The village of Gbonkonimah in 2014. It looked much the same in 1964.
Starting the school day
Currently, government schools in Liberia can serve only about half of the nation’s elementary student population. Private schools, supported by nongovernmental or religious organizations, provide classrooms for many of the remaining students. Costs to attend those schools vary considerably, but at the Obama School, LAP has worked with the principal to keep tuition, fees and uniform costs at a level that families can afford while providing a reasonable salary for teachers.
School costs for one child come to about $100-$150 per year at the Obama School. But even at that amount, many of the poorest children in the village of Cow Field often cannot afford to attend. Thus, for the past 4-5 years, LAP has provided scholarships to 35 students who need assistance. This year we added five more to the scholarship program, bringing the total to 40 students.
As long as students are doing well and are attending regularly, LAP will continue to support them until they graduate from the Obama School. LAP currently supports four students in other K-12 schools in Liberia and three college students.
The William V. S. Tubman School in the village of Gbonkonimah in Bong County, Liberia is where four LAP supporters, Judy Sims Reed, Justine Taylor Michas, Suzanne Dawson Fahey and Mary Ellen Buchanan, served as Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s. We have wanted to do more for the Tubman School but found it difficult since it is farther from Monrovia and we didn’t have a specific person to work with there. We have done small projects, such as providing a manual mimeograph machine for the school and solar lights for the students. We also sent rice, buckets and soap to the village during the Ebola crisis.
But in the fall of 2017 a committee headed by Obama School Principal Jessie Kekula (who grew up in Gbonkonmah) visited the village and met with school leaders and community members to discuss the needs of the school and village. The committee sent its report with recommendations to LAP and LAP has agreed to begin repairs to doors and windows and the ceiling of the school. Two local carpenters, one of whom who was also one of Judy’s students, will do the work. Mr. Kekula will meet with the school leaders and village members to describe the work that will be done. After an initial effort in the spring of 2018, we will evaluate what next steps are in order. We will also begin applying for grants to do further repairs and to build latrines for the school.
Jesse Kekula, Principal
The Barack Obama School is in its 7th year of operation, with approximately 300 students in Pre-K through the ninth grade. The school has a staff of 20, including the principal, 14 teachers, a registrar, a computer/clerical person, a security guard/custodian, a cook and a part-time nurse.
The Obama School opened in September 2011, enrolling over 200 children in grades K-6. The cement-block building now has eight classrooms, two offices, a cafeteria, a septic system, bathrooms and a well, all funded by the Liberian Assistance Program, through the support of friends and several grants from groups such as the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of WI-Madison. LAP also furnished the classrooms with desks and tables, bookshelves and the Ministry of Education’s recommended school textbooks.
The school’s name, Barack Obama International Foundation School, was chosen by the principal and parents to honor their ties to America. Like most Africans, they were excited about the election of an American president whose roots are, in part, in Africa.
In the summer of 2017, LAP paid to rewire the Obama School so that the school could become part of country’s electrical network. Electricity allows students to see much better in their classrooms during the rainy season.
LAP is currently supporting two new college students. One is Massia Kerkulah, who is beginning her studies at Starz College of Science and Technology. Massia was a LAP scholarship student from the seventh through the twelfth grades. In college, she is interested in majoring in management information systems.
The other new college student is Sampson Sumo. He is attending Cuttington College in Suakoko, Liberia. He too was a LAP scholarship student in high school. He plans to major in nursing. Sampson’s father John Sumo was one of Judy’s students from the years she taught as a Peace Corps volunteer.
In previous years, LAP supported two other college students. The first was Abbas Sherif who attended the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana from 2009-13. He majored in actuarial science and graduated as the college’s top science student. He completed a master’s degree in math at Stellenbosch University in South Africa on a scholarship from the Liberian government and with support from several LAP friends. Abbas is now working on his PhD in math at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban, South Africa. He is focusing on the study of the nature of space-time singularities (black holes).
The second student was Euphemia Sumo who graduated in early 2018 from the A.M.E. Zion University in Monrovia. She majored in accounting and is now looking for employment. LAP has supported two of Euphemia’s children as well— daughter Weekie Gonleh, who graduated from high school in 2015 and Nenlesch Gonleh, who will graduate from high school in the spring of 2018
Scholarship students at the Obama School. Fifteen are supported by a grant from the Rotary of Madison West and the rest are supported by individuals donors to LAP.
Eighth grade students sit in some of the 39 metal desks donated to the school by Friendship International of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.
Rachel Smith, with her mother, received a scholarship from LAP during most of her years at the Obama School. Now she is attending high school in the Cow Field area on a LAP scholarship.
Thanks to a grant from the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of WI-Madison to buy books and teaching materials, LAP began a summer reading program at the Obama School in 2013. Designed for K-3rd grade students, more than 100 children, from the area, not just Obama School students, attend three days a week for four weeks in July or August. Teachers read aloud to groups of 8-10 children and discuss books and act out stories. The children are also served a snack. Beginning in the summer of 2017, 4th-6th grade children are now participating in the Summer Reading Program.
Summer Reading Program
LAP members go over the books to be mailed for the Summer Reading Program.
Three children act out a story they were read at the Summer Reading Program.
Children at the Obama School show the books they received for the Summer Reading Program.
Excellent Teachers Serve Obama School
The Obama School has excellent teachers. Most of those hired when the school opened in 2011 are still there, while new teachers have joined the staff as the school has grown. Principal Kekula sets standards and expectations high, while treating staff with respect. Teachers are paid on time and encouraged to expand their own skills through in-service programs and outside educational courses.
LAP has paid the tuition of five Obama School teachers to attend two years of classes at LICOSSES, a school in Monrovia that provides post-high school education and teacher training. We also paid the tuition for the enrollment of two teachers in a course of study for C Certification, a program necessary for teachers to advance in Liberia.
Two Obama School teachers attend C-Certification Program.
LAP Scholarship student Sampson Sumo, center, is attending Cuttington College. His father John Sumo, one of Judy’s students from the years she taught as a Peace Corps volunteer, is on the left.
In 2014 Jane visits a girl whom LAP has supported for several years at the Combat Stress School outside Monrovia. She and her father greeted Jane with flowers.
LAP began providing funding for a food program at the Obama School in February, 2015. Two lunches are served each week for all 300 of the students, as well as for the school’s staff. The meal consists of rice with a soup of bony fish, pinto beans and greens. In 2016 LAP sent the Food Program two safe, energy efficient, woodburning stoves made by an American company called InStove. The stoves are designed for locations where women often cook on open fires, which are dangerous for burns and breathing. The school hires two cooks to shop for and prepare the food each week.
Students pick up their food in cafeteria.
The Obama cooks, Mamie Tokpah
and Barbra Paye
Waiting in line to be served lunch
Women put their clothing out to dry.
Children stand by an old style chair.
The principal of the Tubman School in Gbonkonimah visits with Jessie Kekula.
Children stand in front of a house, with hand prints on the walls.
Obama's soccer coach visits with students at school.
An in-service class is held for all Obama teachers.
Sports at Obama School
LAP believes that participation in sports or recreation is important for students at the Obama School and we have supported such activities by paying for equipment for soccer, kickball, volleyball and basketball for boys and girls. In 2015 and again in 2017, a LAP supporter sent $1,000 for sports equipment and the school was able to buy uniforms for the boys’ soccer team and for the girls’ kickball team, as well as soccer shoes, and soccer and kick balls. The school competes in area school competitions and frequently wins trophies.
Tailor Sammy Kollie cuts fabric.
LAP began an adult education program in sewing at the Obama School in 2017. Currently 20 participants, mostly women, are divided into two sections that meet three times a week. They are taught by a professional Liberian tailor. The goal of the project is to assist students in developing skills in sewing and business so that they can become employable in the tailoring field in Liberia. When the program ends after six months, the instructor will help graduates find apprenticeships with established tailors in the area or help them start their own businesses. Through grants from the Episcopal Diocese of Wisconsin and the Returned Peace Corps volunteer of WI-Madison, the program was able to buy nine manual sewing machines in Monrovia. We gained two more when LAP friends in Madison gave us their manual machines to send aboard Friendship International’s shipment to Liberia in November, 2017.
Cooks at Obama School use new stoves LAP sent for the school food program.