Westtown School & Heritage Academy: Sister Schools at Heart
Westtown has a very special relationship with Heritage Academy in Ghana, one that continues to grow, providing Westtown students and faculty opportunities for service, global learning, and professional growth.
In 2004, Kwesi Koomson, a former Westtown math teacher, soccer coach and dorm parent, and Melissa Schoerke Koomson, formerly Westtown's Work Program and Service Coordinator, took a year off from their jobs and went to Ghana where Kwesi founded the Heritage Academy in his hometown of Breman Essiam. Upon their return to the United States, Melissa founded the Schoerke Foundation to provide scholarships for children to attend Heritage.
Together the Koomsons shared a vision of running a different kind of school: one that educates girls and boys equally (still somewhat unusual in Ghana), that trains students not only to pass the national exams, but also to think critically, solve problems, and have a strong sense of community values.
Heritage began with 32 students in a little church in Breman Essiam. In 2005, the Koomsons bought and renovated an unused factory building and moved the school to this new site. In 2011, Heritage Academy expanded once again to include a high school. Enrollment has grown to 1150 students.
The school stands out in the region not only because of its high pass rate on the national exams, but also because of its philosophy, which is informed by these seven principles: Knowledge, Integrity, Discipline, Respect, Responsibility, Simplicity and Hard Work. It was the first school in the area to focus on the empowerment of girls as well as the first to institute a no-caning policy. Students are taught to ask ‘why’ and learn critical thinking skills - instead of rote memorization which is common in the Ghanaian educational system.
With such principles at its core, it’s no surprise, then, that Heritage and Westtown have developed such a strong partnership. Heritage has long been a destination for school-sponsored trips. Students spend two weeks teaching (they have to create a course, write lesson plans, and teach them) and helping with service projects such as making bricks for building construction, repairing a roof, or painting.
Students of many ages get to participate in the life of Heritage as well. The third grade holds an annual bake sale and book drive to benefit the school. For example, one year the third grade class raised enough funds to ship a 40-foot container which included over fourteen thousand books and fifty computers. Recently, their bake sales raised enough to provide scholarships to two girls, allowing them to attend Heritage from PK through 12th grade. Westtown 8th grade students have been pen-pals with their Heritage counterparts for the last ten years.
Westtown faculty members are invested in Heritage as well. Third grade teachers Vicki Shelter and Marc Dear have been involved with Heritage since the very beginning and they’ve spear-headed 3rd grade’s book drives and service projects benefitting Heritage Academy. Several faculty have spent summers at Heritage, including teachers Megan Rose, Marion Dear ’83, Deb Wood, and Brian Blackmore. Victoria Jones, Director of Library Services, spent two summers at Heritage and most of her sabbatical cataloging books and organizing the new library.
Alumni get in on the act, too. The Class of ’83 made its 25th reunion gift to Ghanaian Scholarship Fund which has provided scholarships for two Heritage students to attend Westtown.
In April 2014, Kwesi and Melissa were awarded Friends Council on Education’s Leadership Award for Service to Society, presented to them by Dr. Jill Biden, in recognition of their both their work at Heritage and their dedication to providing the Westtown community with opportunities for collaborative learning. "It is safe to say that Kwesi and Melissa Koomson embody the very best in Quaker education, but also the very best in basic humanity," said Dr. Jill Biden in her speech at the Friends Council celebration. "Their work in Ghana speaks for itself: thousands of children given new hope and confidence, regardless of age, background, or disability. They foster cultural exchange between young people in Ghana and the United States, nurturing friendship and a sense of community across oceans and borders," said Dr. Biden.