“Learners Today, Leaders Tomorrow” is the motto guiding students of the recently opened Dr John Garang International School in Juba.
A brainchild of the late Dr. John Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, the school began operations in October 2010 with only five students, but that number has since multiplied.
When the school reopened in January for its second term, the number of pupils had risen to 30. By last March, student enrolment stood at 150.
The response has been overwhelming, said Ms. Nyandeng, who holds the title of School Director. “Every day children are coming. Right now, it is half-term and parents are still bringing children, and we cannot refuse. You do that only when there are other options out there.”
A 2009 national baseline household survey by the Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics and Evaluation found that only 37 per cent of the Southern Sudanese population six years or older had ever attended school.
Some Sudanese grumble that what the region needs are more government schools rather than pricey private institutions for the wealthy few.
An undeterred Ms. Nyandeng, who also serves as a presidential advisor on Gender and Human Rights Affairs in the Government of Southern Sudan, said that private schools challenge public institutions.
“If there are no institutions like this, the government schools will not be able to correct themselves,” she said. “Two, parents (wanting a private education for their children) will continue to send their children outside Sudan. Economically, it will be easier for the money to circulate inside Southern Sudan.”
The school is the first institution of learning in Southern Sudan to use the British Education System. The academic year begins in September and ends in July.
The student body is divided into four stages -- Baby Class, Reception Class, Key Stage 1 (Years 1 and 2) and Key Stage 2 (Years 3, 4, 5 and 6).
“In Year 6 (students) do an international numeracy and literacy exam from Britain,” School Principal Susan Magondu said. The school is currently admitting students to all classes except Year 6, as the deadline for registering for the numeracy and literacy exam has already passed.
The school's tuition fees are costly because all the curriculum materials, including books, teaching aids and exams, come directly from the United Kingdom.
Ms. Nyandeng and her staff had to surmount several obstacles before the school could open its doors. First construction materials and furniture had to be purchased and imported from Kenya and Uganda to erect the school’s building and furnish its offices and classrooms.
Once the structure was built, the School Director needed to recruit teachers. The lack of experts and teachers in Southern Sudan who are familiar with the British Education System forced Ms. Nyandeng to seek the help of a Kenyan education consultant.
“This was going to be a private school, so I did not want to do it alone,” she said. “I needed an expert in private sector and in the British System to come and help me.”
The consultant advertised teaching positions in Kenyan newspapers, and Ms. Magondu was hired as principal along with nine teachers.
“We brought the principal from Kenya because the people of Southern Sudan do not know this system,” said Ms. Nyandeng. But the school has set aside its administrative and support vacancies, which include accountants, a secretary and a deputy director, for Southern Sudanese.
The initial challenge faced by the Kenyan teachers was the language barrier separating them from students and their parents, many of whom had just moved to the south from Sudan’s Arabic-speaking north.
“It was not easy to enrol the children in October, November and December because they speak Arabic only. We had to call an interpreter,” Principal Magondu said.
The school principal advised parents interested in enrolling their children in the school to visit them for more information about the fee structure. “The total intake for the school, once (the school) is full, will be 350, with 25 to 30 students per class,” said Ms. Magondu.
In 2012, Ms. Nyandeng has plans to commence the construction of a high school for the students. “What I desire for our children here in Southern Sudan is a quality education,” she said. “Even if I do not get money from this, I just want the children helped.”