The transition from the survival of a community school to its status today as one of the best international schools in Africa needs to be told and preserved. The story of the American International School of Lagos reflects the developing maturity of the international school system around the world, as well as the birth and growth of the Nigerian state. It is a story of solidifying friendships and increasing self-confidence.
- The Beginning
- 1963 - 1966
- The Civil War
- End of the War
- Timely Intervention
- Moving Forward
- High Ambitions
After WWII, as the boarders of nation-states solidified, the movement of people across those boarders increased. More diplomatic offices opened around the world, multinational corporations spread their operations to new territories, and NGOs and religious missions flourished. Employees took their families along and the numbers of people living in a country other than their birthplace quickly grew. In 1960, Nigeria declared its independence. In the capital, Lagos, foreign missions grew as diplomatic ties developed. Up until that time, expatriate children in Lagos attended schools offering British curriculum. The US Department of State recognized the need to support the children of American employees abroad to facilitate their re-entry into the US system upon their return. Though the government sponsored some schools overseas, particularly where large missions existed, the main thrust for the opening of new schools often came from parents themselves. That is what happened in Lagos.
In 1963, Foreign Service families got together to devise plans for a school that would provide American curriculum based education to their children. The following year the doors of the American School of Lagos opened for the first time. That same year, 1964, the US Department of State established the Office of Overseas Schools with a mission to “promote quality educational opportunities at the elementary and secondary level for dependents of American citizens abroad.” One project supporting schools overseas was a study to explore a way for US public school districts to support some of these small schools. 32 school districts and 32 schools overseas were selected for the ensuing project. Each district was presented with five overseas schools in wide ranging foreign countries and at various levels of development from which they could choose. The primary purpose of these partnerships was to make the materials and human resources of the US school district available to the overseas school. In turn, the school district would gain an international connection and experience for its own program.
One of these districts was Tacoma in the State of Washington. Dan Barkley, former AIS superintendent and 20 year administrative liaison for the school describes the selection process:
Tacoma was going through desegregation and was designing programs that would improve the opportunities for minority children, particularly African-Americans. At the same time, there was a need in the social studies curriculum to overcome stereotypes about Africa. Nigeria was seen as a leading African country coming out of colonialism as an independent nation. Our district superintendent at the time was a visionary. He saw a school that was struggling even to survive and said, “We want to go there.”
And so it was that the American School in Lagos became a full-fledged privately funded, Department of State supported school that fell under the educational and administrative oversight of the Tacoma school district. That first year, administrators from the district visited AISL for the first time to assess its requirements. The following year, five teachers from Tacoma taught at the school. From 1966 onwards, Tacoma administrators and 25 plus teachers staffed AISL yearly. Its independent Board of Directors benefited from the support of the Tacoma district’s resources and experience including books, curriculum support, and advice on all aspects of running a school.
In May 1967, the Nigerian Civil War broke out. The school hunkered down in their location on Lagos Island. From the first year of operations, the US Embassy had secured space for the school on Bonny Camp, a military base that was close by at the time. The school building was simple: four adjoining non-air conditioned cinder block buildings. During the Biafran War, the camp was shelled a few times though no bombs went off and the school was never hit. It was a major concern for parents but classes from the 1st to the 9th grade went on as usual. The school’s yearbook of 1968 shows pictures of football, basketball, baseball, and volleyball teams; there was a squad of cheerleaders, Ping-Pong and badminton competitions as well as a Red Cross club, a drama club, debating society, a choir and orchestra.
January 1970 saw the end of Nigeria’s civil war. It is the year the school got air conditioning for the first time, and the year the school celebrated the 10th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence. The yearbook was called ‘The Ambassador’ to highlight the school’s promotion of goodwill and lasting friendship between nationalities. The development of American schools overseas had never been just about educating children. The mission of the Office of Overseas schools states that “Our efforts are to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by upgrading educational institutions which serve to demonstrate American educational principles and methods.”
Tacoma district administrators developed a pre-service training program for teachers in which they designed realistic scenarios of life in Nigeria. They were looking for people who showed resilience, flexibility, humor, and goodwill: they were looking for people who would not just survive, but thrive. In this sense, AISL was part of a diplomatic mission: the way that Tacoma people behaved needed to demonstrate an appreciation of culture and generosity, traits that should inform how people taught when they returned to Tacoma.
On February 13, 1976, General Murtala Muhammed was assassinated in a military coup and Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo was installed as military ruler. From the 15th of January to the 12th of February 1977 Nigeria hosted FESTAC (the second World Black African Festival of Arts and Culture). The school was required to remain closed during that period. And still, 31 kids graduated from Grade 9 at the end of the 1976–77 school year. Then, in the spring of 1977, the school was given a 30-day eviction notice:
“The Federal Military government has requested that the school vacate these buildings and relocate on another, as yet undetermined, site. Although the future is uncertain, it is difficult to imagine Lagos without the American School, and we are confident we can continue to serve the AIS community.”
~Superintendent Dick Hopkins
After 12 years in Bonny Camp, they needed to find a new location. The school faced a budget squeeze as enrollment dropped because of national political insecurity and the pending eviction.That’s when the magic of AIS happened. There was an emergency meeting of the school board. Mobil Oil Nigeria lent the school a six-apartment unit at 43 Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi as a temporary location. During the summer of 1977, the school’s administrators, teachers, and local staff spent hectic weeks transforming the living space into a school for 300 kids. In late August of 1977, the school opened its doors and resumed almost as normal. It was a period of adjustment and creative problem solving to enable the kids to get the education they needed. The library was in a bathroom; music, PE and electives were cancelled but many extra curricular activities were provided after school in the front and back lawns of parents’ homes.
For the next three years, the school made due in their temporary location while they looked to secure a permanent site. A former superintendent reminded the school that the Nigerian government had signed an agreement stating that it would help the school relocate should the government ever require AISL to leave the Bonny Camp site. That original document from around 1967 was found and used, along with the support of the US Ambassador to Nigeria and the Ambassador to the United Nations, to help negotiate a lease for a permanent site. The Superintendent at the time, Dan Barkley, describes the effort made:
“We became allies with the Lagos State and Federal Ministry of Education. With a grant from the Office of Overseas Schools, we sent the Lagos State Commissioner of Education and the Federal Permanent Secretary of Education for a two-week visit to Tacoma. With much lobbying, and President Jimmy Carter’s historic visit to Lagos in 1978, we were able to secure a prime piece of land on Victoria Island, at the location where the school currently is, behind the 1004 residential complex.”
They used the lease on 6 apartments in Victoria Island where teachers were housed as collateral for the bank loan to construct the school. Nigeria’s political situation was stabilizing. In August of 1978 elections were held and Shehu Shagari was elected as president of the country’s second republic. That school year was special: in the 19th year of Nigeria’s independence, Nigerian Cultural Day was celebrated under that name for the first time underling the importance of the host country’s culture and contribution to the school community.
Also that year, AISL welcomed Muhammad Ali, who visited during his tour of West Africa. It was also the year that the students were treated to a visit of the USS Dewey, an American destroyer during its layover in Lagos harbor.
In August 1980, one year into the country’s return to democracy, AISL opened its doors as a custom built school making the shift from a small community school to a full-fledged educational institution. It began as a two-story building, designed so that expansion was possible. It was built for 450 students, with science and photo labs and air-conditioned classrooms. But the school’s ambitions did not end there. The Tacoma district administrators established a 501C3 non-profit association registered in Delaware. They approached American corporations whose employees had children at AISL about making contributions to the foundation. The support from US companies contributed over 3 million dollars. Those funds built the auditorium and swimming pool complex, and used to support Nigerian staff to visit Tacoma. Also on a foundation-supported grant, Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, worked with high school students in Tacoma district. In 1990, Bruce Onobrakpeya did an artist in residence stint at a Tacoma high school. He held an exhibition of his work that attracted people from across the northwest of the United States.
These exchanges were seen as part of the benefits to the Tacoma district of the relationship with AISL. They permitted the school district to benefit from the culture of Nigeria. It was also expected that the teachers and administrators who worked in Nigeria would return with rich experiences, new found energy and creative approaches to teaching that would benefit children in Tacoma schools. One teacher went on to create a program for inner city kids.“There is no way you can experience working in an environment like Lagos, with children from over 40 countries and all of the different cultural traditions and heritage that represents, and still be the same,” according to Dan Barkley. The partnership was beneficial to both parties. For example, nine Nigerian staff members came to Tacoma to teach or pursue graduate work. Maintenance staff, electricians, carpenters all came to spend time to work side by side with Tacoma staff for further training. They enriched the Tacoma community and went back to make a contribution to the school.
During the 1980’s the school gradually grew, opening two streams of classes from kindergarten through grade 6. They acquired land and built the tennis court and later completed the gymnasium/ auditorium and the swimming pool complex.
For Nigeria, the 1990s were a period of rapid change marked on the one hand by political turmoil and on the other by rapid economic development. In 1991 the capital moved to Abuja but this had little effect on the enrollment at the school. On the contrary; there was a surge in foreign private interest in Lagos. As the school’s population diversified, expectations of the school expanded. Oil companies, Nigerians and other parents felt that if they were to invest in developing the high school, they wanted it to be an excellent school, not just a good public school. During the 1990-91 school year, the school began its first accreditation process with Middle States Association. Accreditation is an important step for AISL in moving from a community school linked to one school district in the US to being a fully-fledged independent international school. Accreditation gives legitimacy to the transcript it gives its students, allowing other schools and universities/ colleges to recognize the value of the teaching done at the school. An accreditation organization looks at all aspects of a school, from its teacher certification, enrollment, curriculum etc., to make sure they meet the standards of the organization; they also verify that a school is actually meeting the goals it sets itself in its mission and vision statements.
In 2000, the Office for Overseas School formally recognized the school-to-school partnership as the longest standing and most successful relationship in the world. What Tacoma had been able to do for AISL was to provide continuity through change: by the year 2000 there had been over 150 board members and the average tenure was 20 months from 1965. And they ensured growth. From 1965 to 2000, over 200 teachers from Tacoma were recruited and 19 superintendents served there. Tacoma supplied teachers for hard-to-fill positions when someone suddenly left or needed to be replaced.
Despite the success of past arrangements, times were changing. In Tacoma, the district had been put on a watch list under the No Child Left Behind program for low performance. It became increasingly difficult for the schools to let good teachers go off to Nigeria, some of whom never came back, preferring to join the ranks of internationally mobile educators. To respond to the needs of oil industry families, the school expanded its link to the Klein Public School region in Texas in the 1999 - 2000 school year. It was decided that Superintendents would be hired on three-year terms (rather than year by year). But the pool of teachers from the Tacoma and Klein Public School regions were too small for AISL.
The 1996 - 1997 school year was the first time the school board set the goal to become a 'world class school', and in 1999 Superintendent John Blix wrote that AISL '....is a school where the possibilities to achieve excellence are only limited by our imaginations.' In other words, AISL had grown into a truly international school rather than an American school that required teachers and administrators who understood the needs and demands of an increasingly sophisticated and demanding clientele. Stability and democracy in Nigerian meant bigger expatriate population and a larger number of internationally competitive Nigerian families looking for a world-class education for their children. So by the mid-2000s, the school wanted to offer the "gold standard" in international education, the International Baccalaureate. The application for accreditation by the IB diploma program was begun 2006.
- In the 2007 - 08 school year, the school opened the first 10th grade class.
- In 2008 - 09 the first 11th grade class was added.
- 2009 - 10 AISL proudly celebrated their first graduating class. 9 students graduated from from grade 12, 8 with a US high school diploma and one with AISL's very first IB diploma.
In 2010 the school also introduced the first US college tour, and also implemented for the first time a 2nd foreign languages in grades 3 - 5. In the past decade, AISL has become a leading school in the Association of International Schools of Africa (AISA) and a strong participant in sports competitions with WAISAL (West African International School Athletic League). WAISAL grew out of meetings of the PE teachers 'job-alike sessions' of the West African chapter of AISA. The first inter-regional soccer competition was held in Ghana with the 9th grade team. Since then WAISAL has expanded to include many sports including swimming, volleyball, and basketball.
2011 was the first year that AISL hired teachers on the international circuit. In order to support international schools around the world, hiring fairs have sprung up in North America and Europe. There are now highly trained professional teachers who make their careers in the international school circuit. They bring with them experience of different regions and an understanding of globally mobile student populations.
Like most international schools today, AISL is a private school that offers both the American and IB diplomas. The school is accredited by the Middle States Association, the Council of International Schools and the International Baccalaureate Organization. Schools typically keep tabs on their competitiveness compared to other international and American schools by participating yearly in a round of standardized testing called Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). These tests, given in the Fall and Spring of each school year, permit the school to:
- review the progress of each child individually and determine where they need extra assistance, and
- compare the school's result to the 7000 schools in the US and around the world that also administer these tests.
AISL has, since it started with the tests in 2010, found that its students rank in the top 10% worldwide.
Over the years, AISL has strengthened its link to its host country. Nigerian students (between 10-30% of the population) provide a major influence within the community that has always been greatly valued. The students of AISL expanded the schools charity work through the CAS system as well as the House system, both of which are programs that develop student participation, sense of civic duty, and pride in their school. The house houses are: