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EDUCATION

How Columba is transforming the lives of learners and teachers across the country

How Columba is transforming the lives of learners and teachers across the country
Columba Leadership aims to help young people recognise their potential and ability to lead change in their lives, schools and communities. Working in partnership with the department of basic education, it offers a leadership residency, school programmes, and alumni mobilisation and bridging. (Photo: Supplied)

Columba Leadership is an organisation that gives school staff and pupils the skills and vision to tackle a range of issues. Last week, the organisation hosted a gathering and panel discussion with educators and principals outside Johannesburg.

‘Columba believes in the greatness of young people; in fact, we believe in the greatness of people. When you truly believe in that potential, it is amazing what happens for people when they feel seen and when they understand that you believe in them… they rise to that occasion,” said Tracy Hackland, CEO of Columba Leadership.

Hackland was speaking at an investor and partner gathering at the Columba Leadership Academy at Nirox, north of Johannesburg.

“In essence, Columba seeks to drive a movement of positive change in school with youth working in partnership with adults to drive this change and in the process develop themselves,” she said. 

“This is about school change from the inside out in a way that also serves the development of leadership and youth.”

columba leadership

Columba Leadership is an organisation that gives school staff and pupils the leadership skills and vision to tackle their problems. ‘In essence, Columba seeks to drive a movement of positive change in school with youth working in partnership with adults to drive this change and in the process develop themselves,’ says Tracy Hackland, Columba CEO. (Photo: Supplied)

Columba works closely with the Department of Basic Education with a values-based system of awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service. 

“Columba doesn’t do this in a teaching kind of way… we do it in a facilitated learning kind of way, and when you do that, people really connect with those values and they are able to take them forward,” said Hackland. 

The selection processes

The Department of Education assists Columba to select a pool of suitable schools. Principals from these schools are then invited to an information session where they learn about the potential benefits that come from participation. 

The principal engages his or her school management team (SMT) and they have to apply. Columba uses selection criteria that include intact leadership, filled educator posts and a matric pass rate of at least 50%.

“All Grade 10 learners are made aware of the opportunity to be part of a movement for change at their school. They write a motivation [letter] on the change they want to see in their own lives, their schools and their communities. All learners who submit the motivation become part of the process,” Hackland said.

The leadership residency 

Columba currently has academies in five provinces. The custom-built Columba Leadership Residency at Nirox is used by Gauteng schools and some in the Free State. These academies run from Sunday afternoon to Friday afternoon and offer an intensive but engaging and reflective programme. The academy includes the principal, two educators and 12 Grade 10 learners. 

“Every academy is led by three highly trained facilitators who facilitate in the Columba style of elicitation rather than training,” she said.  

“We have others that facilitate educator empowerment and school engagement officers who support the social action and ongoing development of the participating learners.”

Columba works with the schools to select a diverse group of 12 learners from those who submitted motivations. These learners will be sent to the immersive residential values-based leadership academy. 

“The criteria specifies that we need some established leaders, some leading in the wrong way and displaying some behavioural challenges, some academic achievers, some underperforming, some learners who lack confidence,” she said.  

Adults and learners share the same leadership journey. 

columba diverse

Columba works with the schools to select a diverse group of 12 learners from those who submitted motivations. The 12 learners will be sent to the immersive residential values-based leadership academy. The academy includes individual and team activities that are both recreational and educational. (Photo: Supplied)

“They have this leadership experience together, learning to connect to one another, really listen to one another, and form a strong team,” said Hackland. 

Educators are also invited to participate, either by submitting motivations or by their respective schools selecting those they feel can have an impact, along with some of their younger educators whom they are hoping to develop. 

“Educators are taken through a further three-day educator empowerment residential which equips them to lead change in their classrooms and own lives, and partner with learners who are change agents at the school,” she said. 

The academy includes individual and team activities that are both recreational and educational. 

“Every day is structured around a different value with suitable experiences and activities such as a game drive and game walks which allow for awareness of nature, but also focusing on and drawing lessons from nature,” she said. 

Journaling and reflective sessions at the end of the day also form part of the activities. 

“Engagement with the challenges at the school and generation of creative solutions allows for teamwork and sets the group up for their leadership action post the academy,” she said. 

The school programme

There are also school-based programmes on offer, which are about opening up space for young people to show up as leaders, and for principals and educators to enable them to do that. 

“We work with principals and educators to talk about the culture of the schools; how they are allowing young people to show up and how they are cultivating leadership in young people,” she said. 

The school programme allows all interested people to become involved in bringing about positive change. These individuals might have written a motivation or they may join afterwards when they see projects being implemented. After the academy, the primary activities are projects developed to address the goals the adults and learners have identified. Goals are identified through engagement with the principal and SMT, as well as what comes from the academy. 

“The numbers involved vary greatly depending on the effectiveness of the young leaders and the support they get from their principals and educators, but there have been cases when the group can grow to 100 people actively involved in social action within a few months of the academy,” she said. 

Through a series of engagements, schools undertake a process of clarifying goals, reintegrating with the school after the academy, developing project plans and implementing them. Online events provide the opportunity for people to share and learn from others in the Columba community around the country. 

Columba also trains the schools Representative Council of Learners (RCL) which is the mandated leadership body in the school and works to integrate the RCL, the Columbans and other youth groups in the school to come up with a vision and some broad goals to which their individual and collaborative efforts can contribute. 

“We are going to ensure that these young people we develop are going to have a global awareness… they are going to be equipped with the best thinking, and we are going to ensure that we skill them up so that they can be as impactful as possible within their community,” she said. 

Alumni mobilisation and bridging

The newest part of the Columba offering is the alumni mobilisation and bridging components.  

“When in Grade 12, learners are made aware of the alumni network. Soon after leaving school, they are engaged at an orientation session and onboarded onto the network,” said Hackland. 

Alumni mobilisation is driven largely through WhatsApp, with content created by the Columba alumni team focusing on issues of relevance and interests of youth. 

“Peer support and motivation of one another, continued involvement and showcasing of social action, business marketing where those in the network can showcase their small businesses to the network and expressive arts Fridays allow for alumni to showcase their talents,” she said. 

Alumni bridging relies on the ecosystem of Columba support partners such as scholarships and bursaries, employers, internships or other placement partners.  

“Bridging connects the alumni network to these opportunities through social media including WhatsApp — we are aware of who is looking for these opportunities through the alumni tracking activities where we phone alumni after they leave school,” she said.  

The impact 

Founded in 2009, the organisation has worked with 277 government schools. There are over 11,000 participants who have graduated from the academy, and over 7,000 alumni throughout the country. 

“These are young people with a social conscience and a passion to serve,” she said. 

Columba has a very rigorous monitoring and evaluation system which allows them to gauge their impact, says Hackland. Between 72-74% of Columba graduates get recognised as formal leaders at their school, becoming part of the RCL or having some kind of responsibility at the school. 

“Columba doesn’t just target leaders – it’s not like we go into schools and say give us your best leaders and we will make them better. We say there is greatness in everybody, so let’s make sure we send a diverse group to the academy,” she said.

The school dropout rate is a concern in South Africa. Around four out of 10 learners who started school in Grade 1 drop out before reaching matric. The phenomenon has become normalised in many communities, with shrinking of classes between Grades 8 and 12 an accepted reality. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: In the wake of the pandemic, a proposed new law to reduce school dropout is still falling short 

“With Columba, 92% of those we start working with when they are in Grade 10 actually complete their schooling,” she said. The trend amongst Columbans is a 90% matric pass rate, with 80% obtaining tertiary eligibility. 

Hackland encouraged people to imagine a movement fuelled by a network of values-based leaders driving change in the country. 

“We are imagining a movement of change that is actually led by people with character, people with values, people that see leadership as responsibility and service.” DM/MC

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  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Wonderful! Well done Columba Leadership, you are making a difference.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Way to go Rob and Tracy – well done and thankyou

  • Charles Rowlinson says:

    What a wonderful and inspiring article. You realise that people with vision and dedication like Rob Taylor, can and have made a positive difference to our society. By building good leaders and giving young South Africans the opportunity to learn leadership skills is truly uplifting and will have a lasting effect for all. Well done Robbie and Tracy.

  • Steuart Pennington says:

    I sat in on a Columba Leadership programme in the Midlands of Natal, Shea O’Connor was the school. More follow-up was required post the event, and more of it is needed in this part of the world!

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