There are life goals some may label impossible and others, unrealistic. But Worcester native Jonathan Starr — ready to leave the financial world to find a way to “make a difference” — chose to use a half-million dollars and his backbone on a project far from home. He invested in children, targeting the future.
Then 32, Starr created a boarding school within the tiny African country of Somaliland, an autonomous state officially considered part of Somalia. Launched in 2009, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology is home to over 200 students. Its seventh- to 12th-graders — boys and girls — board there, studying science, literature, mathematics and other college-preparatory subjects. They seek better futures than might have been, and eventual leadership roles in their homeland.
Now 40, Starr has just watched the first group of Abaarso students graduate from colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. About 100 Abaarso graduates are currently continuing their education around the world, most in the U.S. Most would not have made it without the school.
Starr has written a book, “It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s #1 Failed State,” published in February by Macmillan Henry Holt, hoping to inspire others who might teach or found other schools, and to build on Abaarso’s future. Vignettes in the book describe children who came to Abaarso to prepare for college while developing personal strength and character. Tenacity, Starr calls it. For some, this is the only chance; little awaits them outside of the school. Admission is hotly competitive; Abaarso accepts students who show promise, regardless of a lack of earlier opportunities.
“This year, there were 1,500 applicants for 50 spots in seventh grade,” Starr said. Eventually, he may add more schools. More immediately, he will launch a women’s university at a different site.
The school started with teachers from the U.S. and abroad — the kind of people dedicated to educating those who would otherwise go ignored, regardless of low pay. “That first year, I have no idea how we convinced people to come,” he said. “We didn’t get many, but it was great to have them. They are the trailblazers.”
In the early years, community resistance proved dangerous and made it difficult to achieve acceptance — “It got ugly,” he says. Other entrepreneurs might have walked out long before, but he refused to quit the students he’d grown to love and the dreams he had created with them.
With the first college acceptance, to Nimo Ismail from Oberlin College, came widespread approval: Starr was getting the job done, not offering empty promises.
A Worcester Academy graduate and summa cum laude economics graduate from Emory University, Starr knew what a difference quality education makes in young lives. His initial career in hedge fund investment provided savings, the means to go ahead. He provided hands-on direction. It’s been eight years, and now the school sends graduates to colleges and universities far from home, such as Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, MIT, Brandeis and Holy Cross in this country — 40 this year. Sixty more attend foreign schools. The kids are doing the work, proving their ability to succeed. And word has spread. Anderson Cooper has profiled Abaarso for “60 Minutes,” as have other news outlets.
Starr lives in Westboro with his wife; they have a toddler and a second child on the way. He continues to oversee adminstrative operations of the school as well as fundraise. He returns to Somaliland as needed.
“I could have been in finance my whole life, but I wanted to see something different, to be in a different environment and culture. And I thought it would be ‘fun’ to work with kids.
“This was the single best opportunity I was probably going to have to do something special. I had life flexibility, without a family depending on me. I was still relatively young. It was special — a chance to make a difference.”
“Altogether, the school has taken in $3 million in donations for everything, including a campus,” he said. An uncle from Somaliland, who lives in Brooklyn, went there with him first, to view the country and talk with people.
“I had heard much about Somaliland; I knew through him I would have some contacts.”
The small country — autonomously controlled, northwest of Somalia — is 53,000 square miles but sparsely populated, with many there living nomadic lifestyles.
“There had been many a foreigner who turned around and left,” he said. “I wanted to like it; I hoped I would see something positive. Some would objectively say ‘Oh, my God that’s terrible,’ and I would say ‘That’s something I want to do.’ It was an emotional decision.”
It was not a cinch. He shares his mistakes in the book — he discovered the site chosen for the school had no water. Water has to be delivered daily. He also has a frightening memory of the day a government soldier with an AK-47 came to deport him. Someone led a newspaper and web campaign against the school, creating suspicion.
“My intentions were good and it had never occurred to me people wouldn’t welcome me with open arms,” Starr said. “In hindsight, it’s completely ridiculous that that wouldn’t occur. This country has been isolated for decades; a lot of people have never seen a non-Somalian. So there was not trust in newness. Some said we’d ‘missionize’ the children; do bad things to them. At one point, somebody wrote ‘Let’s kill four of them, and the rest will go home’ on a website.
“Had I known the challenges going in, I don’t know if I would have done it. But by the time it happened, I loved these kids. I was in. I couldn’t consider abandoning my children. I would have died. It would have been death to me anyway. That’s truly how I felt.”
They waited it out. “The main way we got through it was just by succeeding. When word came that a student (Nimo Ismail) was going to Oberlin on a full scholarship, it made the school’s image stronger and stronger. There was some criticism, but over time, it declined.”
The first students were college-bound, with full scholarships, around 2013.
“We sent a student to Harvard two years later — even the nomads knew what Harvard meant. The president of the country gave him an award. A year later, a girl was accepted to both Yale and Dartmouth. She’s now at Yale. People began saying, ‘this is incredible;’ they no longer wanted to hear bad things about the school. It went from being cool to attack us, to very uncool to not like us. Our kids won.”
Teachers at Abaarso make sure the students speak English before they leave, in a rigorous learning environment. They focus on tenacity, which they’ll need when they go to another country. “They know they overcame that, and know we care about them a lot. It helps.”
He laughs at the suggestion that he could be the male Oprah (Winfrey, who also founded a school in South Africa). “One of my students could be,” he said. “She is well on her way to being the Somali Oprah.”
Starr and his team plan a women’s university next, with a slow start in the fall. Eventually, more schools are planned. “I want to build slowly and carefully. We only take the amount of kids we can reasonably teach. We don’t need more schools just to have schools.”
His book’s aim is to tell others what they are doing at Abaarso, and why. “If they read the book, they’ll feel close to it. I felt it was a very good way to document the story of Abaarso. I want to engage people to support what we’re doing, or inspire people to do their own school somewhere else. People ask us to put a school in another country … we can’t, but maybe they can do it.”
Jobs in Somaliland require more education and training than typical for residents, so the returning Abaarso students, with degrees, will be able to train others for those jobs.
“They have to bring in Chinese, Pakistanis, Kenyans. All the key skills positions are run by international people and that’s a huge holdup to their economic development. If you get these kids back in the country, they can do something. Somalis would prefer to hire their own, they just don’t have that option yet. They will, with our students.”