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Winter 2012

Cambridge to Jo'burg

illustrationDuring his time as a student at the Ed School, Al Witten, Ed.M.'02, Ed.M.'03, Ed.D.'10, always dreamed of taking something back to South Africa that would be bigger than himself and the degree he obtained. He dreamed of returning with something that held larger implications for his country, something with the potential to create change. In the end, that "something" was a piece of the Ed School itself.

The project, which started in 2010, is called the Education Leadership Initiative. Inspired by Witten's vision, it is a joint collaboration between the Ed School and the faculty of education at the University of Johannesburg that aims to improve the quality of schooling and raise the standards of South African school leaders through ongoing support and training. While the project consists of three tiers, the Ed School is primarily involved within the leadership development component, which trains principals and district officials from the Johannesburg Central School District.

Learning under faculty members from both universities, participants engage in large-group "interventions," small group discussions, and case study analysis. The four large group interventions are spread out over the course of the three-year initiative. In between these interventions, small group discussions are held every four to six weeks, in which participants identify emerging challenges and develop plans for improvement. Discussion topics include issues they often struggle with around budgeting, financial management/planning, and human resource management.

The idea for the project emerged after Witten took a trip home, while still in the doctoral program, to explore the possibilities for collaboration within the country. Accompanying him were two Ed School faculty members — Professors Robert Peterkin and Jerome Murphy, Ed.D.'73 — as well as Charles Deutsch, from the Harvard School of Public Health. Murphy recalls the impact of the trip.

"What we saw was a combination of schools with a tremendous lack of resources and yet examples of principals who were doing extraordinary things under difficult situations," he says. "It really opened my eyes, not only to the incredible problems, but also to the incredible opportunities that existed throughout the country. We wanted to figure out how we could help these people do more."

Similarly inspired by the trip, Witten immediately began driving the project forward, taking a leading role in the conceptualization, design, and implementation. Now, one year in, Witten is still involved, although the program is currently run by a team of leadership practitioners and scholars from both universities, including Senior Lecturer Deborah Jewell-Sherman, Ed.M.'92, Ed.D.'95, who heads up the program.

"This project has captured national attention in the country in terms of the kinds of leadership training and support that are required to improve the core teaching and learning functions of schools," Witten says. "It will have implications for how systemic interventions as well as leadership development programs are designed and implemented in other parts of South Africa."