Education reform politics are being waged at a fever pitch in the United States. The recent release of the film, Waiting for Superman, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's announcements of Race to the Top multimillion dollar grants last month are just the tip of iceberg.
At the core of the shouting are children -- mostly low-income minority children -- in cities like Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, Newark and New York. As low as U.S. inner city high school graduation rates might be, they're stratospheric compared to the reality in South Africa. In that black majority country, two decades after apartheid ended, about 65 percent of young, white South Africans have high school degrees but only 14 percent of black South Africans do.
Exactly 10 years ago, two Harvard Business School graduates, living and working in Johannesburg, began to change that reality.
Teresa Clarke, chairman and CEO of Africa.com, joined forces with Kenyan-born Nyagaka Ongeri, now a managing principal in the global finance & risk solutions division of ABSA Capital (Barclays Capital's Sub Saharan African Investment Banking arm). Their initial goals were modest -- to mentor a few black high school students.
A decade later, they've raised more than $10 million, most of it in South Africa, to educate nearly 600 low-income black students in the most elite white private boarding schools. Their program is called SSP, for Student Sponsorship Programme.
The Harvard connections provided access to influential, socially conscious advocates. All five South African banks have been generous SSP supporters: Standard Bank, ABSA, Nedbank, Investec and First Rand. Early support also came from the South African branches of U.S. banks, including JP Morgan, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank.
About 95 percent of the students who have started the program, the first critical masses of black students to attend these elite, white schools, complete it. About 90 percent of the students qualify to attend university.
Today, some of the first graduates are playing important roles in the South African economy. Among the star performers from the first class are a manager at South African Breweries and a banker at Investec.
Dexter A. Padayachee was fortunate enough to win one of the hugely prestigious Nelson Mandela Scholarships, established at Amherst College in Western Massachusetts. After a nationwide search throughout South Africa, he and four other SSP alums have been the first and only recipients of this highly sought after grant.
Now a sophomore, Dexter knows how fortunate he is. "SSP serves as a beacon of opportunity for these students who show academic excellence. SSP effectively transports these exceptional learners to schools where they are challenged both in academics and life."
For all his successes, Dexter's road has been bumpy. "The transition from the public school system to the private school system is a displacement. This displacement is indeed a frightening experience. However, SSP has made valiant attempts to transform the displacement into a transition. And I think, contextually looking at SSP, it has been successful in reaching the 'transition' phase."
Clarke understood Dexter's experience as she summed up what she's learned. "We initially thought of ourselves as providing a micro opportunity, not understanding that private school sector was seeking solutions for their integration needs in the new South Africa. Over the years, we've been met with great enthusiasm and success in a number of categories."
"I continue to interview and meet prospective students every year," said co-founder Nyagaka Ongeri. "It remains heart-wrenching and eye-opening, 10 years later, to see how dramatically the public education system in South Africa has failed its students, parents and even its teachers."
What most impresses both Ongeri and Clarke is the commitment of black parents to their children's success. Said Ongeri, "Many of the parents overpromise the amount that they can contribute to their children's tuition. But it's a sign of the hope that they place on their the children who are the shining hope of their lives."
Said Clarke, "Over the next 10 years, I hope that we can expand throughout South Africa and raise enough funds for an endowment." She added, "We didn't start out to become experts on diversity, but we get calls from public schools, universities, corporations - all of them looking for our advice."
Ongeri, Clarke and their SSP staff hope to inspire and substantively integrate all of the historically white institutions in South Africa and beyond.
"There's such a thin line between the haves and have nots in Africa," they both said. "You just have to look around to have a real appreciation for what hard work can bring you and you have a responsibility to pull others along with you."
Jacqueline Adams serves on the Board of Trustees of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Charter Schools in New York City and is a member of the 10th Anniversary Committee of the Student Sponsorship Programme.