Alumni

Heritage Academy & Westtown School

This is a story about a rural village in Ghana which has become a wellspring of inspiration for the Westtown community – teachers, students, parents and alumni from ’03 to 1983 – though it’s hard to say which community has benefited more: Breman Esiam or WesttownSchool. They share teachers, they share principles which we know as Quaker testimonies, and above all, they share students.

 This is an amazing story that keeps growing – it is already international – and a story that is built on the interwoven connections that we all recognize as the Westtown network.

Kwesi Koomson teaches math at Westtown, chairs the Math Department, coaches soccer and is the dorm head on Boys’ Second; he’s been here for 11 years. Three years ago, he took a leave of absence to return to his native Ghana with the goal of starting a school for about 30 students in the village where he grew up. Students in rural areas are underserved by the Ghanaian school system; few continue their education at university; many drop out after middle school because they don’t have the money or they don’t pass the national exams.

 Since then –

  • ·         Not one, but two schools have opened – a total of 750 students;
  • ·         For the past three years, seniors have spent their senior projects in Ghana;
  • ·         A Westtown ninth grader spent three weeks of summer vacation teaching at the school;
  • ·         A Westtown alumnus – one of Kwesi’s former students - spent a college year teaching in the school, building classrooms and attending the University of Ghana;
  • ·         Westtown third graders’ book drive has built the school library, with surplus going to neighboring schools;
  • ·         Westtown sixth graders have a pen-pal project going and Middle School bake sales have helped in funding;
  • ·         Westtown faculty travel to Ghana to work at the school during the summer;
  • ·         A Westtown teacher has helped to found the Ghanaian Scholarship Fund; through the fund, she and her family are sponsoring the first Heritage Academy student to attend Westtown;
  • ·         The Class of 1983 has designated its 25th reunion gift for the Ghanaian Scholarship Fund.

 

Heritage Academy, the original school founded by Kwesi and his wife Melissa, began with 32 seventh grade students, housed in a church. In summer 2005, they bought a disused factory building, created classrooms from the cafeteria, warehouse and parking garage, and moved the school to this new site. There are currently 450 students in grades PreK through 9th grade – Junior Secondary. The plans are to expand to include Senior Secondary – high school.

Heritage is remarkable for any number of reasons:

· The school’s philosophy is informed by seven principles: Knowledge, Integrity, Discipline, Respect, Responsibility, Simplicity, Hard Work;

· Its students learn critical thinking skills instead of rote memorization for the national exam, their ticket to higher education;

· They learn to read, and they learn reading comprehension;

· They’re taught to ask ‘Why?’ - unusual in the Ghanaian educational system;

· Thirty-one of the 32 initial graduates passed the national exam, and are eligible to enroll in secondary school;

· It is the first school in its district with a no-caning policy;

· Heritage holds workshops and a conference for its teachers, who also get to work alongside trained teachers from the US.

The Koomsons have established another school in a village 30 minutes north of Breman Esiam, buying a school facing bankruptcy and moving it to a new site. Known as Ochiso Heritage Academy, it enrolls 300 students in PreK though 7th grade. The need is all too readily apparent, and the schools’ success speaks to their dedication to their mission. “This was Kwesi’s dream,” Melissa says. “He has made a world of difference to the villagers in his home town.”

“The Westtown community has been amazing in its support,” she adds. “Every aspect of Westtown is connected.” A non-profit foundation is in the works to provide a means of expanded and more permanent support for the schools, separate from the Ghanaian Scholarship Fund.

A sister school to Westtown in many senses, Heritage Academy and its students provide not only inspiration to the Westtown community, but also the opportunity to make a visible, tangible difference in others’ lives, and to make a connection across countries, cultures, and languages that enriches all.

 

Connections

A Franklin & Marshall College Religious Studies major, minoring in Anthropology, Ben Burghart ‘03 spent the 2005-6 year studying at the University of Ghana/Legon. He spent the summer of 2005 working at Heritage Academy, established by a friend and teacher from high school, Kwesi Koomson, F&M Class of 1997. He writes,

Heritage Academy is a unique school. Its philosophy of accepting only the highest-scoring students and giving them all full scholarships derives from its philosophy that more students from agricultural-based villages in the poorer parts of Ghana need a chance of getting to the university level. Gifted students often find themselves stuck in an environment that doesn't meet their intellectual needs. Putting all of those students in one classroom with good facilities-including a solid library-can permit these kids to soar. Kwesi and Melissa have used their own limited funds this past year, and with just that they have done a lot. A typical student pays only $13 for school fees throughout the year. (note: Every student is subsidized; Heritage spends $75 per year per 6th-9th grade student on full scholarship .)

Teaching at Heritage in the summer of '05, I learned that a little goes a long way. If we want a brighter environment for our children, this world needs better parents and teachers, people who want to involve themselves in children's lives. Any progress in saving this planet will be slow, local, and environmental. I learned that my students most likely won't remember that I taught them fractions or verb agreement. They will remember that a white man came to their village for one summer, and he was engaging and enjoyable. For those children who don't get to ever leave the village life, that connection is invaluable. “[Travel] connects you to ideas you think you’re learning in a classroom,” he notes. “You have to realize how connected you are to someone else in another part of the world.”

Ben has since graduated from F&M and is now a National Park Service intern in Oregon. He is planning for an MA in Anthropology or International Studies and an eventual return to Africa. The full text of his article is located at http://www.fandm.edu\x11996.xml

The Class of 1983’s involvement

For their 25th reunion gift, the Class of 1983 has decided to support the Ghanaian Scholarship Fund, to provide funds for Heritage graduates to attend Westtown. Work Program Coordinator Marion van Arkel Dear ’83 wrote to her classmates, “As colleagues, alumni, and Westtown students learned more about Kwesi's school, we prodded him to have a student from Heritage Academy attend Westtown.  At first he said no because there was no financial aid for international students.  In the meantime, there has been a steady stream of people from Westtown visiting his school - teachers, friends, and students.

Last spring 11 Westtown seniors accompanied Kwesi to Ghana to teach at the school for their senior projects. One teacher who went on the trip was particularly taken with a bright Heritage Academy student. She convinced him to apply to Westtown 
and was able to find funds to pay his tuition after he was accepted.

This student now lives in Stone House
He arrived a week early for pre-season soccer, he ice-skated for the first time, he wakes up early to do homework, and his workjob is "breakfast serve." After the senior project trip last spring, Westtown seniors described him as, "Smart, really smart. Hungry for knowledge, just waiting for someone to teach him." I cannot explicitly predict what gifts this young man will give and has already given this school, but his presence here redefines the boundaries and borders of the Westtown community. Actually it bursts them wide open.

In hopes of creating a more permanent opportunity for students from Heritage Academyto attend Westtown, this teacher, along with Kwesi, went one step further and established Westtown's Ghanaian Scholarship Fund. This is where we come in. We as a class have a unique opportunity to be a part of something that will truly make a difference for the Westtown community.”