SAN ANGELO, Texas - Concepts in education have created an unlikely link between San Angelo and South Africa.
The assessment-based education model rooted in South African schools sent administrators at Ian Smith’s campus in Cape Town searching for alternatives, with a bright spotlight pointed at character formation among students.
Around the same time Smith’s school was looking for new ideas, the directors of Ambleside Schools International, whose schools include one in San Angelo, were visiting Cape Town, where Ambleside has another campus.
By God’s grace, Smith said, he and the Ambleside delegation encountered one another, and in 2011 Smith began implementing their education philosophies at his school.
“Children (in South Africa) are treated as products along an assembly line stuffed with knowledge and are expected to be ideal citizens that can contribute to society and the economy,” said Smith, principal of The Vine School in Cape Town. “That’s certainly not the case.”
Smith hung around San Angelo and the local Ambleside campus Monday and Tuesday following a principals conference in Virginia. Next he’s headed to the Fredericksburg campus on his tour of observing how Ambleside schools are run in the U.S.
Ambleside has grown to 15 campuses since its inception in 1999, including three in South Africa and three in Texas, with Boerne joining San Angelo and Fredericksburg.
The schools’ methods are derived from the practice of English educator Charlotte Mason and her foundational principle that children are born people, neither good nor bad but capable of being either, and education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life. Bible study is included in the curriculum.
The Vine was a Christian school for 23 years before making the jump to Ambleside’s principles. Since 2012 the school’s enrollment has more than doubled, from 66 to 137, Smith said.
“People are realizing just what this education can do,” Smith said.
The transition was incredibly difficult, Smith said. It takes a paradigm shift on the part of everyone — from board members and administrators to teachers and parents — to make the school a success, he said.
The content and delivery methods are the biggest differences, Smith said.
Teachers present children with ideas instead of facts. Those ideas are absorbed through narration, where children tell the teacher what they read, allowing students to chew on the ideas until they become part of them, Smith said.
Instructors ask questions to engage students rather than spouting off declarative sentences, Smith said.
“In an Ambleside classroom, the teacher does 30 percent of the talking,” said Christopher Sloan, head of the San Angelo campus.
The parental response in Cape Town has been outstanding, Smith said.
Classrooms are limited to a maximum of 16 students so as not to compromise the quality of education. Teachers need to know every child to best help them, Smith said.
In lieu of grade sheets, Ambleside schools dish out reports of progress, usually just under a dozen pages, to their students. The document is a written narrative about the child, including a paragraph on how they are doing on each subject.
It takes teachers two weeks to write the reports, Sloan said.
“Our parents are deeply appreciative of the measures to which we go to inform them of where their children are,” Smith said.
Compared with the U.S., there is far more government control over education in South Africa — even private education, Smith said.
The South African public school system focuses on academics at the expense of character development, Smith said. Students grow to excel in their fields of study but lack integrity in the long run, he said.
At the Vine it was discovered that when the focus is on character formation, academic success is far more likely to follow, Smith said.
“We want to produce students where the focus is on character,” Smith said. “That’s what we believe will make a far bigger impact on society.”
San Angelo’s Ambleside campus opened in 2003 and has an enrollment of 73 pre-K through high school students — up from 59 last year — with a faculty of nine full-time and six part-time employees.