When I was in Cape Town, South Africa for the Worldwide Innovation Education Forum (IEF), I had the opportunity, along with the other 550 teachers and education leaders who participated in the event, to visit two South African schools and to hear about the challenges and successes of the education system there. We got to visit two very different examples of schools…one private school and one well-resourced government schools.

St Cyprian’s School is an Anglican school founded in 1871 and widely recognized as Cape Town’s leading independent girls’ school. It is a very modern facility that serves 805 learners ranging in age from 3-years old to 18-years old, as well as about 80 students who stay in the boarding quarters. The school is a founding member of Round Square Conference of Schools, a prestigious association of 80 international schools which provide students with exceptional opportunities for personal development, leadership and internationalism.

This Catholic school is sort of idyllic.  They have many different buildings of newer construction, computer labs…and even a telescope on campus. St Cyprian’s School has a strong emphasis on community partnerships and outreach, as well as a long tradition of teaching for life and students are encouraged and empowered to make a different. This year, St Cyprian School has been selected to become one of our Pathfinder Schools as part of Microsoft’s Innovative Schools Program.

We kicked off our Shout partnership at St Cyprian’s with a tree banding ceremony to learn more about deforestation. We replicated the tree band exercise at Hout Bay High School where the conditions are completely opposite. Hout Bay was built in the apartheid era and was designed to accommodate 250 students, but currently there are 462 students enrolled. There are 15 teachers, 2 groundskeepers and an administrator at the school. Hout Bay serves a disadvantaged community and the school facilities are limited. There is one computer lab primarily used for teaching computer literacy with little ICT integration taking place.

The headmaster at Hout Bay High School has a very positive outlook and tries to instill a cult of hope and enthusiasm at the school. They have an extramural environmental group focused on trying to reduce electricity consumption at the school in addition to helping other environmental issues in the community. They are also working to raise more funding to purchase more computers to provide sufficient access for students and teachers to use in their lessons.

The reality…both schools are amazing. Great people, great students, and great excitement about their education…but they definitely show and prove that it goes back to some core basics in that regardless of the way a school looks like on the outside, it's the inside that matters.  It's the people…it's the great committed teachers and students that make the difference.

The other reality is that regardless of how much physical infrastructure that the schools had, and we saw tremendous facilities and computer labs in one, and a school that didn't have a tremendous lab, but could make great things happen. The educators and the dynamic that goes on in the classroom make the core connection to learning.

I definitely speak for myself, but I think the people who visited both schools from the IEF event related more to Hout Bay High School and appreciated the visit because it represented much more of a realistic environment for a lot of these teachers and the realities they face every day.  We all have to overcome obstacles, think through how to do more with less, and how to really make a meaningful difference for the students. It was a school that I felt more comfortable in.  I felt like it's a place that I understand, that I get what the educators are trying to do.