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How King’s first program has been the gift that keeps on giving

From the earliest days of its inception, King’s Academy aimed to be a school accessible to the most promising students from every corner of Jordan, regardless of their economic situation. To achieve the diverse socio-economic environment that was His Majesty King Abdullah II’s vision, King’s Academy had to ensure that every qualifying student had an equal opportunity to not only enroll at the school but also to flourish.

In his book Memoirs of a Founding Headmaster, King’s first headmaster, Eric Widmer recalled that he was, at first, unsure how to accomplish this ideal — taking into account students would have varying levels of education and English fluency — until his wife Dr. Meera Viswanathan came up with the solution.

“Students who come to us from the more privileged families and from independent schools will also have a good command of the English language, whereas those who are less privileged and come from government schools will not,” said Viswanathan. “Therefore, we must have a summer program. And we must begin this coming summer, a year before King’s opens, so that we may find those students, immerse them in English, and introduce them to boarding school life.”

With that, the Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) at King’s Academy was born. Launched in July 2006, SEP — the only program of its kind in Jordan — reinforces the school’s commitment to education in Jordan and aims to strengthen the educational fabric of the country.

King’s began by collaborating with the Ministry of Education to identify the highest achievers from government, military and UNRWA schools nationwide. In SEP’s first year, 100 students were nominated by the Ministry and invited to apply, with around 51 male and female students eventually being selected.

According to SEP Director Salwa Manaja, each year brings increased interest in gaining a place at SEP and potentially a spot at King’s. “People who hear about the program seek it out,” says Manaja. “Often, parents have no idea what they are going into and initially may be a bit hesitant, especially as it is boarding and co-educational. Sometimes people withdraw, but for those who seek it out, they really want to be at SEP.”     

The annual two-week program runs during the summer holidays for students in grades 6, 7 and 8. For three consecutive summers, until they reach the ninth grade, students attend SEP to develop their skills in English and information technology.

Students are housed in the dorms and volunteer teachers and counselors from Jordan and abroad administer the program. The complete cost of student participation is covered by King’s.  

SEP also serves as an early identification program for students from around the country for possible admission into King’s Academy. SEP graduates are up against a lot of competition however, admits Manaja, as they have to compete against hundreds of other financial aid applicants each year. To date, around 66 SEP graduates have been admitted to King’s.

“SEP is a great equalizer,” said Vera Azar, Director of Communications and Publications at King’s and a member of the founding leadership team. “King’s vision was to be open to kids from all backgrounds, but not all can handle the transition to an English-language school. So, SEP bridges that gap.”

In the summer of 2017, 174 students participated in SEP; bringing the total number of students who have enrolled in SEP since its inception to 519. Now entering its 13th year, the program continues to provide students from around the country with an unbeatable educational experience that helps to propel them forward in life.

Bushra Al Sou’b ’17 is just one such SEP graduate. The Karak native — who is currently studying international political economy at the School of Foreign service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. — says that “SEP was the starting point, without which none of what I am doing now would have been conceivable to me or my family.”

In addition to helping improve her English language skills, an aspect of learning Al Sou’b says is still lacking in Jordanian public schools, SEP helped prepare her for King’s busy academic schedule and to adjust easily to boarding life.

“Dealing with the packed schedule at SEP really prepared me for the busy environment at King’s,” says Al Sou’b. “Likewise, it was relatively easier for me to forge friendships with my neighbors and find a home away from home. SEP offered me many opportunities to improve my English, and live an integrated life. I was also encouraged to read extensively.”

A natural leader, Al Sou’b made the most of her four years at King’s, acting as a proctor and junior counselor, leading the Jordan Model Parliament initiative, and founding Kan Shab Wa Shaab, a community service initiative that connects youth to the elderly in Jordan. She continues to be active at Georgetown, where she is an events coordinator for the Georgetown Arab Society Board and has organized charity galas to raise money for the Syrian American Medical Association. Al Sou’b is also a Centennial Fellow, researching the impact of Syrian refugees on the host community in Jordan, under the mentorship of former Minister of Foreign Affairs HE Nasser Judeh.

Another SEP graduate and current senior, Omar Zaatareh ’18, says that attending SEP helped him to adjust easily to boarding life at King’s, giving him an advantage over his fellow classmates who struggled, especially the first year. Zaatareh, who plans to study engineering and economics at George Washington University this coming fall, also notes that SEP played a huge role in preparing him mentally and academically for King’s, particularly on the language front.

“I did not have any English conversational skills prior to joining SEP, but I gained these skills through the rigorous daily classes as well as the debates about football I had with my teachers in the dorms,” he recalls. “By the time I joined King’s, I felt confident enough with my English that I was able to take Spanish courses instead of extra English.”

Zaatareh achieved much during his time at King’s. He took on leadership roles as a proctor and member of the Honor Committee, volunteered to build an orphanage in India with the Round Square Organization, and participated in leadership summits including Seeds of Peace and Global Citizens Initiative. Most notably, last year Zaatareh was the recipient of three Catalyst Conference awards for his project “The Refugee Crisis: Domes of Hope,” for which he designed efficient alternatives to existing refugee camp tents, as part of his Global Online Academy (GOA) architecture course.

Also a current senior at King’s, Irbid native Balqees Al Shorman ’18 says attending SEP helped her establish goals, and taught her to aim high and work hard.

“Many of the skills I learned at SEP I still have: critical reading, reading

for fun or for class, writing poetry,” says Al Shorman. “All of these things were tools in my box and I needed to learn to wield them. SEP showed me that I needed to work hard for any and everything.”

Al Shorman — who plans to study architecture after graduation — is one of the most active students around campus, taking part in a variety of school activities including acting in and directing the annual Arabic school plays, being a member of the Ecos and Greens Club and King’s Model United Nations, and founding a community service initiative that helps underprivileged children develop their artistic and athletic talents. Last year she volunteered as a counselor for SEP, which allowed her to give back to the program that brought her to King’s and, by sharing her experiences, show students what they are capable of achieving.

Fellow Irbid native Mohammad Al Quraan ’10, who attended the very first SEP program in 2006 before the school had even opened its doors, believes that every King’s student who participated in SEP should go back and volunteer for the program.

“As SEP graduates we’ve experienced it all, so we know what will help other students most,” says Al Quraan, who participated in SEP first as a student, then as a volunteer counselor and finally as a teacher. “The point of King’s is to give back to the community and SEP is the first program at school to do that.”

“It’s important for SEP students to give back to their community too. We’re role models that show them that they aren’t limited to being just SEP students; they can come back as counselors and teachers too.”

“I love coming back,” he adds. “It’s very fulfilling to help kids learn something new, whether it is swimming or helping them realize they are better at communicating in English than they thought they were.”

Al Quraan returned to King’s this year to take on the role of math teacher in the Middle School, and is designing the school’s first engineering class which will be offered in the next academic year. With a Master’s degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech and two years of work as a geotechnical engineer under his belt, he says that having taught at SEP made him realize he wanted to stay involved in education, but to combine it with his love of engineering.

“SEP gave me the knowledge I needed to come up with the idea of developing, and teaching, an engineering class at the high school level,” explains Al Quraan, who pitched the idea to Headmaster John Austin during the school’s annual Boston reunion. “The school was on board with the idea as it happened to be something they were looking for; the timing was good for both of us. I was at a point in my life where I was deciding what I want to do next. Being at King’s encouraged me to be independent and proactive and prepared me to make the right decisions in life.”

“What is important about SEP is that it introduces students from around the country — who have often never been exposed to the type of education or facilities available at King’s — to the fact that there is more to education than just academics,” says Headmaster John Austin. “Some of the most important learning takes place outside the classroom, when students interact with their counselors and teachers during extra-curricular activities. The environment of SEP helps them to unlock their potential; it is rewarding to see how the students gain in confidence, both in their ease in communicating in English and in their interactions with others. After SEP, we often see that students have a new enthusiasm for learning, they become more active at school, and find purpose and direction in life that they may not have had before.”

What today’s SEP students say 

Amira Zaid Samour

6th grade, Giza  

What’s new, to me, is that SEP is all in English, and it’s much more difficult than at my school. I didn’t read much before SEP, but here I am reading a lot of books and learning a lot of new vocabulary. At SEP they expect us to depend on ourselves more; we’re learning to live alone and to not depend on our family to tutor us. Every minute is scheduled here, they make you feel like you don’t have a minute to spare without something to do. I love a lot of things about King’s. When you see this beautiful view in the morning it makes you calm, you never see anything but sand around where I live! 

Ahmad Al Gharabeh

6th grade, Aqaba  

At my school, they give us very basic vocabulary as if we were younger kids. At SEP they give us harder vocabulary, they push us so that we learn beyond our years.

The schedule here is great. It’s nice to get used to being independent, so when you are older you are ready to leave your parents and family and depend on yourself. In Aqaba, all I used to do is play. But now my goals have become bigger. I want to work hard to get a scholarship. Since I’ve been here I’ve started thinking beyond just playing, thinking beyond just a 6th grader’s mentality.

Shayman Imad

8th grade, Maan

The most important thing we learn at SEP is respect. Because you have a mix of people here you learn to not only respect yourself but to respect everyone else and their differences.

Raghad Abu Sarhan

8th grade, Zarqa

We aren’t allowed phones at SEP, which is good because it made us bond and we wouldn’t have made friends like we have if we had our phones on us the whole time. English at my school is mostly in Arabic with a few English words thrown in. Here it’s all in English. It gives you the confidence to use English wherever you go, especially if you want to travel one day.

Ahmad Al Omroom

7th grade, Zarqa

SEP is a great experience. We’re making new friends, we’re getting to know people from different schools and areas. The longer you’re at SEP the better it gets. Here there is a schedule that gives you focus. When you are little, you don’t realize how important some things are. When you get older you have different goals. When I was little I wanted to be a football player, but now I’m thinking of being a pilot. The best thing about SEP is the teachers; they empathize with your feelings, they are always fair and treat you well.