If you peek inside a Terra Nova Academy classroom in Kampala, Uganda, you might see students studying the subjects you expect to find in any classroom: reading, mathematics and science. You might also see students working with their teachers to put names to the array of feelings any young person experiences: frustration, sadness and joy. Teaching emotional intelligence to young students was never in the curriculum blueprint for Terra Nova, but Alisha Damron-Seruyange M.Div.’09 realized that by helping students navigate these emotions, teachers at Terra Nova can free up students’ headspace for learning.
“You can’t unlock comprehension or math strategies because they’re just clouded; everything’s cloudy, and confusing, and hard and painful,” Damron-Seruyange shared. “Unlocking a door to say, ‘OK, I’m going to walk with you, you’re going to walk with me, and we’re going to figure stuff out’ opens so many doors for things that you don’t really plan for.”
Damron-Seruyange regularly opens doors to new paths, beginning when a field education requirement for her Duke Divinity School master’s program took her to Uganda, where she worked in a community center and taught creative drama to local students. She fell in love with the community and returned following her graduation in 2009 to continue teaching creative drama to more than 1,000 students each week. However, when her program’s director moved away, Damron-Seruyange collaborated with community members to rethink how educators could approach early childhood learning in Kampala.
“In Uganda, you’re looking at over a hundred students in one classroom space … and it’s just like, oh, there has to be a way to do this better.”
Preschool through seventh grade.
Healthy meals are provided to students and staff every day.
Teachers train through
partnerships with national and international universities.
Football training (American soccer) offers opportunities for success on and off the pitch for youth in Kampala, Uganda, ages 5 through 25. This program has enabled more than 60 students to earn sports scholarships to attend high school.
That thought led Damron-Seruyange to found Terra Nova Academy in 2013. Since the academy opened its doors to 32 preschool students, it has grown to more than 250 students from preschool to 7th grade, with class size limited to 24 students per teacher. Tuition, which can be a deterrent for many Kampala families seeking education, is calculated on a sliding scale according to each family’s income, with no family paying 100% of the cost to attend.
Damron-Seruyange’s belief that education expands beyond textbooks has helped Terra Nova to grow into a multitiered program benefiting the entire community. Her husband Abdul directs the Terra Nova Football Club, which began in 2015 as a way to keep a connection to students who aged out of the academy. It has since sent several students as scholarship players to the International University of East Africa, and several alumni to Uganda’s Premier League as professionals.
Outside of the school and the football club, Terra Nova Leaders was established to invest in the community’s teachers and parents as they start businesses, advance their education, and pursue professional development. Most recently, Damron-Seruyange arranged a partnership with the education department of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, to provide a monthlong course of study for several Terra Nova teachers. But one of her proudest accomplishments of Terra Nova Leaders is its Stoplight Approach training, which builds emotional intelligence in teachers and parents that they can then pass on to the children in their community.
Damron-Seruyange, who was born in Havre, Montana, relishes her role as someone who can help open doors for others wherever she can.
“We’re always just looking for ways to find where the dreams are that people here have, and [figure out] how do we cheer them on, how do we support it, how do we come alongside,” she says, “so it is less about whatever I came to do here and more about who I found and how we’re changing the game for one another just by doing life together.”
Looking ahead, Damron-Seruyange hopes what she has helped build at Terra Nova will continue to flourish.
“I will keep doing this work as long as I’m able to and as long as people will let me. I believe in it as much as I did the very first day that we started it. And,” she smiles, “I think our parents want Terra Nova High School and Terra Nova University.”
More information about Terra Nova Academy can be found at www.terranovauganda.org.