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Woman Writing a review of American School Kinshasa DR Congo

The American School of Kinshasa (TASOK),
Democratic Republic of Congo

Dates covered: 20xx – 20xx
Average Score of all Reviews: 5

School Website: http://www.tasok.cd/

Review 6) 20XX – 20XX
Academic integrity of school (10 is top score)
7
Effectiveness of administration
9
Academic and disciplinary support provided
9
Director’s involvement in academics
8
Fair and equitable treatment by board and director
8
School has adequate educational materials on hand
6
Attitude of local community towards foreigners
4
Cost of living in relation to salary (10= most favorable)
2
Satisfaction with housing
8
Community offers a variety of activities
9
Availability and quality of local health care
6
Satisfaction with school health insurance policy
5
Family friendly / child friendly school and community
6
Assistance with visas, shipping and air travel
7
Extra curricular load is reasonable
8
Security / personal safety (10 = very safe in and out of school)
7


Comments:
TASOK is a small school (K-12 enrollment of 240) mostly serving the diplomatic, UN, and NGO community in Kinshasa, though there are significant numbers of students from Congo, India, and other African countries. Campus is fantastic: 40+ acres of green space where kids can roam freely, pockets of forest and bamboo groves, a 1-mile-plus running track around the perimeter, swimming pool, covered basketball court, tennis court, and the nicest soccer pitch in Kinshasa, which the Congolese National Teams sometimes use for practice. The administration at TASOK has gone to great lengths to improve the quality of the school this year. The director, Irene Epp, works hard and expects her staff to work hard as well. She is almost always fair to her teachers, and if one of us has a concern, the door is open and discussion is professional and geared toward finding a solution that suits all parties. The principal, Greg Hughes, is new to the position but has worked hard to bring consistent academic and disciplinary standards to the school, which were lacking in the past.Overall, the school is growing in terms of academic rigor, opportunities available for students, educational resources, and student population. Teachers typically have 5 preps that each meet 3 times weekly plus after school activities. Science labs are spacious and well-equipped for the most part, even if some of the materials are a little old. Internet connectivity continues to plague TASOK as well as most of Kinshasa. The parent community has been very supportive in recent years and raised a record amount of money for school projects this year. Students and teachers have had the opportunity to travel upcountry and to Kenya and South Africa for classes or activities. As long as Congo – specifically Kinshasa – remains calm, TASOK should develop into a solid school. It has tremendous potential.Unfortunately, TASOK’s business office is its biggest shortcoming. Though heavily staffed for a school this size, records are poorly and slowly maintained. Ask for a current balance on your account, and you’ll be told it will take a week to arrange, even with the latest accounting software in place. Current accounts run months behind. Relatively small projects have gone tens of thousands of dollars over budget with little or no explanation, meaning some educational resources had to be foregone in order for the school to stay in the black. The words that come to mind when dealing with the business office are “byzantine” and “pass the buck.” My family waited until February to receive our shipping allowance for our arrival in country the previous August. Teachers leaving in June must wait until December or later to get the final portion of their paycheck that is withheld to cover unsettled bills, often only after repeatedly demanding payment.Kinshasa itself is a mixed bag. It’s a fairly tough place to have young kids, though TASOK’s campus makes up for that deficiency pretty well, and there are a lot of expat families from all over the world who bring their children, so there are plenty of activities for the kids once you’ve met some people. Many of the locals are exceedingly friendly, but also a lot of people who see foreigners as nothing more than potential business opportunities. The live music scene here is great as long as you’re willing to experience a little local culture – I personally love it. There are some good restaurants (the best chicken I’ve ever had was at Mama Kolonels, a local eatery), but the choice is somewhat limited. Nightclubs are everywhere. Groceries are absurdly expensive. My family of 4 spends $300-400 a week on food, not including restaurants. Excursions are limited and expensive. Options include a Bonobo Reserve and hiking at Lac de ma Vallee 25 km away, Zonga Falls (~100 km), Kisantu Botanical Gardens (~130 km), caving at Kimpese (160 km), and camping at Bombo Lumene (140 km). The coast is at least a day’s drive away on horrendous roads. Most expats choose South Africa, Kenya, or Europe to ‘get away’ on breaks.TASOK has been a great place to grow professionally. I have the freedom to teach the way I want, hone my skills, and try some new things. The staff is tight and gets along very well compared to other places I’ve worked. We have a lot of fun together. TASOK is ideal for teachers breaking into the international teaching field or who are ready for some adventure – just don’t expect safaris or big-game viewing.

Review 5) 20XX – 20XX
Academic integrity of school  (10 is top score)
7
Effectiveness of administration
4
Academic and disciplinary support provided
6
Director’s involvement in academics
9
Fair and equitable treatment by board and director
2
School has adequate educational materials on hand
8
Attitude of local community towards foreigners
10
Cost of living in relation to salary (10= most favorable)
7
Satisfaction with housing
10
Community offers a variety of activities
7
Availability and quality of local health care
5
Satisfaction with school health insurance policy
5
Family friendly / child friendly school and community
7
Assistance with visas, shipping and air travel
6
Extra curricular load is reasonable
9
Security / personal safety (10 = very safe in and out of school)
6


Comments:
My husband and I worked at The American School of Kinshasa (TASOK) in DR Congo for two years (2005-2007). We were under contract for X amount of dollars. In June 2007, $2,500 were withheld by TASOK ($1,250 from each of our final paychecks) (see next paragraph). Also, in June of 2007, $1000 ($500.00 for each contract employee) was withheld from our pay for any “unforeseen” expenses, damages, etc. This is the regular practice. After we returned to the U.S. the $1000 was to be returned to us in October 2007. We are now in March 2008 and we have not been refunded any money.Our family traveled to Thailand for the Christmas holiday and the ISS job fair in January 2007. We purchased tickets from a local travel agency in Kinshasa and paid cash, as was always the practice, the norm, and the custom in Kinshasa. We were notified through the business office at TASOK FOUR months after the travel had been completed that the local travel agency said the airline tickets were never paid for.Initially, when this situation arose I immediately talked to the Superintendent of the school who told me verbally, “that this was not a TASOK matter, but between your family and the local travel agency.” We should deal with it on our own, as the local agency is an independent company. After this conversation, I received in writing on June 4, 2007 a letter stating, “that it should be clearly understood by all parties that I (Superintendent) consider this to be a question that does not involve The American School of Kinshasa and that TASOK can not and will not accept financial liability in the matter.”On June 6, 2007 just days before we were to leave for the States, after satisfactorily fulfilling our two year contract, we were then told by the Superintendent that TASOK had taken $1,250.00 from each of our paychecks to pay the local travel agency and TASOK would pay the other half of what the travel agency said is the outstanding balance.Now we are in MARCH 2008 and we expected to receive the $1000.00 for money that TASOK withheld until OCTOBER 2007 in case any outstanding bills or charges came to the school after we returned to the US. We received an e-mail in January, after numerous attempts to contact TASOK, saying, “give Monica and Tambwe a change [sic] to reconcile your account after payment to (the travel agency) and we will send you the balance with a statement showing exactly what we are reimbursing to you.”Today is March 4, 2008 and we have received no funds or explanation.

Mary & Gary Swanson.

Review 4) 20XX – 20XX
Academic integrity of school (10 is top score)
8
Effectiveness of administration
7
Academic and disciplinary support provided
7
Director’s involvement in academics
6
Fair and equitable treatment by board and director
8
School has adequate educational materials on hand
7
Attitude of local community towards foreigners
9
Cost of living in relation to salary (10= most favorable)
5
Satisfaction with housing
9
Community offers a variety of activities
7
Availability and quality of local health care
6
Satisfaction with school health insurance policy
6
Family friendly / child friendly school and community
7
Assistance with visas, shipping and air travel
8
Extra curricular load is reasonable
8
Security / personal safety (10 = very safe in and out of school)
6


Comments:
TASOK is a small school of 200 students on a fantastic 40-acre hilltop campus in Kinshasa. The student body is a good mix of American, Indian,and African students. Families are generally very supportive of school activities. Classes are small, and discipline is rarely an issue with our students. The current administration does a good job of letting teachers teach without micro managing us. However, their communication with staff is lacking – I frequently find out about school activities from students or only at the last moment.Technology is a constant issue here. We have 2 computer labs, but not all classrooms have internet access. There are no computers in individual classrooms, though there are internet-capable PCs in both upper school and lower school libraries. There are some very capable IT people in our community who have managed to do a lot with limited resources, and teachers have identified technology as a priority to the school board.School facilities are very nice for a student body as small as ours. The pool, basketball court, and soccer field are in constant use by both students and families associated with the school. The playground and tennis court are well-loved and frequently used also. There’s a 1.25 mile running/walking trail around campus that ducks through bamboo forest, and some pockets of rainforest remain around the lower campus.Teacher apartments are nicely equipped, have screened porches, and all have either wireless or wired DSL internet. Electricity cuts happen from time to time – as is the case almost everywhere in Africa – and water goes out sometimes as well, but there are arrangements for dealing with that in place on campus. There is a fleet of aging Toyotas and a couple of new Suzukis that teachers can use for a small rental fee (much cheaper than buying a car here).The teaching community here at TASOK is pretty tightly knit, but everyone’s into their own thing. Some people are actively involved in the church community here, others are into more of the development issues facing Congo. There’s a HUGE international presence in Kinshasa – UN, embassy, and NGO staff are prolific here.Kinshasa is one of the more expensive cities in Africa. My family of 4 spends about $225 a week on groceries and food. We can eat dinner at one of the Indian, Chinese, or Middle-Eastern restaurants in town for around $65-70.There were pillages in 1991 and 1993 (14 years ago) but nothing since. Kinshasa and DRC just underwent their first democratic elections in 40 years, and tension levels in town since then have declined noticeably. There is still some lingering street crime and security issues, largely due to remnant poverty associated with the war that ended a few years ago. The local population is incredibly friendly and hospitable if you make the effort to get off campus and meet “regular” folks.

Review 3) 20XX – 20XX
Academic integrity of school (10 is top score)
7
Effectiveness of administration
1
Academic and disciplinary support provided
3
Director’s involvement in academics
1
Fair and equitable treatment by board and director
1
School has adequate educational materials on hand
6
Attitude of local community towards foreigners
5
Cost of living in relation to salary (10= most favorable)
3
Satisfaction with housing
2
Community offers a variety of activities
2
Availability and quality of local health care
2
Satisfaction with school health insurance policy
4
Family friendly / child friendly school and community
4
Assistance with visas, shipping and air travel
1
Extra curricular load is reasonable
5
Security / personal safety (10 = very safe in and out of school)
5


Comments:
There are limited alternatives to TASOK for parents searching for an international school in Kinshasa. In comparison to the other schools and for the average standards of DR Congo, TASOK’s grounds and facilities are by far the most attractive. This makes for an appealing package to parents hoping to ensure a good academic curriculum as well as security in times of crisis. Because the school was meant for a much larger population than the current student body, accommodations on the compound not required for staff are rented to other ex-pats. According to Ms. Fiona Merali (business or finance manager of TASOK), tenant applications are reviewed by “the administration” (meaning her) and vacant accommodations are filled according to the waiting list. Don’t be fooled. She makes the majority of decisions with any financial implications. Is she making the decisions because Mr. Bedford is such a weak administrator OR is Mr .Bedford’s ineffectiveness a result of Ms. Merali’s “take charge” mentality? As parents, we decided to forego any enrollment in TASOK until some of our questions were clarified. This obviously did not happen

In the beginning I believe I did all the “right” things when contacting the school. I made appointments, asked about the curriculum, asked about extra curricular activities, life on the compound and contingency plans in case of emergency. At our first meeting, all seemed quite well. I then pressed for more details in the following meetings (before I signed any tuition cheques) and was told “You are asking too many questions right now”. I have been, on more than one occasion, in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo where evacuation plans are not frivolous but a necessity. TASOK’s arrangements are tenuous at best and parents should be aware of them. Be advised. Attending an American school does NOT guarantee evacuation of students and teachers of other nationalities under the “american umbrella”. The American Embassy is ONLY obligated to assist it’s own citizens. The compound is isolated and easily blocked off by demonstrators.

Being forewarned is being forearmed. According to their website, TASOK’ constitution states that TASOK is governed by the School’s Board of Directors, which is elected by the Parents Association. All parents of students attending TASOK and TASOK faculty are members of the Association — on paper but not in practice. The parents (especially those who live on the compound) do not want to fall victim to vengeful “negligence” from administration (Bert Bedford and/or Fiona Merali). So while many agree that the school is mismanaged, few (if any) are willing to push for implementable reform. The Parent’s Association try but can not make much headway when administration (Bert Bedford or Fiona Merali) do not acknowledge the recurring issues that are brought forward. And why should they? They have had their way for years and look forward to many more without having to deal with any professional reprimands or consequences. There is a student body of less than 200 the majority of who will at most stay 2 years. It seems to me that it’s about thenumbers.Again, there are few alternatives to TASOK and even less if you require an english speaking school. Because the local community is unstable and looks upon the international community as a source of income (by legal or illicit means) a parent would find the large secured compound of TASOK very reassuring. Within the children have more than enough room to ride bikes, go swimming, play soccer etc. The opportunity for the family to live on the compound enables the children to “walk” to school while the parents drive into to the city. If you can put up with bad management in the name of open green space, then this is a place you want to consider. All buildings (such as schools) and houses are enclosed compounds. The other schools in Kinshasa are located in the city itself and thus will be en route of any planned demonstrations but they can then also be better reached in the event of evacuation across the river to Brazzaville or, if the road remains open, directly to the airport. Also keep in mind that some of the schools do not offer all grade levels due to the size of their school. Ask your embassy representative for some guidance. Due to extenuating circumstances, I decided not to bring my children to Kinshasa at all as I could afford the alternative.Demonstrations in the city will likely increase now that the postponement of the elections has been announced and may become more violent. Taking local taxis, alone or with a friend, is risking your personal safety. Internationals are frequently robbed by Congolese police (who are sometimes paid their $20/month salary) of mobile phones, cash on hand and any other items of interest. Do not try and argue or resist – if you do, you may also sustain bodily injuries or be taken to jail on the charge of “Rwandan spy”. The rate of sexually transmitted diseases is very high in Congo. International men are often approached by very attractive Congolese women (prostitutes) or invited to special night clubs offering similar services. Women with handbags are easy targets for purse snatchers. Avoid carrying a large handbag and separate your money. You should never have a large amount of cash visible when opening your bag. Be prepared to be swarmed whenever you exit or enter you car by street children saying “J’ai faim” (I’m hungry”). Tip the parking lot security guard (he will remember you) the usual 100 francs (about 25 cents).

Shopping in Kinshasa is not a pleasure… it is a challenging chore. Groceries are expensive (refer to other reports) as is going to restaurants. That being said, you can find everything in Kinshasa. Haagen Daaz ice cream (500 gr tub) is $10 US. Order the “kossa kossa” (jumbo prawns) often at its average price of $30 per portion is well worth it. Such a serving would cost more than double in New York.You need to speak French in Kinshasa if you want to understand what is going on around you. You can though get by with speaking only English but will have to eventually at least understand the basic french spoken to you (shops, restaurant menus etc) by non-english speakers.

Review 2) 20XX – 20XX
Academic integrity of school (10 is top score)
7
Effectiveness of administration
1
Academic and disciplinary support provided
4
Director’s involvement in academics
1
Fair and equitable treatment by board and director
1
School has adequate educational materials on hand
5
Attitude of local community towards foreigners
9
Cost of living in relation to salary (10= most favorable)
1
Satisfaction with housing
1
Community offers a variety of activities
1
Availability and quality of local health care
8
Satisfaction with school health insurance policy
6
Family friendly / child friendly school and community
5
Assistance with visas, shipping and air travel
1
Extra curricular load is reasonable
5
Security / personal safety (10 = very safe in and out of school)
4


Comments:
The American International School of Kinshasa, commonly known as TASOK, is a wonderful facility built on forty-acres. The school is essentially carved out of the rain forest. Teachers are housed in small, one and two bedroom, duplexes scattered throughout the property. The duplexes are secluded but very small and with out character. A number of missionaries also live on the property and they definitely influence the personality of the area. The school was designed for a 650-student population, but after repeated pillages and evacuations the student body is down to125. There are many vacant rooms on the campus. The present school occupies the center area of the campus and this gives the school a small, warm feeling. During a pillage it is impossible to get to the airport for an evacuation. The school, therefore, has a cellar under the auditorium designed to hide the entire school population. It is stocked with food and water.At the last faculty meeting of the 2003 school year Mr. Bedford, with the support of the president of the board, dissolved the Teacher’s Association and made it against school policy for teachers to meet in groups larger than two without the administrations’ prior approval of the topic to be discussed. Needless to say this led to some heated debate which Mr. Bedford ended by saying, “come see me if you have a problem, and if you’re intimidated by me, bring a friend with you”. Teachers then wanted to know if they should expect to meet with the same dictatorial attitude behind the closed door of his office? Mr. Bedford argued that having a teachers association separate from the administration only led to a division between the two groups. The staff was not satisfied based on past experiences with Mr. Bedford’s “management style” and saw this as yet another move to disempower the teaching staff.Those who eventually found the situation under Mr. Bedford intolerable resigned prior to the completion of their contract. Although they did finish out the year, they were black balled with ISS by Mr. Bedford who has boasted openly that he has ended more than one international teaching career. You don’t want to be next! This year four teachers were told their contracts would not be renewed for 2004. Questioning the administration may have its disadvantages.

In addition to housing the school supplies teachers with a car. The charge is $75 per month plus 10 cents per kilometer. This translates to 18 cents per mile. Considering that gas cost in the neighborhood of $4.00 a gallon the cost of a tank of gas, including the mileage charge, comes to about $70. Then of course you have the $75 monthly charge. The same beat-up old Toyota in the States would cost $600 dollars. Although the school principal, Lauren Fine, does a good job with students and parents, she will, however, support a teacher to his or her face and then turn around and act in a completely contradictory manner. She can be a detriment to your future as an international teacher. She stabbed me in the back, saying one thing and then the exact opposite to the director of a school to which I was applying for a teaching position.

Outside school the city of Kinshasa holds very little of any interest. The roads are in a terrible state of disrepair and traffic is intense. Restaurants are few and very expensive. Eating at a restaurant in the Charles De Gaul airport between connections seems a bargain by comparison. Grocery stores are outrageously priced with a box of Cheerios costing about $10 US and a small container of oatmeal, $6.00. Going grocery shopping is a maddening experience when you find yourself paying $75 for a small bag of groceries that would have cost you $18 in the States. Most items are close to four times the price you would expect to find them for in America and usually an off-brand.There are very few music clubs or entertainment facilities and those that survive are very unappealing. I spent many evenings and weekends sitting in my apartment reading and using the computer, knowing there was no reason to leave the compound as there was no place to go. Monday morning was a welcome relief from the weekend. A cable TV hook up is $500 US. plus $15. per month per channel. Reception is fair to poor. An internet connection at home is $100 a month plus a hefty connection charge. The speed is slow to very slow.The people of Kinshasa are just wonderful. You can’t help wondering how they remain so upbeat and positive amidst such poverty. For me, the Congolese people made my time at the school bearable. The director’s wife is afraid to leave the campus with out an escort and many of the missionaries have a policy of being back in the compound before dark. This attitude tends to permeate the atmosphere of the school. I never had any problems in Kinshasa, day or night, and would on occasion go to the Grand Marche which was avoid like the plague by most staff.The airport at Kinshasa is the world’s worst airport. You cannot get through the red tape and confusion and onto the airplane without hiring a protocol man to do it for you. More than one teacher missed a flight or was bumped off while I was there. The same applies to landing at the airport. Customs will make your life miserable unless you have a protocol man to handle bribes and red tape. Be aware that luggage is moved from the plane to the terminal on carts pulled by employees. It can take hours to get your luggage. The facility has no toilets and no air conditioning. The airport is such a nightmare that faculty often opt to spend holidays on the compound rather than fight the airport.

This was the absolute worst experience of my teaching career. I strongly suggest you not even consider teaching here!

Review 1) 20XX – 20XX
Academic integrity of school (10 is top score)
7
Effectiveness of administration
1
Academic and disciplinary support provided
3
Director’s involvement in academics
1
Fair and equitable treatment by board and director
1
School has adequate educational materials on hand
4
Attitude of local community towards foreigners
8
Cost of living in relation to salary (10= most favorable)
2
Satisfaction with housing
1
Community offers a variety of activities
1
Availability and quality of local health care
6
Satisfaction with school health insurance policy
5
Family friendly / child friendly school and community
5
Assistance with visas, shipping and air travel
2
Extra curricular load is reasonable
9
Security / personal safety (10 = very safe in and out of school)
6


Comments:
Africa and the Congo sounded immensely intriguing to me as I was being interviewed by Mr. Bedford at the recruiting conference. From his descriptions I was ready for tropical paradise. But, upon arriving at the airport reality set in and everything went downhill from there. I soon felt I had been shanghaied by a smooth operator. Nothing was as Mr. Bedford represented it at the conference. I spent months depressed over the fact I had been deceived. To make matters worse the wonderful little “duplex” I was promised turned out to be just about big enough for Barbie, if she left her suitcase outside. The D.R. Congo is literally in tatters and getting less safe since the UN began contemplating a pullout. The streets are in a terrible state of disrepair and strewn with trash. To compound the situation beggars abound; the population is hungry and the military is even hungrier. Late one afternoon the school principal and her boyfriend were robbed at gunpoint on their way back from the small grocery store near the school. The soldiers approached the stopped car took the bags of groceries and left the laptop. Considering that groceries cost quadruple the price in the States it’s a good guess that they were worth more than the laptop. You can’t eat laptop chips and with the population on the brink of starvation whom would you sell a laptop to?T.A.S.O.K is a very beautiful and well-kept campus. Of course just out side the main gate is the rusted carcass of an automobile which young, shabbily clad children frequent as if it were playground equipment. Yes the school itself is a beautiful oasis but, unfortunately, behind the facade is a director that micro manages the teachers to the bone. In my opinion he is out of touch with education and having come out of the construction business focuses on what he knows best, campus maintenance. Still he wants to have his finger in everyone’s business, even if he doesn’t understand what that business is. Ask him about curriculum and he has no idea. Ask him a question about education and there is no reply. Ask him how to resurface the basketball court and he’s ready and able to direct the native crew.Many teachers left this year and some very qualified teachers did not have their contracts renewed. Mr. Bedford is threatened by teachers that question his decisions. He sees himself as the authority and, in many instances, sees questioning as a lack of respect for his authority. In 2002 a couple resigned after being subjected to his “authority”. They both resigned a month before the ISS conference, allowing Mr. Bedford plenty of opportunity to fill their position. The two of them finished out the school year but Mr. Bedford had them black balled at ISS. Be aware that ISS blindly sided with Mr. Bedford. They know which side their bread is buttered on. Do yourself a favor and stay home. Don’t go to T.A.SO.K and subject yourself to Bert Bedford or the Congo. I previously taught at a school where there was very little to do outside of school but, the director was excellent as was the school which also served as a center for the international community. At T.A.S.O.K you have nothing in or out of school.

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