On the grounds of the newly opened Chanel Primary School lies a broken door. It leans unsteadily on a foundation block that used to support a building – the building’s gone now.
But the door is stubborn, latching on, a remnant of sorts, hinting of possible roles where it may have guarded some precious secret or rite in the past.
Perhaps this is the door that kept the first flag hoisted at Mulinu’u in 1962 when Samoa became the first Pacific country to formally break the shackles of colonialism – the flag that was given to Father B.F. Doherty, the founding Rector of Chanel College.
A symbol of the regard in which Chanel was held as Samoa the nation was born. With it the implied responsibility to produce leaders and men on which the Pacific’s first sovereign nation would build a solid foundation and trailblaze a future on its own terms, a beacon other Pacific countries could follow.
And so it was. In its early days, Chanel came to be known as Samoa’s elite boarding school. Its reputation grew beyond Samoa’s shores with enrolment applications received from American Samoa, Tokelau and New Zealand.
The list of former graduates is proof Chanel’s early reputation was merited with some of Samoa, American Samoa, and Tokelau’s leaders having schooled through its doors.
For Samoa, Chanel groomed Archbishop Alapati Mata’eliga, Monsignor Etuale Etuale, Minister of Private Enterprise Lautafi Fio Selafi Purcell, Minister for Finance Sili Epa Tuioti, Tiufea Rudy Meredith to name a few; for American Samoa it produced Taufete’e John Jr. Faumuina, a pioneer student; Vailiuama Steve Leasiolagi, Dr. Jerome Amoa, Iulogologo Joseph Pereira, Vaitoa Hans Langkilde, Oloipola Herman Gebauer, Sepp Steffany amongst many others.
While for Tokelau, it smithed current Commissioner for its Public Service, Casimilo Perez, Aleki Silao former advisor to Archbishop Mataeliga, Sio Perez, Minister of Finance and Health, Mose Pelasio, Minister responsible for Telecommunications and Fisheries to name some.
But alas, when Chanel commemorated its 50th anniversary in 2012, it was no longer the flag bearer of Samoa’s education system. The pride felt on that day in 1962 when Fr. Doherty was handed the Samoan flag and aspirations of a nation was now best symbolised by a broken door without a wall to stand on, nor a room to give it purpose and identity.
But like the legendary bird in Greek mythology, the phoenix, from the ashes of Chanel’s former glory, a small group has rekindled what they believe is Chanel’s rebirth – raising a better and stronger version.
John’s Water Tank
On the grounds of the newly opened Chanel Primary School stands a water tank. It leans sturdily on a foundation block newly built to support its weight – the water tank stands majestic radiating the impression it shall withstand the efforts that sun, wind and rain will throw at it.
The donator of the tank, John Ballinger says it is not the physical tank that’s important, rather, it is what the tank houses that his donation symbolizes. The tank, he admits, may well be gone in the future but the water inside will always remain the essential substance for life.
But then he confessed the truth: “The real story is Aleki cornered me to donate the tank because he found out I had gone to a Catholic school in Australia – even though I was not a Catholic!”
Just a few steps away, hidden by the new administration block, lies the aforementioned broken door.
The Primary School
The symbolic combination of the broken door and John’s water tank captures the concept behind Chanel’s rebirth. Specifically, the small committee of former students believes the Primary School is the critical foundational ingredient to successfully nurture the new Chanel hatchling.
The concept and solution are both simple.
Chanel is no longer one of the competing first choice colleges for Year 9 students. That in itself confirms the quality of entry-level cohorts is low which means the march of low-quality cohorts moving up the college’s levels will continue the expected trend – low academic achievements.
Correspondingly that status propagates the cycle of demise and deterioration of Chanel reputation impacting negatively on all other aspects of the college such as staffing, inter-college competitions, community perception, appeal for donations, sponsorship leverage, employability of graduates, and level of former students’ association involvement.
Stopping the Chanel rot
The answer to stopping the rot: improve the quality of entry-level cohorts to the college.
It was that simple solution that brought a small group of former students together to build a Primary School; and secondly, to staff it with quality teachers who will produce better quality students to feed the college.
They figured if things go according to plan then the negative impacts noted in the previous paragraph will naturally self-correct themselves.
It is now history that the old Maurista buildings, with the permission of Archbishop Alapati Mataeliga, have been transformed into the Chanel Primary School.
Former head boy Aleki Silao may be the glue that holds the committee and nudges/re-establish international networks but the muscle doing the heavy lifting is Tiufea Rudolf Meredith.
A no-nonsense businessman, he didn’t mix words when describing the early committee days and frustration at the lack of progress.
“It got to the stage where I told our committee to stop the talk, talk, talk and start walking. To start building the primary school and commit to the plan to hire qualified teachers. It’s the only way to produce quality students who will carry that quality and feed it through the college, the sure way to rebuild Chanel’s academic reputation and regain our elite standing in Samoa and American Samoa.”
He added: “We gratefully acknowledge the support of his Grace, the Archbishop, for granting us the use of the Maurista School, the land and existing buildings in Moamoa to start the school.”
With support from the committee, Archbishop Mataeliga, Chanel Old Students Association (C.O.S.A.) from various parts of the globe, as well as former teachers like Peace Corps Robert Fallon who donated US$20,000 (T$7,864) to the cause; the project went ahead with the goal of opening a fully fledge primary school by February 2018.
Midway through the second half of 2017, the renovations were well on track, the school buildings and associated infrastructure would be completed in time.
However, the crucial second part of the foundation had yet to be laid – recruitment of quality teachers – now a seemingly impossible task given the new school year was less than six months away.
But as Victor Hugo once said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come”.
So the committee armed its idea with dogged determination and plenty of faith (prayers) because deep down they believed it was only a matter of time before the impossible morphed into the possible.
And as Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi emphasised during his opening address: “What you need to succeed is an A.K.E”. As far as committee members were concerned, they had an over-abundance of A.K.E.
Tepora the Principal
Apart from an overdose of A.K.E, there was another critical part needed to turn the impossible to the possible, and this ingredient entered the recipe one sunny October afternoon when Tepora Tu’i was relaxing on the couch watching a bit of TV.
That was the afternoon Monsignor Etuale appeared on the big screen.
“He was talking about an initiative to try and get a Primary school up and running and that they were on the look-out for good quality teachers in order to raise the standards at Chanel,” recalled Tepora.
“I turned to my husband and said, I think they need teachers.”
At that time, Tepora was in the first year of a two-year leave spell from her teaching job in Australia, so she could be with her parents who had just retired to Samoa.
It could have been Monsignor Etuale’s handsome face or perhaps what he said that piqued Tepora’s interest forcing her to find out more.
Not long after her initial query, she got a mild surprise while using MacDonald’s wifi connection, when one of the committee members, Leota Laki Sio, contacted her.
“It was funny; they contacted me and asked whether I had curriculum vitae. I said ‘I’m updating it’ and then he said ‘can you bring it now, there’s men waiting for you here’ and I said ‘hold on give me a minute’.”
Once settled, Tepora made her way to the interview and not too long afterwards, Chanel Primary School appointed Tepora its inaugural Principal.
With experience and qualifications from both New Zealand and Australia, Tepora brings a wealth of methodologies, passion and bilingual expertise to students, staff, board, parents and community.
“What really motivated me to take up this role was the idea of being part of something new. The ‘out-of-body-wow’ experience I had was re-enforced when I first met the teachers here. They all had the same idea; the same vision that of being part of something new.”
The phoenix rebirth just got real
“That for our entire team, we came in with the buildings but for the actual school itself, we are its first living breathing parts.
“So it is a pretty powerful space to find yourself, knowing that you are not part of the furniture but actually a living part of the school’s growth from the very beginning.”
Tepora is aware of the cohort quality at her starting point.
“No, we don’t have the privilege of taking the icing on the cake selecting from the best children.
What we have are children from everywhere with different learning backgrounds, different school structures so we need to accommodate that and so in some areas had to lower the benchmark because these children are at different levels. “The priority is to move them from where they are and go forward.
“The reality is these children will achieve based more on their individual growth as opposed to a school benchmark.
“However, our Year 1 will be our marker moving forward. As the years go by we would be able to say okay here is our perfect class, here is what we expect them to achieve at this point in time because the goals and the teaching expectations are those benchmarked in our ideal system.
“The other cause for optimism is the variety of teaching backgrounds collected from the newly recruited staff.
“We have got American teaching background added to New Zealand and Australian systems to those who have taught here in Samoa, so we have quite a repertoire of ways of teaching and from which to customize content to students at different stages of learning.
“And that is what will be critical to our success because if there is only way that a teacher can teach reading for example, then they are stuck if the student doesn’t take it in whereas in our team already, I have found this flexibility of delivery in action whether it’s at mixed ability grouping, ability grouping, target teaching these variety of different approaches should allow us to address our students different stages of learning.”
The door leaning on the foundation might be broken but it can be fixed. A new strong wall can be constructed on which the door can be affixed. The door could open to the classroom that the first cohort of Year 1 at Chanel Primary hatchlings enters through to Chanel College in 2026.
A group that rose from the pile of ashes of academic and reputation poverty in 2017 to restake Chanel’s mantle of producing leaders and reformers of a better future for Samoa, American Samoa, and Tokelau.
But a lot of water has to flow under the bridge between now and then to produce the same leadership fruits of the past.
The Chanel education initiative need its supporters the likes of John Ballinger, his Water Tank and staff in Opetaia Opetaia and Ben Tolova’a; of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo’s contributions to the opening in February; of C.O.S.A. members financial help from New Zealand, Australia, American Samoa and elsewhere on the globe, former teachers, affiliates and supporters.
This is a reality that Tiufea Rudy Meredith, Aleki Silao, Leota Laki Sio, Tamaseu Randy, Sala Petelo, Rev Afa Tyrell and their committee know why they must continually stoke the fire giving life to Chanel’s rising phoenix because eventually it will lead them to “the door”.
The one that spoke, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture”.
To those who want to be part of this living legacy contact: Aleki Silao | Em: firstname.lastname@example.org