SK: I was born in New York and went to Germany at the age of 12. I went to the US for university studies but Germany became home and upon graduating from university, I went back there and taught English as a second language as well as basic skills in high school courses. I studied international studies and Africa was my concentration. Adapting to Senegal and understanding the realities was not that difficult.
I moved to Senegal and started teaching English as a second language and began to do research on the process of learning a second language . About five years into teaching at the university and at the American Cultural Centre, I got the idea to start an English language programme at the neighbourhood school my children were attending. And that grew into a summer camp, and that summer camp grew into a pre-school.
“We have students representing over 35 different nationalities”
We opened our doors in 1993 with nine three-and-four-year-olds. The school now has 1,000 students. We offer both the Senegalese national baccalaureate, as well as the American high school diploma programme. It’s a bilingual programme, so students are learning either English or French, but they come out fluent in both languages.
It is located in Dakar, the capital. Senegal has about 14 million people, and about two million live in Dakar. It’s right on the coast.
The PIE: Where do your students come from?
SK: We have students representing over 35 different nationalities – 35% of them are American passport holders, many of them grew up in the US, and they have come back to Senegal to do middle school and high school. Some of them are of parents who just went to the United States, had their children there and want them to be in an American programme but in Senegal. Around 40-50% have not had an international experience but want to be bilingual before finishing secondary school.
The PIE: Where do your students go when they graduate?
SK: The majority of them actually go abroad to study. Most of them to the United States, but a large group of them go to Canada, and to the Middle East. We have four students who will be going to the Rochester Institute of Technology, we have students at the American University of Sharjah and during the past four years, we have had over 20 of our students studying in China.
Our graduating class is not that big; we have about 75-100 students a year. Coming out of our Senegalese programme with the baccalaureate, it gives them access to European universities, so France is also a destination; we also have students going to Germany.
“Our school became very popular and now we have probably over 20 bilingual schools in the city, so it actually set a trend”
The PIE: Why did you decide to set up your school?
SK: A traditional Senegalese school really puts more emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic. I wanted to bring an arts programme to the local school. I proposed it to the school administration, it was basically a volunteer programme. It was so popular, they asked me to do a curriculum, and it was the first primary school to teach English as a second language in Senegal. It was an experiment actually to see how early pre-school aged children would acquire English.
The local language is Wolof and many of the children come from homes that are not Wolof-speaking but another African language, so they have their maternal language and then they have Wolof which is the lingua franca in the city, and then they may even have French. They hear French on television or their parents speaking French, and then English was in fact a third or fourth language for many of them.
Our school became very popular and now we have probably over 20 bilingual schools in the city, so it actually set a trend.
The PIE: What is the student life like in Senegal?
SK: Our school definitely offers an alternative to the typical student life. In Senegal, on the primary and the high school level, there’s a lot of rote-learning going on because students are taught to pass an exam. If you can imagine the type of pressure when you think of only five out of 100 students finish with the end of school completion. In sixth grade, there’s a national exam, and this gives them a place in public high school, which only 30% pass, and then only 30% of them will actually pass the exam in to 10th grade. And then even less will actually come out with their baccalaureate. So it’s almost a process of elimination.
There’s a lot of stress, there’s no emphasis on the arts, and students always have to pass that hurdle of the next exam. However, my school offers an alternative to that because students prepare the American high school diploma, which is kind of different where students pass exams per subject, every semester and kind of acquire credits, but it also allows them to explore different types of learning and clubs.
We have a lot of co-curricular activities we’re really strong on, environmental projects, and service learning.
The PIE: Are there a lot of international students in Senegal?
“Senegal has a really vibrant art community, it’s become a haven for a lot of people”
SK: There are a lot because Senegal is a very nice country to live in – even climate wise for Africa. It’s very stable, and it’s a hub for international organisations so you have a large cosmopolitan population. It’s got a vibrant art community; it’s become a haven for a lot of people.
There are lots of private schools and many private universities, and because of the stability on the higher education level, students come from all over West Africa and surprisingly large numbers from Djibouti and even Madagascar, because they’re French speaking countries too.
The PIE: What about Senegalese students going abroad?
SK: For economic reasons many of them have to stay in the country, but there is a large middle class that can afford to send their children outside, and they usually don’t have a big problem getting visas. Canada and the US are big destinations, and of course France. France is becoming a bit more difficult, but there are quite a few that go out.
The PIE: What motivates you to do what you do?
SK: Years and years ago, when it was even just a pre-school, our vision was to shape the world leaders of tomorrow. And it’s become our mission actually – I’m very passionate about it. I never get tired, I actually love what I’m doing and because I have seen how our students have blossomed into real leaders we get very positive feedback from their university experience.
“Students can’t wait to come back to Senegal to share with their former classmates. That brings me a lot of joy because they will be in the leadership of the country”
They can’t wait to come back to Senegal to share with their former classmates. That brings me a lot of joy because they will be in the leadership of the country, I know. They’re doing great things and they will create the jobs that don’t exist, I’m fully confident.
The PIE: What are some of your alumni doing?
SK: One of the things I’m most proud of is the number of students who go on to major in environmental science, environmental engineering, and sustainable development. And they go onto postgraduate work. Many of them are still in their studies, but they are in internships and doing really great things around the world. As we speak, I know of some doing internships in South Africa, Florida, and Canada.
The PIE: Are you planning on expanding your school further?
SK: I like the numbers we have now. In fact our school is unique in that it is 1,000 students, but they are on seven different sites in the same neighbourhood. What that means is that no given site has any more than 150 students. So it’s a real small ratio between the administration and the students, so the administration gets to really know the students and there’s a great trust between them. We eventually will come together but the idea is that we build in small communities on the campus because we know that works.
The PIE: How do you see the educational landscape in Senegal changing in the near future?
“Back in Senegal, there’s everything to do because so little has been done and the playing field is changing with technology”
SK: In the next few years, first of all Senegal will probably continue to have a large influx of students coming there to study. I also predict that many of the students who did study abroad will be coming home simply because of all the opportunities to create. In the West, things are expensive and pretty much markets are saturated. It’s probably less familiar territory for them in terms of starting or creating businesses.
Back in Senegal, there’s everything to do because so little has been done and the playing field is changing with technology. So it’s interesting to see how it will play itself out but many students feel like the opportunities are back home in Senegal and they can still be connected with the rest of the world. And there’s a lot more mobility there so it’s not like they come back to Senegal and they’re stuck. I think even in terms of the West and Asia, people can see that Africa as a whole is going to be a growing market.