(photo supplied by Harpo Productions Inc.)
This school, located in Midvaal Local Municipality southeast of Johannesburg (Gauteng Province), has generated equal amounts of acclaim and criticism in the blog world. Only time will tell, but no doubt the impact of the school will be immense. Oprah has fully committed to the project -- some are writing about the amount spent per student (over quarter million US dollars) but Oprah is clearly designing the school and shifting her own commitments for the long term. Time will tell - we want to know more about the teachers as well as the curriculum. It is very clear that this is a school for the elite, with only 4% of the applicants accepted in the first year.
In this way, the project presents a striking contast to the Baraka School, profiled in the excellent POV documentary "The Boys of Baraka." The initiative, proposed by the Baltimore Public Schools to the Abell Foundation back in 1996, offered to a select group of struggling Baltimore youth the chance to spend their middle school years at an alternative placement in rural Kenya. The article "Blessings from the Dark Continent: The Baraka School," The Black Perspective Online, offers an account of the back-to-basics approach.
Nestled on 150 acres, Baraka's campus has three horses, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Students wear uniforms and live dorm-style, three to a room, in traditional African round houses with thatched roofs. Solar energy provides the power, and electricity is available only 6 hours a day. Nanyuki, reminiscent of the small towns of America's old west, is closest, approximately 45 minutes away on dirt roads, Nanyuki has a handful of restaurants, one hardware store and two hotels.The Baraka School initiative fell victim to terror threats following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Worried about increased costs and the wellbeing of the youth in Kenya, the Abell Foundation pulled their funding. The documentary follows the lives of students expected to be able to benefit from two years at Baraka, only to learn that they would have to go back to mediocre Baltimore public schools after only one (intense) year in Kenya. For some of the youth, that one year was a great assist and they were able to find a place for themselves in their communities and in higher education. Others became demoralized and at last check-in with the filmmakers were still struggling. Students viewing this film have really felt for the boys and their families. Check out these sample comments from students to an article about the documentary in Baltimore's City Paper.
Adopting the philosophy that a change in outlook and improvements in performance can take place in Baltimore without having to resort to the African sojourn, other philanthropic foundations have invested in new schooling models. Check out KIPP Ujima Village on Greenspring Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. FYI: KIPP Schools, supported Fisher Foundation, have also been getting a good deal of attention from Oprah, Michael J. Petrilli of the Hoover Institution's Education Next Magazine, and from Jay Mathews, the education reporter for the Washington Post.
In the recent spate of stories about the opening Oprah's new African leadership school, we see a hands-on approach that is gratifying (in comparison to the abandonment of the Baraka experiment) but also a little over the top. I believe that Oprah views her project as the entry point for a far more massive intervention into South African, and African society more generally. As Marc Hill notes in his Barbershop Notebooks Blog, Oprah apparently feels a far more profound bond to African youth than to struggling African-Americans in urban Baltimore and Philadelphia who, in response to her question "What do you want or need" will say "an iPod or some sneakers." Oprah Winfrey plans to nest at Henley-on-Klip, building her own house on the property so she can keep a close eye on the school as it develops and evolves with time.
Read on for a few of the myriad accounts and opinions: