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First Adventist elementary school in Timor-Leste looks to new phase of growth

Timor-Leste Adventist International School in Southeast Asia needs additional student missionaries to meet 2016-2017 school year needs

Since the 2002 independence of Timor-Leste, a small Southeast Asian country bordered by Indonesia, the Adventist church there has struggled to build its infrastructure. Twenty-five years of war had left only six faithful members out of almost 100.  Today, the Adventist church is represented by the Timor-Leste Mission (TLM) with a limited number of staff, two ordained pastors, the main church in the capital of Dili, four church companies and seven branch Sabbath Schools. The growth has been slow but something changed in 2015.

On September 28, Timor-Leste Adventist International School, the first Adventist elementary school on island, opened its doors and is generating plenty of interest and enthusiasm in the community with its unique educational approach. First, the staff and volunteers offered a well-attended tutorial school in July which attracted local interest.  Secondly, in addition to offering an international curriculum, TAIS’ small class sizes allow students more help and interaction from the teachers than in large classes. Third, TAIS operates on an incremental growth plan with an English preparatory class, kindergarten and first grade offered during its first year, second grade to be added next school year and approximately two grades added each year afterward as needed until they have a full-fledged secondary school. 

Originally, TLM administration and TAIS staff were cautiously optimistic about initial enrollment this year and determined to do all they could to promote the school. Principal Mai-Rhea Whitty recalled, “We hoped and prayed for students, but with limited resources and temporary classrooms, we wondered how many people would choose to register their children. After putting up signs all around town and handing out information at the nearby shopping center, the phone calls started to pour in.”

This created an unexpected challenge. Whitty said, “With so much interest, we realized we would need to open a second English preparation class or we would find ourselves turning students away. Stepping out in faith, we made plans to offer a second class and [now] both classes are almost filled to the limit!”

The current enrollment stands at 35 with a mixture of local students as well as ones from Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.  The staff reflects this international flavor with Whitty hailing from Canada, two-year Adventist Volunteer Services (AVS) teacher Janette Loñoza coming from the Philippines, one-year AVS teacher Stephanie Haddad of the United States and local assistant  Angelina Rangel from the main church in Dili.

In spite of the challenges that naturally come with an inaugural school year, these ladies find great satisfaction in their work.  Whitty who juggles her principalship with teaching duties said, “Our students don’t have a playground; they have a box with a few toys that they play with on a paved area under a mango tree during their recess time. We don’t have fancy resources or proper facilities yet, but the parents see value in the education we are providing and are sending their children faithfully. It has been amazing to watch the blessings overflow on our little school. Not only are we now able to provide a school for our Adventist children so they don’t have to face the consequences of not attending the public schools on Sabbath, but we are also able to offer an affordable, quality, Christ-centered alternative to the local community.”

Loñoza leads the two half-day Kindergarten/International School English Preparation classes with assistance from Rangel. Most of these students started with limited or no English skills, but now have basic foundational English language skills.  Teaching kindergarten-age children can be a challenge in itself, but the added element of the language barrier finds Loñoza seeking God’s wisdom and leaning on Him for strength.  She said, “I find myself clinging to God’s promises every day. It’s not always easy to teach them but just a simple smile of accomplishment from a child who learned to write a number makes my day complete. These simple things are priceless. I’m just grateful to God for this experience.”

While academics are a focus, Loñoza seeks to impart more. She hopes for her students to develop character qualities that will be life-long. She shared a recent example as she said, “One time, after recess, I told them to line up and walk back to the classroom. I assigned a leader to guide them. I watched them march back to our room. Then, when they were about to enter, I grabbed the box of toys to take it back to the room.  My students saw this, stopped and then ran back towards me. I was disappointed because I already told them to go inside the classroom. I was about to get angry and scold them. But to my surprise, when they reached me all of them took hold of the box to help carry it. They came back to help me! I was really touched. We might not understand each other all the time but when they give me a hug before going home I feel recharged.”

Being able to pass a Basic English assessment test was a prerequisite for students entering grade one, which has kept the class size small and personal. Despite having only seven students, Haddad feels the weight of the responsibility that she has been given.  She observed, “The majority of my students are not practicing Christians. Teaching them about God and the stories of the Bible is so important and I pray that God continues to speak through me to these open and pure little minds and hearts.”

She added, “The sad fact though is that few or possibly none of my students actually have a Bible of their own or a family one at home. I was very excited in November when we received six English children’s Bibles that were donated by my elementary school in California. Even though [my students] will not have their own, they will be able to see and feel and read parts of the Bible for themselves.”

This intentional nurturing and spiritually-based teaching is making an impact not only among the children but is noticed by their parents as well. Whitty relates, “One of our Adventist young adults brought his little sister from one of the outer districts to TAIS so that she can learn English and get an Adventist education. Over the Christmas vacation, they returned home to spend the time with their parents and other siblings there. After returning, he told me that their parents and many of their friends in the district were so impressed with the changes they saw in her: she has a better attitude, she is growing and maturing, and she sings the songs that she's learned at TAIS all the time. Many people begged him to take their children with him so they could also get a good education, but unfortunately, as a university student already responsible for the care of his sister, he was unable to take on additional responsibilities in terms of caring for other children. 

With continued growth expected, TAIS faces a teacher shortage next year.  Whitty explains, “This year we are providing two kindergarten classes and a grade-one class to the community. We also have a few Adventist students in a half-day multi-grade class to meet some of their needs. As we look forward to the next school year, we will need to add at least a grade two class to enable our current students to move forward. We would also like to offer our multi-grade class to the community by making it a full-day class covering all the subjects. To make all this possible, we will need two to three new teachers to cover all the classes.” TAIS hopes to recruit student missionaries to meet these needs.

Interested applicants can find more information and the application on the TAIS website at   http://tais.edu.tl/support/   or  through these direct links at the Adventist volunteers website for the Elementary Teachers call: https://www.adventistvolunteers.org/LongTerm/ViewCall.aspx?SvcReqID=16504 or the Kindergarten/ESL Teacher call: https://www.adventistvolunteers.org/LongTerm/ViewCall.aspx?SvcReqID=16505 .

TAIS staff is praying for their future colleagues who will join them in the adventure of pioneering a new Adventist school in a country that has been without one for so long. In spite of the challenges, there are incredible joys waiting at TAIS. Whitty can testify to that. She said, “I have been overwhelmed by the many blessings that God continues to pour out on our new little school. It’s a daily reminder that God is in control and the true Leader of this school.”

TAIS is operated by the Timor-Leste Mission which is part of the Southern Asia-Pacific Division (SSD).  With over 1.2 million members, SSD covers a territory of 14 Southeast Asia countries, the majority of which are non-Christian.

[Timor-Leste Adventist International School]

 

 

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