When It Takes a School by Jonathan Starr (Henry Holt and Co.) is released on February 7, Abaarso School and its students will have already been featured in The New York Times, BBC World, Bloomberg, CNN Money, The Wall Street Journal, Voice of America and, within another few months, will be featured on a major US television show and in a documentary film. Over 80 of the school’s alums are studying at top universities and secondary schools across the world, having earned over 15 million USD in scholarships. Abaarso’s youngest students are in the best position yet, with dramatically improved learning facilities, dedicated teachers, and a path to success that has been mapped out and refined for them by the students and teachers who have come before.
As you will see from It Takes a School, none of this existed eight years ago when Abaarso began, and few could have imagined it. In 2009, when the school opened its doors, Somaliland was not far removed from a brutal civil war, with poverty endemic and terrorism a spectre. It had been decades since a Somaliland student received a scholarship to study at a US university. In recounting Abaarso’s first six years, It Takes a School, written by Abaarso’s Founder and first Headmaster, Jonathan Starr, assesses the effort necessary to create a high-quality educational institution in a place where nothing of the kind existed. It also serves as a warning that such an effort “will bring out misunderstandings, and opportunists who seek to benefit from th(ose) misunderstandings.” As you will see, ‘misunderstandings’ only begins to describe the trials of the school’s first few years.
What the book really is, though, is a tribute to Abaarso’s early group of students. In a series of vignettes, the school’s origins are told through the stories of its students. Amal sobbed about having to go to Abaarso instead of her first-choice school, while Fadumo went on a hunger strike until her father allowed her to be part of Abaarso’s first class; Mubarik ran away from home so that he could be the first in his family ever to attend school, and eventually ended up at MIT; tiny Fahima smashed rocks to create pathways on campus in order to prove to fellow students that your work can indeed change your community. These and many other students, as well as their teachers, grew in a school culture that demanded effort and character. They were the ones who fought for the school during several years of existential threats. Not long after, these same students proved the school’s value, and their accomplishments brought it recognition.
It Takes a School has history in it that Abaarso, as a school, must not forget. There are also lessons that anyone working in development would be wise to consider, and insight into building a school culture that we, as educators, should pay attention to. But most exciting is the thrill of seeing teenagers grow into fine young men and women, despite incredible odds against their success. Given the frankly unbelievable circumstances in which they played out, the stories of these young students are even easier for us all to appreciate, and even sweeter.
This book review was written by James Linville, the current Headmaster of Abaarso School. Abaarso is a member of the HALI Access Network.