Begun in a poultry building five decades ago, today June Hartranft Primary School for Girls is one of the leaders in elementary education in Sierra Leone.
The United Methodist girls’ institution — the only girls primary school in the country providing a boarding facility — has produced many outstanding graduates, some of whom now hold prominent positions in society.
“We are celebrating 50 years of our school from very humble beginnings through many challenges,” said Resident Bishop John K. Yambasu who preached at a thanksgiving service at Trinity United Methodist Church, Moyamba. “Today, the June Hartranft Memorial Primary School stands strong as one of the leading elementary schools in this country. And we are proud because it focuses our attention, not only on the quality of education, but also on educating the girl child. We are thankful to God for that.”
Yambasu recalled the school’s beginnings. When the Ministry of Agriculture closed the poultry operation in 1964, a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Johannes Fergusson, decided to start a school there.
The bishop was one of the first students at Hartranft before it became a girls’ school. He encouraged the current students, “Never give up — no matter how big the challenge. God has placed a sparkle in each one of you. Talk to God; be positive, think positive, act positive and respect people. Face examinations with a positive spirit.”
Sierra Leone’s Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Baindu Dassama, a graduate of the school, traveled from Freetown and spent the night with the girls in the dormitory.
“They showered me with love,” Dassama said. “I wasn’t cold. They covered me with their blankets. One after the other, they came asking me, ‘Do you have children? What are their ages?’”
Dassama advised the girls to take advantage of the educational opportunities promised by Sierra Leone’s new president, Julius Maada Bio. He has instituted a policy to provide free education for all primary and secondary schools starting this September.
“When you work hard,” she said, “the sky will be your limit.”
She said she always studied hard and earned good grades, and assured the girls that they, too, could be successful.
“Always ask questions,” Dassama continued. “Asking is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.” She urged the teachers to be role models, providing care and direction. She reminded graduates to support the school.
June Hartranft Primary School for Girls was ranked first in the district and among the best in the country after the 2014 National Primary School Examinations.
How to help
Donations to the June Hartranft Primary School for Girls can be made through United Methodist Global Ministries' Advance #3021929
The Rev. Jane Lahai, head teacher, attributed the success to discipline, motivation of teachers and effective monitoring by her administration.
“Even the grading system in the school contributes to our success. A child is not promoted if they don’t get the minimum grade point of 60 percent.”
Parents pay moderate boarding fees for the girls, which are supplemented by First United Methodist Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. That congregation also supports a feeding program, which serves lunch daily for all students and staff.
In a community where poverty is rife and few families can afford food for their families, the assurance of at least one meal a day helps the girls focus in class, Lahai said.
“Some children come to school hungry,” she said. “At lunchtime, they are happy because they are sure of a good meal. They eat the food and take some home for their siblings. The parents have trust in our school because those who graduate from our school are doing so well in high school.”
The Rev. Edwin Momoh, Sierra Leone Annual Conference secretary, recalled when the school was vandalized during the civil war in 1995. Lahai fled into the bush with 26 of the girls. They sought refuge at a camp for displaced persons in Freetown. For several years, Lahai ran the school in Freetown, often standing up to armed men to get food for the girls.
“Establishing a high standard of education is no easy feat in itself,” Momoh said. “Maintaining it for half a century is even more challenging. June Hartranft Memorial Primary School is a fine example of the category of outstanding primary schools in Sierra Leone.”
He noted that low literacy rates and poor quality of education are the major drawbacks of the country’s educational system, resulting in low enrollment, high dropout rate of girls at the primary level, low budget allocation for education and political interference.
Keynote speaker Gilbert Bosco Nabay noted that patience, persistence and commitment are key ingredients for success and progress. He encouraged the girls to acquire those virtues to be strong enough to confront challenges in the future.
Carolyn Strain traveled from First United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania for the festivities and to adopt a girl she met at the school in 2012. The child is now in Class Four.
“Before we put her in the school,” Strain said of her future daughter, “she was living with an elderly lady she knew as ‘Grandma.’ She had to fill three barrels with water from the well every day.”
Asked how she would feel about leaving her “Grandma” to attend school, the girl said she was very happy she would not have to work.
“Her other job was washing dishes, but now she had to spend her time with her friends learning English. She spoke no English before she went to the school. And now she is getting an education. And we are also supporting her sister this coming year.”
Strain expressed delight in seeing how her church’s financial assistance was making other differences: old beds replaced, new mattresses bought, mesh put on the windows to protect the girls from mosquitoes, new kitchen, musical instruments and a school bus.
“The work that Jane does is wonderful — reaching out to so many people in need,” Strain said. “I wouldn’t have been here without her; I wouldn’t be here to adopt a child.”
Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone.