graduates to arrive at university very well prepared. As far as I know, no learner from Buhlebemfundo had ever attended Wits. It was a huge culture shock, and a huge academic challenge.

“I used to speak with my father nearly every day. I told him what was wrong, what I was having difficulty with, what was frustrating me. He always listened, comforted me, told me what I needed to hear. He didn’t know the first thing about tertiary-level science, but he knew his baby!”

Nonhlanhla overcame her early struggles, and was able not only to graduate from Wits on time, but to earn a scholarship to the university’s Biochemistry Honors program. “My parents were so proud of me,” she says. “You should have seen them. They were beaming.”

But the adversity did not stop there. Having lost her younger brother two years earlier in a tragic township shooting, she lost both her father and her aunt in 2010. The loss of two people who had meant so much to her, coming on the heels of such a senseless tragedy, was almost too much to bear.

“I had a very difficult time,” she says. “My father had been my rock. It was tough for me to get past his passing. And seeing all of the things that went on at home, all of the trials that everyone had to deal with, I wanted to help. I wanted to continue to reach my potential as a scientist, but I also wanted to help the community.”

Nonhlanhla persevered on both fronts. She earned her honors degree in Biochemistry, and moved on to pursue a Masters in Pharmaceutics. Nonhlanhla served as a mentor in the Targeting Talent program, LEAD Global, the First Year Experience at Wits, in addition to tutoring duties at Ikamvayouth and GIBBS BizSchool. Not satisfied, she began looking for new ways to make an even bigger difference.

“I learned of a friend trying to set up a program in Ghana. He was working on a new way to provide world-class high school education at an affordable price, and was trying to get started. I offered to help, with the idea of potentially doing something similar here in South Africa. In the end, I did even better. I convinced him to become my partner and set up the organization in South Africa, instead. I never said I wasn’t sneaky!”

After running a successful summer vacation program for matric learners in Soweto in January, 2012, Nonhlanhla began searching for a location for the first African School for Excellence. Before long, she paid a visit to the man who had ignited her passion for science in the first place: Godfrey Mononyane. By this time, Mr. Mononyane had become the Principal of Buhlebemfundo, and he remembered his star pupil well.

“The first time I came in talking about African School for Excellence, I could see his excitement. He just cares so much about the learners in Tsakane. He insisted that we start our first school in Tsakane, next to Buhlebemfundo.”

Nonhlanhla’s organization, African School for Excellence, is now fully operational. It is running a winter enrichment program called Accelerate! on June 25, and has plans to open its first high school in January, 2013. Tuition will be roughly R500 per month, and there is a scholarship program in place for learners unable to afford the fees. “Things are moving very fast,” she says. “It’s exciting.”

Nonhlanhla continues: “Kids in Tsakane are just as smart, just as talented, and have just as much potential as kids anywhere in South Africa and anywhere in the world. But they need an opportunity to get as good an education as wealthier kids do. Today, learners in Tsakane and in townships throughout South Africa lack that opportunity, unless they are extremely lucky and get a scholarship to a far-away prep-school or former Model-C school. We hope to change that.”

Though a passionate scientist, Nonhlanhla also has firm grasp of South African history:
“Steve Biko is a hero of mine, as is Dr. Mamphela Ramphele. The Black Consciousness message—that we first need to respect ourselves and believe in our own abilities, before looking elsewhere—resonates with me. I admire Mr. Biko’s courage to die for his belief and for this country, but I also admire Dr. Ramphele’s continued commitment through years of constant pressure to lower our expectations for ourselves as black people, and especially as black women.

“Our expectations in South Africa are too low. Schools push kids into maths lit because they say maths is too hard. They push kids away from science, especially girls, because they say it is too hard for them. It isn’t! They can do it, even the so-called ‘disadvantaged youth.’ We need to set our goals and our expectations higher.

“But you can’t just set your standards high, you need to provide the support for learners to reach those standards. At African School for Excellence, we use technology and peer-learning techniques to leverage skilled teachers across more learners, bringing down our costs without reducing quality, and allowing us to reach more learners at once. We don’t just use computers for ICT. They help us teach math, science, English, history…pretty much everything!

“We can use computers and peers to increase the speed of feedback as well. Research shows, the more often you practice, the more you receive constructive feedback, the faster you learn. Advanced pharmaceutical research is basically a series of wrong answers. On the wall of my office at Wits, there is a quote I love from Thomas Edison: ‘I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

“It’s about persistence and feedback. In the lab, I get feedback all the time. I try an experiment, it doesn’t work, I have to figure out why, and I try again. That’s how learning happens. That’s what African School for Excellence is all about.

“Most South African maths students might write a test and receive feedback once a month. Ours are more likely to get that feedback 40-50 times a day. Most learners will hand in writing assignments roughly once or twice per month, which adds up to fewer than 100 times during their entire secondary school careers. Our learners will hand in up to 400 writing assignments in a single year. Do you see the difference? We expect our learners to become globally competitive, but we don’t expect them to get there by magic.”

Miss Masina has a vision for the future, both for herself and for her country. She is proud of her accomplishments to date, but she spends her days looking forward.

“My career is just starting—hasn’t even started, really. I’m still a Masters student, and I hope to soon go into full-time pharmaceutical research. I love the lab. I feel like I get grumpy if I spend too much time away from it. I need my experiments!

“I’m also just getting started as an educator. Our Accelerate! program in June is looking great, and I can’t wait to get our first high school started in January, hopefully the first of many. It’s a big challenge, but I think we can make a real difference in this country.”
Don’t put it past her.

What is ASE?
African School for Excellence
The African School for Excellence a non-profit organization developing a unique concept: a self-sustaining network of elite independent secondary schools that anyone can afford. We plan to launch our first high school in 2013, in Tsakane, Gauteng.

Why is ASE Necessary?
Highly-skilled township graduates can transform their communities by redefining what is possible. Research reveals that township learners receiving a high-quality education can expect their lifetime earnings to quadruple. The inability of underprivileged South Africans to access high-quality education is perhaps the greatest impediment to social and economic equality.

How is ASE Unique (and Effective)?
The following page introduces the revolutionary model driving ASE’s success. By redesigning the classroom to incorporate technology, peer learning, and intimate scholar-teacher interaction, ASE has developed a low-cost, scalable approach to elite secondary school education. With fees starting at just R200 per month, any South African learner can afford an ASE education.

See PDF:- ASE Tsakane information

For more information please contact Jay Kloppenburg at:-


Source: African Schools for excellence – 9 August 2012