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.
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After the official awards ceremony, Cooper knew a lot would change. That night, she was seen on national TV; the next day, she was written about in the Cape Times newspaper. Suddenly, fellow principals and potential funders wanted to visit her school. She was invited to speak at conferences. She was invited to visit the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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It seemed the whole world wanted to know: What was her secret?
"The problem is, we don't do anything that is different!" Cooper says. "We're doing the same thing that we did all these years. To me, what we do is not really that extraordinary. We do what we have to do. We teach. We're here every day. And the kids are here every day, and they want to be taught."
But that's modesty speaking. COSAT does do things differently, and so does Cooper. By the time her students leave COSAT, she expects them to be respectful, mature, well-adjusted adults.
"I talk to them a lot about values, about punctuality, about respect, about how they should behave with one another – not to shout, not to fight," she says.
She rules with a "tough-kind" approach – expecting a lot, understanding a lot. Her students go to school six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and are expected to attend additional classes during vacations – like July's math-intensive winter session.
COSAT does have advantages. Although it is not a private school, it rigorously recruits and selects students from a competitive applicant pool. For its first Grade 8 class, introduced this year, COSAT admitted 120 of its 400-plus applicants.
(The school has almost 400 students and expects to max out at 500 – low by regional standards.) Families are expected to pay a nominal tuition fee each year – 400 rand, about $50. Some can't afford it.
The school itself is in a nicer area of Khayelitsha, where the houses are actually permanent dwellings. The building is a rare modern-looking structure, its name emblazoned in deep-blue letters on a whitewashed wall. Part of the reason it looks so good: It's brand-new.
At the beginning of last year, COSAT moved from the top floor of a nearby college to its new building. The move was the first of several challenges for Cooper, who'd only been principal for three years before that and never had to undertake administrative duties when her school was at the college.
Some of the staff rebelled. The building wasn't completed when they moved in. She had to calm everybody down.
"You know why I'm calm?" she would say to them. "It's because I can see the big picture."
That big picture subtly changes as Cooper, who began her career as a math teacher and still teaches classes, learns more. And she's always learning. Cooper recently visited Newark, N.J., along with other South African principals, to see how the American educational system operates.
"I just laughed that we could teach her anything," says Erna Smith, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California who first met Cooper a couple of years ago in South Africa and has stayed in touch. "What could we possibly teach a woman like that?"
Well, at least one thing: Be tougher on students and staff. Cooper says her leadership approach is becoming increasingly firm. She'll no longer tolerate sloppiness, lateness, laziness – things she may have excused before.
Professor Smith isn't worried. Every time she returns to South Africa, she visits the school to check in on Cooper and her remarkable students.
"You only hear about the failures [in South Africa]," Smith says. "But there are pockets of excellence, and what makes the difference is people like Mrs. Cooper."
As much as she's enjoying the recognition she's received, Cooper says it ultimately distracts her from her work. She didn't become a principal to speak at conferences; she works, as she always says, for the kids.
"I'm here to make a difference in these kids' lives," Cooper says. "I'm here to make sure that, when they go out [in the world], they have self-worth as people. They must ... really keep their heads high, and say, 'I am from Khayelitsha, and I am proud of it.' "