Bringing quality education to the people
31 years ago, Charles Chola chose to make Botswana his home, relocating from his native Zambia with his family to pursue a career in teaching.
Armed with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, the Design & Technology guru initially settled in Francistown, where he set about inspiring young minds in the classroom.
A move down south eventually followed as Thamaga came calling.
It was here, in 2003, that Chola would leave his teaching position to focus on his own venture: Highridge English Medium Schools.
Almost two decades later and his empire now stretches to both Moshupa and Kanye.
Boasting six schools in total (three pre-schools, two primary and one secondary), with a student population of 655 and 65 staff members, Highridge is a brand on the rise.
Briefly tell us about yourself?
I am a naturalized Motswana; my place of origin is Zambia in the mining town of Chingola.
I’m 67 years old and I have been in Botswana since 1991.
Take us through your career path before Highridge?
I came to this country as a teacher and taught in a number of schools.
I’m a qualified secondary school teacher having specialized in Design & Technology.
I started at Montsamaisa CJSS in Francistown then had a short stint at Francistown Senior Secondary School.
I came to Sekgele JSS in Thamaga in 1996 until 2002 when I left to focus on my own venture.
Growing up in a mining town, why choose the classroom over the copper?
The mine jobs were there but I wanted something different.
The time I finished school, Zambia was very powerful – application to go to University of Zambia was automatic as long as you completed Form Five and depending on results – so teaching was what I was given.
But teaching was the last thing I wanted, if was to choose I could have been a soldier!
I bet you’re glad you didn’t! Tell us a bit about Highridge, how did the empire start?
Largely what inspired the birth of this institution was what I had witnessed as a teacher in government school.
I realised there was a gap in private education, especially a serious gap in English language.
Most students were reluctant to speak English, so I decided to start a school concentrating specifically on that need.
Leaving a comfortable government post to go it alone must have been a daunting prospect?
Though I knew I was taking a risk I was adamant that soon enough people would warm to the new idea and they did.
Actually, I started with the pre-school and it was encouraging from the first day because we had 35 students.
So at that time I thought it was very promising.
Of course there were no English Mediums in Thamaga back then, people were wondering what I was talking about!
They soon found out and apparently liked what they saw, judging from the primary school’s immediate success. What did you get so right?
Mostly it was the kind of work we put in place; like I say, English medium was new in the country especially amongst ‘us’.
It could have been there among the whites but for us blacks it was a new phenomenon, so people wanted to know.
Other than that, the economic and political will as we came up as a country played a role; more people were getting empowered and so saw the need to take their kids to English mediums.
Highridge quickly became the answer because there was no other [private] school from Gaborone to Kanye other than us.
At that time, there was only one in Molepolole but nothing of that sort up to Ramotswa so we quickly mobilized and took advantage of the gap.
16 years, two primary and three pre-schools later, you saw fit to open a secondary school as well?
I started with Ikageng Pre-School in 1999 and quickly went to primary in 2003, this was because there was that zeal and passion for education from parents and the community.
From 2003, we took long to start a secondary school due to issues of location but in 2015 we completed the pre-school, primary and high school cycle.
The high school, as the latest edition, is coming up so well, our results have been good since last year.
As the Managing Director of Highridge, what does an average work day look like for you?
Being a teacher by profession and having taught D&T, I like being hands on and being at the forefront. I don’t want to be told, I always want to witness; so I enjoy coming to work because I do almost everything.
If there is a problem at the kitchen I go there to find out what’s happening before engaging any other professionals.
School results have been slipping at an alarming rate in recent years – where do you think we’re going wrong?
What we should know is that examinations do that and the population is growing so it’s about somehow finding a balance.
But there is some improvement because when I first came here the average age of a Form One student was 19, now it’s 12.
One of the problems is the failing standards to achieve education.
Education should be home, school and the child – if one of these links is missing it causes a problem.
It also appears there is a growing problem of students abusing teachers – is this something you encountered during your teaching days?
Not at all, if they were, they were very few not rampant as it is now.
Teacher /Student relationship was very good.
Teachers imparted knowledge and students gave us much respect.
Of course a few things have changed; there used to be corporal punishment but it’s no longer there.
Maybe this played a part.
To rectify this, I think it requires awareness in form of educating parents and students.
With the cost of living rising and many struggling to make ends meet, how has Highbridge survived?
We are a tried and tested establishment, of course our catchment is no longer the same but we have remained afloat.
This is because of the standard and quality of Botswana education, people still trust us and Highridge is the answer.
There are some people who say we are expensive, it could be but comparably we are okay.
There are also the effects of Covid-19 which has brought a lot of hardships in most households, some have literally gone back to government schools because they can’t afford.
Some are still coming because they still want their children to have this kind of education.
While your footprint has extended to Moshupa and Kanye, your headquarters remain in Thamaga: what is Highridge doing to give back to the community it operates in?
Highridge participate in community development every year, it’s one of our efforts to give back to the community.
So at Standard 7 and secondary level students get to choose projects which they do for the village. We undertake different projects; we have completed a house in this village for somebody and contributed to the former President’s Housing Appeal and many more.
And what difference has Highridge made in the local education landscape?
After being around from 2003 I’m happy that we have doctors, accountants and engineers who passed through this school.
So I think we have contributed fairly to the growth of our society.
We have gained trust and admiration because we know what we are doing, where we are coming from and where we want to go.
We used to have all these schools by different names but now everything has come under Highridge.
We tried to bring everything together to capitalize on the name Highridge has made for itself because if we have these schools by different names it’s difficult to develop all of them to the same standard.
Speaking of where you want to go, what does the future hold for Highridge in terms of further expansion?
The dream was to begin from pre-school to high school and perhaps to tertiary.
I have always cherished at least some education after Form 5 where we can properly train pre-school teachers.
Something to do with early childhood, given the power I’m still around I think I will come around to that.
So where do you want to see Highridge in the coming years?
It should take and consolidate its position as an institution of excellence and education.
Do its bit to build and transform this nation to where our leaders want us to be.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
I’m a Christian and an avid church-goer, my inspiration comes from the Holy Book.
How do you spend your free time?
I don’t do much but I spend time at church.
I have been invited to play golf and these other games but haven’t had that chance; age is catching up (chuckles).
Is Mr Chola a family man?
Yes, I’m married to a fellow teacher, Tabeth Chola.
She is my sweetheart, we met in school a long time ago.
We have been together ever since then and we have two kids together, a girl and a boy have their own kids now.
The four of us came to Botswana together.
And finally, Thank God It’s Friday, what are you plans for the weekend?
Friday is a school day for me but Saturday I dedicate to the farm and family and Sunday I go to church.