Jason Kehe
Phadiela Cooper is the principal of and a math teacher at the Centre of Science and Technology in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town.

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.

The ceremony is almost over – only the final announcement to go. It's what everyone has been waiting for: the names of the top 20 schools in the Western Cape province of South Africa.

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."

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.

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.' "

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