10/20/2008 Magazine Staff

Hope Is Where the Heart Is

Kwesi Koomson ‘97 always knew he would return to his native Ghana. But when he left home as a teenager, he never could have imagined he would find a place for himself on two continents. He never could have foreseen he would find himself devoted to teaching privileged kids in America—and to bringing education and opportunity to deserving children in his homeland.

High-school students in Ghana often are set early on their career paths. When Koomson showed promise in science, he was told he would be a physician. In fact, he arrived at Franklin & Marshall believing he would go into medicine. “I had lived with this idea for so long that I didn’t realize it wasn’t my idea,” Koomson says.

But after three years of pre-med, he found he didn’t want to be a doctor. Fortunately, the culture at F&M helped him reflect on who he was and what he wanted to become. “I felt like F&M was a very safe place to be and to explore yourself and your ideas,” he recalls.

Koomson realized he didn’t want to cure disease. He wanted to cure ignorance. He wanted to heal what prevents children from realizing their full potential. He wanted to be a teacher.

So, armed with a degree in math and an independent study in African-American history, he set out to become an educator. In 1997 he joined Westtown, a Quaker boarding school near West Chester, Pa., as a math teacher, dorm head and soccer coach. He went on to earn a master’s degree in math at Villanova University and rose to department chair at Westtown.

Then he did something daring with the education that had taken him so far: He took it back to Ghana. In the past four years, Koomson has founded two schools to serve the needy children of his hometown. He also has made learning a bridge between the home he left and the one he adopted.

A Perfect Score

Koomson, 34, was born in Breman Esiam, a farming community in central Ghana, on the West Coast of Africa. Home to about 5,000 people, it’s a place of bare cinderblock houses under corrugated-metal roofs that bake in the tropical sun. Most people there live on less than $1 a day. But while they are poor, Koomson is quick to emphasize they are not desperate. “These kids are happy,” he says. “They don’t have much. But because they don’t know what else is possible, they are not sad or bitter.”

Koomson did well in school, earning scholarships that sent him to boarding school in Ghana, then to United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, and then to F&M. After he landed the job teaching at Westtown, he decided he would stay for a year and then return to Ghana to figure out the rest of his career.

But once he started teaching, he found he loved it. “I felt like this is what I should be doing,” he recalls. “I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘HOO-ah! I get to teach today!’”

In 2003 Koomson started dating Melissa Schoerke, a Spanish teacher and coordinator of the volunteer program at Westtown. He told her of his dream for the future: He wanted to start a school in his hometown to give bright but poor students access to high-quality education and the opportunities it affords.

The next year the pair took a leave of absence and traveled to Breman Esiam, where they married. They also launched Heritage Academy Esiam, a school for pre-K through ninth grade. The school was first housed in a pink-plastered church but has since moved to an abandoned palm-oil factory. Enrollment started with 32 students, but has since exploded to 450.

Students in rural communities are often underserved by Ghana’s educational system. Many drop out after middle school, either because they have no money or because they fail the national exam required to move on to secondary school.

Heritage Academy is addressing those problems head-on. For starters, all students receive a full scholarship. They are given the instruction they need to do well on the national exam, but they’re also taught to be critical thinkers—unusual in the Ghanaian system, according to Koomson. Special summer programs attract students from other schools to spread the concept of “active learning” and bring in educational experts to expose teachers to new ideas. The school also was the first in the region to institute a strict “no-caning” discipline policy, and the first to field an all-girls soccer team.

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The commitment and innovations are paying off. In 2007, 97 percent of its students passed the national exam. This year it celebrated a perfect score: a 100 percent pass rate.

While they were getting Heritage Academy Esiam up and running, the Koomsons learned that nearby Faith International School—a barebones operation for 85 kids in a single room with a leaky roof and no tables—was about to go bankrupt and close. So they bought the school, constructed temporary classrooms from bamboo and renamed it Heritage Academy Ochiso. Today, 300 students are enrolled in pre-K through seventh grade.

Adding Energy

Kwesi and Melissa Koomson funded the Heritage Academy schools with their own money. In 2006 Melissa created The Schoerke Foundation to offer scholarships to students at Heritage Academy and elsewhere in Ghana based on merit and financial need. Melissa is executive director of the foundation, which hopes to offer grants to American students to allow them to participate in a three-week summer program at Heritage Academy.

In September 2007, the foundation awarded scholarships to the four highest scorers on the national exam to allow them to attend Breman Asikuma Secondary, Koomson’s alma mater. Currently the foundation is working to raise $16,000 to purchase a new bus for Heritage Academy. Students at the academy come from 15 surrounding villages, and a school bus is their only means of transportation. In June the Academy’s aging bus—which had tallied hundreds of thousands of miles—suffered a sudden steering failure that left one teacher with a bad foot injury but thankfully resulted in no serious injuries to students. The old bus is beyond repair, leaving the academy in desperate need of a new one.

In addition to giving his time and energy to Ghana, Koomson brings Ghana back with him to Westtown. Students at Westtown know a lot about the students, schools and life in Ghana, and they do their part to support them. Westtown third-graders hold a book drive every year and have collected more than 5,000 books that are shared by the two Heritage Academy schools. Middle-school students organize bake sales to raise money for scholarships, and eighth-graders are pen pals with Ghanaian students.

Last year Emmanuel Arthur, who graduated from Heritage Academy’s first class, began attending Westtown thanks to financial aid from the school and the support of an anonymous donor. Koomson returns to Ghana twice a year—including a trip every March, when he is accompanied by a group of Westtown seniors doing service-oriented projects. The students teach at Heritage Academy and help with projects such as renovating the school library and making cinderblocks for a new classroom building. Koomson has been supported in his work by two F&M graduates and fellow Ghana natives. Edward Mensah ‘96 served on the Schoerke Foundation board of directors, and Richard Mills-Robertson, ‘97 handled the foundation’s registration and tax-exempt application pro bono with colleagues from his New York law firm, McDermott Will & Emery.

Another F&M alum, Ben Burghart ‘07, met Kwesi and Melissa when he was a student at Westtown, where Kwesi was his math teacher. Burghart spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years of college teaching at Heritage Academy.For Koomson, life remains happily divided between the United States and Ghana. “I have two favorite places in the world,” he says: “Westtown and Heritage Academy. I can’t imagine doing anything else right now.

“I feel very blessed,” he continues. “I grew up in this small village, got a scholarship to secondary school and then to UWC and again to F&M. Many of the people I went to school with are still living in Esiam, struggling to make a living. Heritage Academy is my way of paying back, of making education possible for someone else in the same way that UWC and F&M did for me.”

But, he is quick to add: “It’s not like I’m this one person who goes out there and does this great thing. It’s more like I had an idea and I wanted to do something very small, and then all these great people kept coming and adding their energy and making it bigger.”

Reporting by Pamela Babcock. Photos courtesy of the Schoerke Foundation.
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