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Running a school like it’s a business

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Elandspark school pic

This article was published in the 09-October-2014 issue of Finweek Magazine

As tech entrepreneurs, my husband and I are passionate about raising our two kids to be entrepreneurs. So we grab every opportunity we find to teach them about business. Sadly, however, the creators of South Africa’s school curricula don’t share our passion for entrepreneurship. Other than theoretical business subjects like Business Studies, Accounting, Consumer Studies, Economics, and Economic Management Studies, there is hardly any entrepreneurial training happening in most of South Africa’s schools. Elandspark School is a refreshing exception and a shining example of how to run a school like a business.

Elandspark, a multi-disciplinary government school, does incredible work in providing a high standard of education and support for children with special needs and learning difficulties. They are otherwise known as LSEN (Learners with Special Educational Needs). Most of these kids are mildly intellectually disabled (MID). But the school also caters for nine other learning disorders such as epilepsy and ADD. The focus is on vocational training, with learners spending 50% of their time in an academic environment, and 50% in practical workshops. As the headmaster Josua du Plessis says, his vision is to create more entrepreneurs. How? By giving the learners hands-on practical training, entrepreneurial and vocational skills that they can use to earn income after they finish school.

The range of vocational skills taught includes woodwork, sheet metal skills, hospitality training, project management, marketing, budgeting and hairdressing. The learners also get training on how to run their own businesses, a vital skillset that is sadly overlooked in most South African schools. In addition, they do hands-on repairs and maintenance for the school. For example, learners studying civil maintenance are tasked with repairing broken gates, electricals and other school equipment in-house. Not only does this save the school a considerable amount in maintenance expenses, but it also gives the learners the opportunity to apply their training in the real world and to give back to the school that believed in them.

Unassuming Josua is no ordinary headmaster. Although Elandspark has been up and running for roughly 40 years, it is only since he came on board in 2012 that the school started running like a business. He sees himself as the school’s business manager, not as a principal. While his two deputies manage the curriculum and academic side, Josua looks after the business side of things. And this is no easy feat, considering the school’s financial constraints.

Although Elandspark School is set in upmarket Bedfordview in Johannesburg’s Northern suburbs, only two of its learners actually live in Bedfordview. Each day the other 765 pupils travel in by bus from underprivileged areas like Alexandra, Diepkloof, Daveyton, Hillbrow and Katlegong, and from feeder orphanages in Epsworth, Observatory and elsewhere. Most of the learners’ parents cannot afford to pay school fees. This means, in 2014 alone, the school had to subsidize over R800,000 in school fees. A hefty burden for any school. But one that Josua tackles head-on with his usual entrepreneurial gusto and creative head for business.

So how does Josua raise the shortfall in funds every year to keep the school going? Ask any entrepreneur: if you have little or no funds, you have to devise smart, low-cost ways to get the job done. This is exactly what Josua does. Instead of depending on donations and school fees from parents like many wealthier private schools do, he taps into an innovative barter model that keeps the school self-sustaining. It’s all about win-win partnering with local businesses and the community in order to raise money for school facilities, and then using these facilities to generate income for the school.

A fantastic example is the partnership with the Rotary Club of Bedfordview. With funds raised at their yearly golf day, the RCB sponsored Elandspark School’s hospitality division and its hospitality training facility. This means the school can train learners who want to pursue a career in the hospitality and catering field. The hospitality training facility opened its doors in June 2013, with a sumptuous dinner for RCB members that the school learners themselves prepared. In exchange for their funding injection, the RCB now has a venue at the school that they can use for get-togethers. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Another interesting case is that of Waste Giant. With close to 800 learners, the school produces a tremendous amount of garbage around its big grounds. Until recently, the school paid Waste Giant around R4,000 each month to empty their garbage bins regularly. That was, until Josua approached Waste Giant with a creative barter deal: Waste Giant could have free advertising at the school for a full year, if they emptied four of the school’s garbage bins for one year for free. Because the school borders on Bedfordviews’s busy Van Buuren Road, this advertising space was very attractive to Waste Giant. So the deal went ahead. With the R48,000 in annual waste removal costs that this deal saved the school, they could afford to build carports for the teachers.

And then there is the example of Leeuwenhof Akademie, a wealthy private school close to Elandspark School that doesn’t have their own sporting facilities or sportsfields. So for a fee, Elandspark School lets Leeuwenhof use their facilities for athletics, cricket, netball and rugby, generating much-needed income for the school. Another win-win for everybody.

To help close the funding gap even more, different vocational departments focus their efforts on earning income for the school. A case in point is the woodwork department. Working in teams of two or three, the boys make wooden furniture ranging from bedside tables and footstools, to picnic benches, garden benches and chests. They also restore furniture for customers. The pieces are made in response to orders from customers on Bidorbuy.co.za, with the sale of completed pieces bringing in income for the school. Interestingly, the woodwork department has a target of R10,000 revenue to bring in for the school in 2014. With customer orders totalling R8,000 so far, they are well on the way there. It won’t be long before the newly built hairdressing salon also starts generating income for the school. Female learners are being trained in hairdressing, and will soon be ready to charge customers for haircuts and other hairdressing services. Much of the raw material, such as wood for the woodwork department, comes via donations. This helps the departments keep their costs down and their prices reasonable. Learners also understand the value they are adding to the school, because of the income their work brings in.

Josua is incredibly passionate about uplifting the LSEN space. As he explains, without the skills and vocational training that Elandspark School offers, kids with learning disorders are unlikely to get jobs or start their own businesses. If they cannot work, then crime, drug abuse and rehabilitation and the resulting negative impact on society are often not far behind. Josua has a powerful vision: to help these kids learn the hands-on skills they need to get jobs or start their own businesses. In this way they can become self-sufficient, valuable contributors to their communities, instead of being a costly burden to society.

Josua’s burning wish is to show the world that kids with learning challenges can also excel. As he says, there is no need to be scared of kids with learning difficulties. And so a big part of Josua’s work is to dispel the stigmas around people with learning disorders and to raise awareness of how much they can achieve.

In their 40-year history, Elandspark School has produced many success stories of LSEN learners who have risen above the boundaries that society sets for them. Sportsmen like professional kickboxer Pietie Coxen, and professional rugby player Oscar Posthumus, who played for Eastern Province and the Lions squads, and competed in the Currie Cup. Or Hennie Pelser, who runs four successful businesses with his brother. Although Hennie can hardly read or write, his vocational skills are very strong. So his brother manages the financial and administrative aspects of the businesses, while Hennie handles the practical side using the equipment repair and sheet metal skills he learnt at Elandspark.

In the two short years that he has been principal, Josua, together with the school’s governing body, a vibrant school management team, passionate teaching and administrative staff, counsellors and general assistants, have done amazing work to turn Elandspark School into a viable, self-sustaining business despite the odds. It is a fantastic model of entrepreneurship and sustainability that many South African schools could learn from.

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Author: Colette Symanowitz

Managing Director of www.BeatingBullies.com and www.MBAconnect.net. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @mbaconnect_net and @Beating_Bullies

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