Phadiela Cooper made a poor township school into one of South Africa's best
The secondary school principal helps her students not only excel in science and technology, but become respectful, mature young adults.
Cape Town, South Africa
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The speaker notes that this year, because the rankings are so close, the top 22 schools will be recognized instead.
That explains it, thinks Phadiela Cooper, principal of a small, disadvantaged school in Khayelitsha, a township outside the city. That's why I'm here, sitting in the beautiful residence of the premier of the Western Cape – my school must be No. 22.
But her school isn't No. 22. It isn't No. 21 or 20 either. Or No. 15. Not even No. 10.
Ms. Cooper's school, the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT), a secondary school that specializes in teaching science, math, and technology, is No. 9 – the first township school in the history of the province to make the top 10. Helen Zille, the Western Cape's premier, makes the announcement herself.
That event was in early January. But Cooper tells the story as though it happened yesterday. "The tears were very close," she says, getting emotional even now. "In fact, I cried a little. It was just so overwhelming."
Go to Khayelitsha, and you'll immediately see why – why she cried a little, why her achievements matter so much. This is not a place that is expected to produce a top-quality school. Townships, usually nonwhite settlements on the outskirts of cities, are some of the poorest places in South Africa.
Khayelitsha is no exception. On the way to COSAT, just a 30-minute cab ride from affluent Cape Town, a visitor passes through the worst districts. Shacks crushed side by side, the makeshift residences of whole families, sit close to the dirty roads, where kids play. Most houses don't have a computer or landline telephone.
"These kids sacrifice a lot, and they really do try their best," says Cooper, who, unlike her black students, is considered "colored," or of mixed ancestry. "For us to be classified in the same category as all those schools that are so well resourced, where the kids come in and have parents who can help them and they know where they're going, for us to elevate these kids to that level, is just such a major achievement for them, for the kids."
That phrase may best describe Cooper's method of operation: "for the kids."
"She's got a huge commitment to the children," says Alan Clarke, a former principal who now works with disadvantaged schools in South Africa, including Cooper's. "She's concerned about their well-being. She helps them believe in themselves."
Mr. Clarke likes to tell a story about Cooper. When test results came out last January, most principals in the region did the bare minimum: They provided copies to the students and moved on. (One principal, Clarke says, was so disappointed in her students' poor performance – a 40 percent pass rate, as opposed to the expected 60 – that she just left early for the weekend.)
But Cooper did something different. She hosted a small ceremony in which she recognized her top achievers and invited back distinguished COSAT graduates to talk about their successes.
This happened a week before COSAT was recognized as a top 10 school, but it already had many things to celebrate – including a perfect pass rate.
"In many ways this ceremony summed up what this school is about and why it is able to achieve the success that it does," wrote Clarke in School Management & Leadership, a newsletter he founded and now edits. "Although none of the learners who attended the event were in uniform – they had after all already left school – they were all neatly dressed and well groomed."