Nonhlanhla Masina: Empowering Township Students from the Grassroots Up

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We’re just going to say it and get it out of the way. Nonhlanhla Masina, Noni to her friends, is an exceptional person. Really. She’d likely deny it but it must be said. Rarely do you meet someone so driven, smart and accomplished and yet grounded and humble. She’s also leading something of a double life … with two Bachelor of Science degrees, a Masters in Pharmaceutical Science and plans for two PhDs, in the midst of her studies five years ago this 27-year-old launched a non-profit aimed at revolutionizing education in South Africa by creating a network of world-class private high schools that anyone can afford.

“Community it very important to me. My upbringing grounds me and keeps my mind sober as I navigate the real world where millions of people live in poverty and not by choice. So although I straddle two worlds – my academic life and my life at home – I keep reminding myself that’s where most of the country is. I cannot get comfortable in my bubble because if the majority is not able to access the type of learning and education they need to meet their potential, then my bubble will burst.”

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ASE students performing in a play

Noni’s involvement in education is very personal.

The first of three children, she grew up in Tsakane township, about an hour or so from downtown Joburg. No one in her family had ever finished high school and her father even learned to read while the young academic was doing her homework. Attending the local public school, Noni excelled in math and science. At the top of her class and doing all subjects in a higher grade, she was the only one to continue on to undergrad studies and attended the prestigious University of Witwatersrand. But with the first week of class the reality of her situation hit her full on.

“When I graduated, everyone told me I was golden, the world was my oyster and I would never have to work as hard as I had done over the last four years again. But after one week at WITS, I realized they had lied to me. I’d been fed false promises. Coming in I was expecting to be able to stand my ground but, in relation to my peers, I was probably about two years behind. Language compounded the situation because, as an isiZulu and isiSwati speaker, English was my third language and a massive barrier. I knew if I was going to stay and follow the academic path I had planned, I was going to have to work twice, three times as hard as anyone else.”

“I’m not excited by making things just a little bit better because that doesn’t help anyone. We’re on a mission to challenge the system and ensure every child gets an education worthy of their potential, regardless of where they come from.”

Noni started high school in 1994 and was part of what was called the “Mandela Matrics”, the last group of students to do a hybrid of the old graded and new democratic systems.

“We were not required to think, only to memorize and regurgitate. And I was good at that and did really well on the final exams. But this is not a meaningful measure setting up kids for future success, be it at university or anywhere else. Imagine you tell a child they are the best in their school, their region even, and then they go to university and realize they cannot problem solve or access the information like everyone else. It’s completely disempowering.”

Noni spent every waking moment studying and getting extra help, which was no easy task as she was working weekends to pay her rent and eat. But rather than give up and go home, after the first year she did something remarkable.

“I went straight back to my high school and told the principal I needed access to the matrics. I wanted to prepare them for what was to come. I started a supplementary program, particularly focusing on math and sciences but also English.”

ASE students
ASE students

By year two, she had convinced another secondary school to let her run the program and by the end of 2009 – her third year at WITS – she was servicing all five high schools in the region using a problem-based approach. She brought her university friends in to help and touched base with the students throughout the year, especially before keys exams leading up to graduation.

“Failure was never an option,” she explains. “When I left home, the entire community was in my house. Because I really was the exception to the rule, everyone was counting on me. People were contributing financially or with prayers or advice. One neighbor even gave me a toothbrush and cup when I left for university. It’s a poor community, but everyone wanted to give something to symbolize their support. It would have been a massive blow to them and my personal identify if I had given up, it was never just for me!”

When she launched a second BA degree in 2010, Noni took some time to think about her goals.

“I felt the momentum we gained in the summer months was lost over the remainder of the year as the system was disempowering their sense of self; I needed to find a more effective way to help these kids.”

At a house party that year, she connected with fellow South African – Jay Cloppenburg – and the two spent hours, at the party and for weeks after, discussing to how to make quality education not just the reserve of the select few.

“Education is the ultimate equalizer. If you’re lucky to win the ovarian lottery and be born into money, you can access quality private schools. Some have tried to place high potential township kids there with the aim of addressing the imbalance, but there is no way of telling what a child is going to become unless you create the opportunity early on for that child to grow. How do you identify which child has more potential? It’s like playing God. If you are not used to solving problems and thinking creatively and that your own thoughts and opinions matter, how are you going to become that person when you grow up? Provided you give a kid the right environment, everyone has the ability to succeed,” she argues.

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Jay at graduation

Noni and Jay teamed up on what Noni refers to as their “pie in the sky idea.” Both doing Masters at the time, they designed an enquiry-based model that starts off with a problem as opposed to instruction. The instruction then follows but more as facilitation, incorporating student ideas. The program appropriately uses tech, supplementing rather than replacing the teacher, encouraging independence and peer-learning.

They ran a pilot project in Soweto and Ghana and the pre- and post-test results were amazing. Noni’s former high school hosted a third initiative in 2012 called Accelerate that was built on the same concept but focused on math, technology, leadership and English. Once again, it was a huge success.

With the data to prove their concept, Noni and Jay attracted the support of investors in South Africa and opened the first independent and private African School of Excellence (ASE) in Tskane. A second high school was opened in Maboneng and three more sites are planned in the area.

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ASE is a non-profit network of highly affordable private schools with the goal of enabling township scholars to compete globally. School fees are low but still an investment for most families, regardless of government subsidies. Plans are underway to launch a social enterprise to be able to operate in different price points and scale more rapidly, creating a network of 200 schools throughout the country and providing high quality education to half a million disadvantaged scholars in ten years.

It’s an ambitious goal but the Government is watching developments closely. ASE knows it must demonstrate scale and continued success if it is to challenge the status quo. But this – it would seem – is the easy part.

“Our first class is graduating in two years and in a recent assessment targeted at native English speakers was ranked in the top quintile of the nation’s schools. Our 10th grade kids are being pulled into 12th grade classes to facilitate,” Noni says, adding with pride, “They are simply amazing.”

And although it’s about supporting township scholars with the ambition and willingness to learn, this remarkable young woman is out to prove a point: it’s not about how much you spend on education but how you spend it and what you expose children to that creates opportunity.

“I don’t want to give the child from Tskane or Soweto an education that’s a little bit better. I want them to get an education that empowers them to be globally competitive. The skillset you need in Joburg is the exact same skillset you need in London. I’m not excited by making things just a little bit better because that doesn’t help anyone. We’re on a mission to challenge the system and ensure every child gets an education worthy of their potential, regardless of where they come from.”

And so far, the results are inspiring. Noni and Jay are showing us all: with the right support, anyone can shine.

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