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Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa

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Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa

Oprah at the first graduation of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (graduating class of 2011) in January, 2012

Michelly Rall/Getty Images Entertainment

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) opened in 2007 near Johannesburg, South Africa, to provide leadership and educational opportunities for girls who have been denied those opportunities in South Africa to date. Oprah, a TV talk-show megastar, opened the academy with the belief that every child has the right to an education and with the inspiration of the words of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.: “My young friends, doors are opening to you – doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and fathers – and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open.”

Oprah first developed the idea for the school when she was visiting with South African President Nelson Mandela in 2000. During her visit, Oprah discussed the educational situation and deprivation of children in South Africa. Oprah also comes from a tragic and poor upbringing in Mississippi. She was raped at age 9 and gave birth to a son at age 14, who later died. Her busing to a relatively wealthier school district allowed her talents to shine and gave her the inspiration and education to pursue further education. During her visit with Mandela, she pledged $10 million to open a school for girls who were at the top of their public school classes but who were also among the most disadvantaged in the country and came from houses with an income of less than $950/month. By the time the school opened, she had donated $40 million.

OWLAG’s curriculum follows the senior years program (grades 11 and 12) of the International Baccalaureate (IB), and a middle years program (for grades 8, 9, and 10) is currently in development. The school also is devoted to developing the leadership potential of its students, and part of the curriculum is devoted to cultivating leadership. The curriculum follows a college-prep coursework, including math and advanced math; sciences; arts; and social sciences, including information technology, business, history, and other areas. Language instruction is given in English and and other local languages, including Afrikaans, Sesotho, and Isizulu. Students speak all 11 of the country’s languages and come from all 9 districts in South Africa. Students live in well-appointed dorms on a campus that also features an exercise studio, a swimming pool, a dance studio, and tennis courts.

Unfortunately, though the school has clearly done great work educating girls, it has suffered some scandals, including allegations that a dorm parent molested some of the children. After hearing news about the allegations, Oprah personally jumped on a plane to the school and tried to sort out the situation. Sadly, in South Africa, more than one-third of girls are abused, and Oprah was determined to protect her students. Oprah fired the accused dorm parent, who was later acquitted in a South African court. Later, a dead baby boy was found in the bag of a 17-year-old student. It is clear that many of the students have had difficult childhoods. As reported in Forbes, the study body suffers the loss of one caregiver per week, and the students have developed rituals to mourn the loss of their parents together in a country that is still violent and has a high rate of infection and mortality from AIDS.

Nonetheless, the school has enjoyed triumphs. All 72 students in the first graduating class went to college in a country where only 14% of blacks finish high school. In the second graduation in December 2012, graduating students plan to attend schools in Africa such as the University of Cape Town (UCT), Wits University, the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Rhodes University, University of Pretoria (UP), Stellenbosch University, and the Cape Town University of Technology. In addition, many students apply to and attend American universities, including Spelman, Kenyon, Stanford, and Brown.

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