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News & Press: Founder Story

Melanie Smuts on schools influencing and changing the fabric of society

27 July 2018  
Streetlight Schools | South Africa | Primary | 1 school | 183 students

School was a very positive experience for me that shaped my thinking around the potential for education to influence society.

There have been several moments in my life where my schooling had a crucial influence on my worldview and perspective.
I was in second grade when South Africa transitioned to a democracy. Up until that point, I had experienced South Africa as a deeply segregated country. I was sheltered from the reality of students growing up in poverty. School was my first experience of desegregation and I was amazed at how education was an avenue to start to bridge the historic divides.

At that time, schooling in South Africa was traditional and authority was the norm. In contrast, I went to a private high school that deeply fostered individualism and celebrated uniqueness. My school happened to be one of the most racially integrated and diverse student populations at the time. It was a very positive experience for me that shaped my thinking around the potential for education to influence society. Another moment that left a great impression on me was when I moved to Boston for three months because of my father’s job in 3rd grade. While I was away, my teacher had the entire class write me letters and mailed them to me. It was an incredible gesture that showed me the power of passionate teachers.

I then went on to study human rights law and it was my time in law school that made me realise how unequal the South African education system is. I started my own education NGO on the side at age 19 and chaired many education committees. After law school, I went to India and worked at a low cost private school, which confirmed my already budding desire to come back start a school in South Africa. To go from standing in an empty room with nothing but a vision to seeing actual children and staff on the first day of school opening is one of those moments I will still remember when I’m 85.

What inspired me to start Streetlight Schools was when I realised that despite the democratic revival in South Africa that redid our norms as a society, the education system did not reflect that change at all. I was struck by the lack of vision for what education could look like in this new chapter in South Africa. Our education systems were outmoded and did not serve today’s society. We have not seen the revolution in education we would expect by now.

I wanted to start an education organisation that was powerful, compelling and could be a model for what the next generation of education looks like. Our goal is to be bold and innovative and redesign the education system. I truly believe that none of the existing constraints, training or funding or tough communities, is a fundamental barrier to quality education. Our ultimate goal is to show that you can have high quality publically funded sustainable education for lower income communities in South Africa using local resources.

One of my favourite moments since opening was our Children’s Parade through the city of Jo'burg for heritage day. The children dressed in traditional clothing. It was incongruous, seeing these brightly dressed children marching through the desolate streets of their community. This is something you would never see in South Africa. Here students are in schools and you do not see what happens in them, schools are very closed spaces. The inner city where we work is very dangerous and we do not have a public face there yet.

The idea came about because our first school leader was Norwegian and they have a tradition in Norway of children’s parades with flags and traditional dress. Our school leader took this Norwegian idea and made it happen in a South African context. It was incredible to see the usually very tough looking men in the streets soften and start singing, taking pictures and joining in the parade with us. Our parade really changed the feel of the environment. This event was a powerful statement for me about how schools can change the fabric of society.

Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey. You have to figure things out as you go along. Having strong mentors and advisors can make the journey a lot smoother.
The advice I would give an entrepreneur who is starting out is to find advisors and supporters you can talk to and problem solve with about your idea. Starting an organisation is hard and no one can prepare you for what you do not know. I have found that education is an extremely collaborative and supportive sector and have been blown away by how generous people have been with their time.

Being a part of the Global Schools Forum has been amazing in that sense as well. Entrepreneurship and school operation can be so lonely; GSF has opened a whole world of people across the globe who connect on the same vision and mission of quality education for all children. It has been a wonderful experience finding kindred spirits across the globe.

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