Pa. teacher takes on school challenges in Ghana with 100 percent graduation rate

     Kwesi Koomson at his Heritage Academy, a school he founded in 2004. (Image courtesy of Melissa Schoerke Koomson)

    Kwesi Koomson at his Heritage Academy, a school he founded in 2004. (Image courtesy of Melissa Schoerke Koomson)

    Barack Obama departed from Africa last week, but Kwesi Koomson has just arrived there. The president’s remark about how it will not be easy for young people in Africa is something Koomson understands.

    The following is part of a series celebrating local heroes in the Philadelphia region.

    Building the future you seek, realizing the vision you have, not just for your own countries but for the world — it will not be easy, it will not be easy.—President Obama, challenging students in Soweto during his recent visit to Africa

    Barack Obama departed from Africa last week, but Kwesi Koomson has just arrived there. The president’s remark about how it will not be easy for young people in Africa is something Koomson understands.

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    Koomson teaches math at Westtown School, a Friends school near West Chester. During spring breaks and summers, however, he returns to Ghana, to his home village of Essiam. And so again this past weekend: The trip from Philly can be done in a day, yet it is a commute between worlds. Essiam is a place of cinder-block homes with tin roofs, of subsistence farming and small markets. Daily income for most families is no more than a couple dollars a day.

    What keeps Koomson coming back to the village is Heritage Academy, a private school he founded there in 2004 for kids in kindergarten through 9th grade. An American president’s speech about changing the world may or may not sing in the minds of Heritage students. But it is quite enough that Koomson is turning those minds toward something extraordinary for most people in Essiam and its environs: A good shot at entering high school.

    High school the key to a future

    Their chance comes toward the end of the 9th grade year with the national high-school-entrance exam. Pass it, and you may continue with your schooling. Fail, and school is behind you — and may the Lord give you rest in a land of hard labor.

    For years you may have arrived at school each morning in a Korean bus that Koomson found at a used-car lot in the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Now, though, as you progress through 9th grade, consolidating and advancing what you’ve learned, you live on campus. You sleep in what were once the outbuildings of an old palm-oil factory that was gutted and rehabbed to house the classrooms. The amenities include water from a well rigged to supply a campus reservoir, and bare light bulbs in the dorms and one of the classrooms

    Here’s the drill:

    5:45 a.m. — Wake-up; dorm clean-up; cold-bucket shower.6:30 a.m. — First class.7:30 a.m. — Breakfast you make for yourself.8:10 a.m. — Classes resume.Noon — Lunch, provided to all Heritage students.1 p.m. — More classes.3:30 p.m. — Study; soccer; volleyball.6 p.m. — Dinner, again made by you.7:30 p.m. — Still more classes.9:30 p.m. — End of classes.10 p.m. — Lights out.

    You do this every weekday for six months. Weekends you take a break until Sunday-evening study hall. Although you are still a young teenager, you may sense the stakes.

    Says Koomson: “It’s do or die.”

    Good fortune and hard work paid forward

    Koomson, 38, is a bearded, wide-bodied presence with a 1,000-watt smile and a laugh so forceful it leaves him breathless. Twenty years ago, his brainiac tendencies combined with lucky breaks put him on a path to America via Franklin & Marshall College and Villanova University.

    But he never left Essiam behind. In 2004 he took a year’s leave from Westtown to answer the questions that nagged him: How to give kids in Essiam a fighting chance? How to find a school building and staff it? How to pay for it?

    He dipped into his savings and made it a family trip: Koomson, Melissa Schoerke Koomson, who is his partner in educational uplift as well as marriage, and the household cat. When her parents also decided to help for a while, her father stepped off the plane in Accra with catfood in his luggage and several thousand dollars in his money belt.

    The help has grown. On this most recent trip to Ghana, Koomson had with him 10 volunteers, mostly from the Philadelphia area.

    An oddsmaker might bet against Heritage, given its impoverished community and such continual crises as a crashed school bus (no kids were injured). But then Koomson doesn’t consult bookies. In its inaugural year Heritage served 32 kids. Today the student population exceeds 1,200 — and the K-9 curriculum has been extended with high-school classes.

    It’s not easy, but it’s possible

    Heritage unabashedly teaches for the high-school test, but it also does so much more by providing meals and shoes and school supplies. The school fields soccer and volleyball teams. It gives simple eye exams — though, to date, only one family has been able to afford glasses. It awards scholarships when parents can’t put up the $75 annual tuition, meaning most of the time.

    And it is determinedly not a place of soft expectations.

    The high-school entrance exam covers Fante (the native language), English, French, math, science, social studies, computer technology, morals, and “pre-technical skills” (for example, the best ratios of mortar materials). The exam is administered in English. That alone is a stretch, given the linguistic leap from Fante — from “kor, ebien, ebiasa” to “one, two, three.”

    Across Ghana, including better-off areas than Essiam, the pass rate runs around 50 percent, if that. For the first 9th-grade class at Heritage, the pass rate was 97 percent (31 of the 32). A fluke, you might say.

    But then you would have to contend with this: Every year since, for seven years running, the pass rate for Heritage has been 100 percent.

    Sixty-five students from Heritage, among some 390,000 countrywide, took the test in June. They must wait till August to learn how they did.

    Richard Koenig is a NewsWorks contributor. He lives in Newtown Square, Pa. His son serves on the Board of Directors of the Schoerke Foundation, which assists Heritage Academy.

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