Monday, October 3, 2005

Dr. Carney's Visit

The big excitement for our weekend was meeting with Dr. Joe Carney, the Office of Overseas School representative for Africa.

He’s doing his tour of schools, starting here in Lomé and then Abidjan, followed by other post schools including Nouakchott, N’Djamena, Niamey and others. He checks to see if the schools are meeting educational standards and investigates their usage of yearly grants. He also visits other schools in the area to see the “competition”. Ian spent most of last Friday with Dr. Carney touring the British school, having lunch at a German Restaurant, accompanying him to the teacher’s meeting at AISL and then attending the General Assembly on Friday evening. Saturday morning was the Board Meeting at AISL and dinner at Les Nuits D’Orient across from our house. Monday, Dr. Carney spent the day at AISL observing each class.
Visiting the British School was eye-opening for Ian. He was impressed by just about everything: the campus, the computer lab, the classrooms, the pool. There are really too many differences between the two schools to compare them at all. The big question that pops up then, is why doesn’t the State Department consider the British School a viable option for its American pupils (in other words, why won’t the State Department pay the British School tuition)? One primary reason… accreditation. BSL is not accredited and it has no desire to become so. It has a healthy 160 student population, with fine grounds/buildings/equipment, boarders from a variety of countries with a higher tuition and a BSL club to cover all its costs. It doesn’t need accreditation to flourish so it won’t spend the money to change its status. Technically, AISL is accredited. It earned its status in the 90s, and it’s good for 10 years. But Dr. Carney plainly said that if an accreditation board came today, the school would not pass. The only way the school stays afloat is via the State Department grant, which Dr. Carney issues and Lomé is one of the few schools to receive the maximum allowance of $50,000/year. The grant is supposed to be ear-marked as a supplement, to upgrade the school. In fact, AISL and all American Schools overseas should have a surplus buffer budget of $150-$200K. With this school’s finances as they are, this is not the case. The teachers as of last Friday had yet to receive their first paycheck.
Dr. Carney and I had plenty of opportunity to speak when we took him to dinner on Saturday night and when he visited the school on Monday. Saturday’s dinner was just with our family. As the only Embassy family with students at the school (from our Embassy or any Embassy) we’re in a unique position to ask him direct questions about Lomé and other American or International Schools in the region, both to figure out what we’re going to do here and what we should look for elsewhere in our next post. Right off he suggested heading to English-speaking Africa. We’d like to stay in French-speaking Africa, we told him, and our options became quite limited, but he strongly suggested Dakar, Senegal as the best school in the region, with Nouakchott, N’Djamena and Lomé at the bottom. I can’t remember which school he suggested after Dakar, I need to ask Ian. Update: I asked Ian... Dakar is alone at the top of good schools in West Africa according to Dr. Carney.
At the General Assembly on Friday night, Dr. Carney was blunt about the future of AISL. The American Embassy is moving north along with the Embassy housing. To remain in operation, the school must find land and build a new school in the new area in the next couple years. If the school stays in its current location, no American students will attend, the State Department will withdraw its support and grant money, and the school will fold. It’s all in the hands of the Board, as the Board runs the school.
On Monday, after everyone had spoken with everyone else and Ian and I had talked about our future options for the kids, I told Dr. Carney that the future didn’t look good for our school. He replied not that it didn’t look good but that it would take quite a bit of determination and organization from the Board to make it happen. And then he said he didn’t have high hopes of that happening. So… it doesn’t look good.
I will note: Should the American School close at any point, BSL would be listed as an adequate school for post children and the State Department would pay for enrollment. The school would receive no additional support from the U.S. Government, but there would be no out-of-pocket cost for Embassy families to attend. Currently, AISL is considerably cheaper than BSL, so State would pay only up to the AISL rate and any balance would be up to us.
We spoke about the current state of the school. Both the library and computer lab are sub par and I don’t even know if there’s a science lab. I showed him books I pulled from the high school shelves, early reader books on space from 1965 discussing the future dreams of a space station. History doesn’t change, I know, and while the beginnings of many books are background and still hold true, it’s the “current” information that is lacking. I have moved shelves of books from the middle/high school room to the elementary room because of the reading level. Dr. Carney asked what that left in the high school room. The answer is simple: Not much. The most recent encyclopedia set is dated 1994. American history from the 60s and 70s discuss the nature of the Indian “savages”. President biographies only reach Richard Nixon. How Cameras Work from the 1950s, most recent sports stars Micky Mantel and Nadia Comaneci, country studies from the 70s and 80s. These fill the shelves, but they are not useful books. The only ones still reliable are the biographies and those have been so neglected they are browned, dusty and moldy.
The quickest fix was the magazines. Gone are the TIME and Scientific American from 1992. We donate our magazines and have asked the other Embassy personnel to pass on theirs. The Economist and PCGamer are very popular.
On a more personal note, Dr. Carney asked what we were doing at home to supplement the kids’ education. I told him what is coming in our shipment and my plans for teaching American History, pushing math and literature and how my biggest concern was Katherine’s work. (As an example, Katherine wrote a couple story paragraphs about her allowance last week. Her teacher thought it was good enough, so last night he gave her no homework. Anyone who knows Katherine knows this is NOT the way she works. I opened up an American History text and we started with Chapter 1.) He strongly urged me not to withdraw the kids from school, and I agree. They need the friends and the activities of art and music, P.E. and French. He also urged me to look into the Calvert homeschool materials for supplemental textbooks.
I think that said more about the quality of this school than anything else.
You know, I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch of other stuff, but you get the idea. One word describes our time here so far: Frustrating.
But then, we had a fabulous dinner out on Saturday night, the kids were well-behaved and Dr. Carney even came away with an anecdote. We instruct our kids to call adults by Mr./Ms. Surname, so of course, “Dr. Carney.” For some reason this bugged him and he told Jonathon his name was Joe. So when Jonathon piped up with “Mr. Joe…,” Dr. Carney was tickled.
Dr. Carney is scheduled to retire (again) in the next year or so.

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