A Tree Grows in Jo'burg

Can a high school change a continent?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with a man who says "Yes it can!" Fred Swaniker is the co-founder of the African Leadership Academy, a new boarding school in Johannesburg, South Africa. His school's audacious goal: transform Africa.

While we face some serious problems here in the USA, a glance at Africa reminds you how lucky we really are. Fred ticked off a list of problems - crippling poverty, lack of decent healthcare, poor education, corruption, violence and instability, lack of basic infrastructure - that plague his continent. Africans, in his words, face "war, famine, and poverty" in ways unimaginable to most Westerners.

His answer to these problems is a high school.

What makes his school so special? For starters, it's highly selective. Fred recruits kids from all over Africa and selects the most promising, regardless of need. In 2008, 1700 young people applied for 106 slots in the inaugural class. That's a 6.2% admit rate, more competitive than Harvard. Remember William Kamkwamba, the teenager who built a windmill in his Malawian village? He's one of those 106.

Next, Fred's school gives the kids a unique experience. The students take traditional classes in languages and science, but they also have an entire curriculum in leadership and entrepreneurship. Teenagers meet and shadow leaders in multiple fields, then go out and start leading themselves. Every student has to launch a business. So far the campus features a bank, café, farm, barbershop, beauty salon, even a local energy enterprise, all of them initiated and run by students.

Intriguingly, the students do all this work while learning about the challenge their continent faces -- the history of poverty, war, and famine --and the opportunities they have to overcome it; you could call it "African values." You might think that teenage minds would be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of Africa's situation, but Fred explained that they aren't. "The kids are excited," he said. "They realize it's a daunting task, so we teach them about the power a few can have to change society -- people like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi."

All of this relates back to Fred's overall goal: creating a pan-African network of leaders who are committed to improving their continent.

Will he succeed? I think he might. It's well-known that many African nations lack the human capital to follow through on ambitious goals. Money from the West vanishes before it can reach those who need it, and internal reformers are swatted down by corrupt, inward-looking elites.

When I first heard about Fred's school, the teacher in me was a bit taken aback. "Shouldn't he be educating all students," I thought, "instead of just an elite few?"

But the more I thought about it, the more his idea makes sense. In the USA we already have a system of elite schools, both public and private, that turns out the highly skilled adults who lead our political, economic, and social institutions. The system has major inequalities -- and it's our work to redress them -- but it has reached a critical mass of production that keeps the country going.

That isn't the case in Africa. Across the continent, good education is available only to the sons and daughters of the very wealthy, and the system isn't set up to foster international cooperation. A young woman who will one day run an Ethiopian bank is more likely to meet a budding Botswanan politician at Oxford or Cambridge than on her home continent.

Swaniker's project is exciting, and I think it raises some important questions for us here in the USA. How, precisely, are we preparing our children to take a leadership role in their future? Our system tells us to focus on the cognitive skills measured by standardized tests -- skills that are undeniably important -- but are we also preparing them to be leaders? What kinds of American values are we teaching them? Perhaps the biggest question of all, what kinds of leaders will the America of 2050 need? Whether we consciously answer that question or not, that's who we're shaping.