The School of St Jude, Gemma Sisia

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Gemma Sisia is well known locally … having experienced a high quality private education herself, a trip to East Africa opened her eyes to the possibilities of providing a similar education experience for students who wouldn’t normally have access to one. 
Seventeen years later, the School of St Jude in Tanzania is a true success story … Gemma recently visited her old stomping ground at NEGS in Armidale, to share what’s happening in Africa.

Hi Gemma. It’s been quite a while since we last chatted with you at FOCUS! To refresh our memories, could you please give us a brief rundown on how/why you founded The School of St Jude in Arusha, Tanzania?

When I was growing up in NSW, I was very blessed to have had a high-quality education. Mum and Dad did everything they could for my brothers and I to go to a good private school. I was very aware of how much my parents did for us kids with regard to our education. I once made a joke that my mum would only buy a new dress every ten years, because school fees were more of a priority. 

Years later, with that high-quality education under my belt and a university degree in teaching, I found myself volunteering in East Africa at a sister school to Rose Bay in Sydney, Stuart Home in Brisbane and Sacre Ceaux in Melbourne. It was a very nice, private school for those in the upper echelons of society to send their daughters to. As I travelled around East Africa, it got me thinking – I was young and very naïve – that it would be a good idea to build a private school in the region that was free of charge, so parents didn’t have to struggle, like my parents did, to afford fees or, like others, be excluded altogether from a high-quality education. 

So, I came back to Australia and told my family that I was going to build a private school in Africa that would provide a free, high-quality education to those who could never afford it. 

You can imagine how that went down!

I wish I’d done a business plan – but I didn’t! And then something really motivating happened: one of my great friends, Agnes Hanna from Armidale, gave me my first donation. It was $10. 

I opened a bank account with that $10 and started fundraising for the school. People around Armidale at the parish schools, like NEGS, O’Connor and TAS, all got behind me and raised money for my free, private school. The local Rotarians got on board; they put ads on TV and even did a door-knocking session. 

By this point we’d raised enough money to start building. A group of people from around Armidale, led by David Stellar, came across to Tanzania and built the first classrooms and not long after that, in 2002, we opened The School of St Jude! We had just three students, which was all we could afford.

It’s been around 17 years since The School of St Jude was founded. What have been some of the major changes you’ve witnessed?

St Jude’s has grown much bigger than I ever thought it would. From just three students, we now have over 1,800 students in school and hundreds more in our Beyond St Jude’s program being supported in a year of community service and into higher education.

The increase in size has meant we’ve had to expand and now have three campuses, our original site with the primary school, a nearby site for primary boarders, and a third with a secondary school that has boarding on site too. Because of the scale, I’d say that today we‘ve had to establish really stringent systems and rigorous procedures that ensure we can maintain operations and continue growing and improving.

Over the years we’ve worked really hard to make sure we are a model of good governance. Much of this is thanks to our boards – we have four of them: one in overseeing our Australian charity arm, one overseeing the primary school, one overseeing the secondary school and one over-arching Tanzanian board – are extremely knowledgeable and engaged. 

Another big change would be the extent to which we’ve localised the workforce. In those early years we had a lot of Australian teachers in the classrooms and working as teacher mentors, but I knew that we needed to focus on becoming sustainable, and having local teachers and leaders was really important. Now, all our teachers are Tanzanian, as well as our headmasters and leadership teams.

We’ve now also established the Beyond St Jude’s program for our graduates, where we support them to carry out community service, often teaching in under-staffed local government schools and then on into higher education. This year, in 2019, we will see our first Beyond St Jude’s supported alumni graduate from university! 

After that, the next big milestone will be the opening of an all-girls’ school and seeing our first graduates in employment. It’s never not exciting at St Jude’s, trust me.

What’s daily life like for the average family in Tanzania these days?

Most of our students’ families live on less than AU$2.7 a day. They likely live in one or two-roomed houses, in shared compounds with a shared toilet and washing facilities. They would rarely have access to running water in their home. Our families rely on public transport, and our students rely on our school bus service to get them to and from school. Having three meals a day would be a luxury for them.

But this is the amazing thing about the school; this is the typical living environment for our students’ families when they start at the school, whether that’s in Standard 1, Form 1 or Form 5. But as they progress here, sharing some of the English they’re learning with the rest of the family, not having to find school fees, uniform costs or money for books or meals, our families’ circumstances improve each year. Often they’re able to move house to somewhere with solar or mains electricity, and move to somewhere a bit bigger, maybe with glass windows. They’ve been able to gradually improve their circumstances little by little, because their child is at St Jude’s.

The school teaches both primary and secondary students. How many students and staff do you currently cater for?

The numbers fluctuate a bit, because the academic year doesn’t start and end at the same time across all of the different stages of schooling. But right now, we have a few short of 700 in primary school and 1,000 in secondary school, with 1,400 of these in boarding too. We’ve got 49 Form 6 graduates currently volunteering in government secondary schools teaching over 10,000 local kids core subjects, and over 250 graduates studying at universities or colleges. And, we have nearly 300 staff. This includes everyone from the cooks, gardeners, cleaners, teachers, boarding staff, and everyone working in the “business” office who keep the organisation ticking over.

What’s a success story or two you can share about students/staff at the school that’s unfolded in recent times?

Wow, it’s pretty hard to pick just one or two, but some of the kids we started the school with will be graduating at the end of the year from university, and that’s pretty special. Judica was a girl who was here right at the start, from a really poor family, the youngest of nine children, and she’s about to graduate from The University of Dar es Salaam with a Bachelor of Commerce in Banking and Financial Services. That’s the kind of story all of our students will have. 

But, we’ve also had some incredible successes in the last couple of years. Samson, for example, who was the highest achieving boy in the whole country in the recent Form 2 National Exams! 

Some of our students have won international science and innovation awards and had the opportunity to travel to other countries to present there. But also, away from just academics, we have a girl who has fairly severe Cerebral Palsy and never thought she’d be able to live in boarding alongside her peers, but this is her second year in the secondary boarding now, and she’s performing really well in her studies and achieved the top division in the recent national exams. 

How does the school raise the funds it needs to operate … and is there any way FOCUS readers can assist with this?

Ninety per cent of our funding comes from Australia, and we have to raise US$5.2million for our budget for next year. All of that is just made up of thousands of donations from humble Australians, you know, $5, $10, $50, $100 or more. The best thing that someone can do is just by doing something. You can spread the word through social media, share our newsletters, share our stories, if you’re able maybe when I come back to Australia next year on my fundraising tour you’d be willing to organise an event for me to come and speak at your church, your club, your business, in your neighbourhood. If you’re in a position to help financially, you can help by making a donation or sponsoring a student’s academic scholarship.

What are some upcoming projects planned for the school over the next year or so?

Our next big project has been on the cards for a little while, but in Tanzania, like most places, there can be a lot of hoops to jump through. We’re now about two-thirds of the way through getting registration to open a girls’ secondary school with boarding, and we hope this will happen in the next 12 months. The number of primary schools in Tanzania is around 17,000, but there are only 4,500
O Level schools and only 540 A Level schools, so building capacity like this is really important. 

Why girls? Because we want to have educated mums. The ripple effect of having educated mums means that their children will be healthier and much more likely to get an education themselves, and traditionally at the moment the number of girls accessing education decreases the further down the education pathway, and we want to help change that.

You were back in the New England recently, and you called in to visit NEGS. What was the aim of the visit?

I was back in Australia because of the fundraising tour I mentioned earlier. I always make sure I have a few days to go home and see my mum, so I thought if I was in the area, I should drop into NEGS too! It’s a great opportunity for me to spread the word about the school, and I loved it. I loved catching up with teachers whom I worked with, some of my ex-students, one of my students who helped raise money right at the start for the bricks for the first school buildings was there, pregnant now with her third child! The school wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Armidale, and I still feel such overwhelming support, even now, all these years later.

Where can we find out more info? 

Thanks Gemma.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

Photo of Gemma at NEGS (left page) courtesy of Selina Croft.

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