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50 Years with QSI and Sanaa Int'l School

As most of you know, this is my last year as President of Quality Schools International.  2020-21 makes my 50th year as Director of Sanaa International School and/or President of QSI (with a few years in the beginning of QSI in both positions).  I am very pleased to turn over the president position to Jerry Scott (current Vice-President) beginning on 1 July 2021.  Jerry has played a major part of the development of QSI, joining us in Yemen in 1988.  Another long-time administrator, Dr. Karen Hall, will be taking Jerry’s position of Vice-President.

These 50 years have been challenging, satisfying, and very interesting as we have seen QSI develop into what it is today.  My wife Margery has been with me during these years as a teacher, librarian, and office worker in Yemen, and finished her QSI career as the Executive Secretary of QSI for many years.  We have worked together for all of these 50 years.  

Margery and Jim Gilson

Without her support and contributions, there would be no QSI today.  Our school in Yemen would not have been established without Margery’s support to return to Yemen in spite of the fearful experience of being under overhead machine gun fire that resulted in our evacuation from Yemen in 1967.  She did not tell me of her fear of returning until many years later.  Most reading this article are aware that Margery passed away in March of 2021 with stomach cancer.  Margery and I were one (as noted in the Bible in Ephesians chapter 5).  She is now free from pain with her Savior, Jesus Christ, in eternity.  I love her and miss her more than can be imagined.  She is the love of my life on earth.  She played a major part of what is written in the following abbreviated history of the development of QSI.

The beginning of Quality Schools International was the establishment of Sanaa International School (YEM) in Sanaa, Yemen in the fall of 1971.  I was the school’s Director, but since there were no funds to start a school, I hired Mark Boyd as the school’s Principal to operate the school in Sanaa, along with his teaching wife, Jill, while I took a good paying job with ARAMCO in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, in order to support the school financially during this beginning year.

My background in education up to that time was a few weeks of substitute teaching in a Department of Defense (DOD) school while in the US Army in Asmara, Ethiopia (Eritrea today) in 1959; two years of teaching secondary school physics and mathematics in Fairbanks, Alaska and Fairchild, Wisconsin; two more years (1963-65) teaching physics and mathematics in a government school in Moshi, Tanganyika (that became the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar and then Tanzania during those two years); one year of teaching freshman college physics at Bir Zeit College in Jordan (1965-66), a junior college then, that is now Bir Zeit University in Israeli occupied Palestine; in 1966-67 Principal and 7th-8th grade teacher in Yemen-American Cooperative School, a very small elementary school in Taiz, Yemen that was operated by USAID for their dependents; and Principal of Nairobi International School in Kenya in 1969-71 (after completing a MS degree at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon in 1967-69).

In our year in Asmara (1959) Margery and I met Wolfgang and Beryl Stumpf, a German/British couple who were missionaries with the Red Sea Team.  We became good friends.  Later they also spent time in Yemen after the 1962 overthrow of the dictatorial Imam of Yemen.  During our time in Nairobi they let us know that the civil war in Yemen was at an end and that foreigners would be moving into the capital in Sanaa, which would bring foreign embassies and development organizations, including the United Nations.  This was of personal interest, since we had appreciated our relations developed with the Yemeni people.  Even though the American community in Taiz was evacuated in May of 1967 due to gunfire and shells fired over the USAID compound (as a move to clear Americans from Yemen at the time when the Egyptians were using Yemen as a base to free Aden from the British), the Yemeni people were very friendly to the American population.  I responded to this request and made a trip to Sanaa and met with some interested parents and organizations.  There was definitely an interest and a need for an international school for the foreign population that was then coming to Sanaa.

I had earlier applied for a teaching position with the College of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and was accepted, but also had applied for a position of teaching physics to adult employees of ARAMCO, which was a higher paying position and one that would not require a long term commitment.  I had made a trip to Dhahran earlier from Nairobi for the interview with the college.  Later in the summer of 1971 when we arrived at my mother’s home in Tacoma, Washington, I received a cable from ARAMCO offering the position.  I immediately saw this as a way to be able to open the school in Sanaa by having funds for its support, which led to the hiring of Mark and Jill Boyd.

The rest is history.  Mark and Jill opened the school in the fall of 1971 with four students.  The school  grew to about 25 during that first year.  Margery and I (with our two boys, 5-year-old Marcus and 3-year-old Kevin) traveled in June of 1972 by boat from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Hodeidah, Yemen.  I believe we are the only westerners to ever make a move to live in Yemen by ship, rather than by air!  We had a large wooden box of our personal goods and another wooden box holding our bed that we brought to Nairobi, which was shipped to us in Ras Tanura (which went to Pakistan by mistake and took months before it arrived in Saudi Arabia).  How we would get these boxes with our belongings to Sanaa was a puzzle.  I arranged for a pickup truck and driver to take them to Jeddah (on the west coast of Saudi Arabia) where we could arrange to have this shipment trucked to Yemen or shipped on the Red Sea.  I rode in the truck with the driver to follow up in Jeddah, while Margery and the boys stayed in Ras Tanura until it was time to move.

About a third of the way across the desert of Saudi Arabia as we approached the Saudi capital city of Riyadh, it occurred to me that when we would arrive in Jeddah I had no idea where to tell the driver to take our load of personal goods which needed equipment to take it off the truck.  For this reason, I departed from the truck in Riyadh and went to the airport to fly ahead of the truck, arriving in Jeddah about two days before the truck arrived (it was about a 3-day drive from Ras Tanura to Jeddah).  After arriving in Jeddah, I found that there were no trucks traveling to Yemen, so the only way to move our goods was by ship.  I found a shipping company and learned that our box could be shipped for about a couple hundred dollars.  I agreed that this was a good idea and then I would bring Margery and the boys to Jeddah by air and we would all fly to Sanaa together.

It occurred to me that there might also be the possibility of traveling to Yemen on the same boat as our wooden boxes.  I asked and was told that we could travel first class on the deck with the ship’s captain for about $101 for the whole family.  That was a bargain, which I accepted, immediately!  Then I asked about how much luggage we could take with us.  I was told that the Yemenis that travel by boat take everything they have with no extra charge.  I said we have a ton and a half in two boxes.  I was told that was no problem.  So, we were able to go by ship to Hodeidah from Jeddah for about $101 with all of our belongings!

We departed Jeddah in the evening of Friday, 2 July 1972.  The only other passenger in first class was a Saudi who was bringing his daughter for healing of her mental condition to a hot springs location in Yemen that had some kind of water that was supposed to cure this kind of an ailment.  We all had our meals with the ship’s captain. We spent all day Saturday on the boat, and arrived Sunday morning, 4 July 1972, in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.  Coincidentally, this was the day that the USA restored diplomatic relations with Yemen, that were broken when USAID was evacuated from Taiz in 1967.

We had to wait in the port while the ship was unloading.  It was very hot and there was no air-conditioning.  We had nothing to eat and only some warm soda pop to drink.  At some point in the afternoon we were cleared to go into the city, where we found a hotel for the night.  The boys slept but it was too hot for Margery and me to be able to sleep.  We had arranged for two small pickup trucks to take our two boxes to Sanaa, with Margery and one of the boys in the front seat with the driver of one truck, and I with the other boy in the other truck.  We finally arrived at the school in Sanaa in the early evening of 5 July 1972.  It is interesting that the motor of one of the pickups stopped just as it arrived at the school.  Had this happened some kilometers earlier, I don’t know how we would have got to Sanaa, since the driver was not able to restore the truck’s motor at that time.  

Mark and Jill did an excellent job of getting the school underway in 1971-72  and we opened in the fall of 1972 in the rented building with an enrollment of 37 students.  The school had prospered (in spite of Mark being ill with hepatitis for some weeks during the 1971-72 school year). During this year Mark’s parents came to visit.  Mark’s father is Alan Boyd, who was the Secretary of Transportation under President Johnson, before he became the President of Amtrak (1978-1982). 

Mark Boyd, Duane Root, Alan Boyd, Jim Gilson 

4 & 5 year old class in Yemen in 1972-73 (Kevin in the center)

On 22 December 1976 we occupied property (35 acres) that was made available by the Yemen Government without charge for 50 years in a nice location on the edge of town.  With a bank loan from Citibank and a large grant for construction from the Office of Overseas Schools (A/OS) of the US Department of State, a uniquely constructed school was completed in the summer of 1978.

In 1973 the Administrative Officer of the US Embassy suggested that the school would be eligible for an annual grant, as is done for schools that serve US Government families internationally.  I had thought this would not be possible since the school was independent of a local board of directors or of control by parents.  However, I learned that grants could be made as long as the school was non-profit.  Thus, on 28 January 1974, the school’s Articles of Organization were formed, signed by the American ambassador (David Newton), the head of USAID (Aldelmo Ruiz), and other dignitaries in Sanaa, which established the school as a non-profit organization.  This led to better financial security for the school.

Over the first twenty years of Sanaa International School, we were able to hire many excellent teachers and administrators, as well as construction personnel for the school.  Of particular note is the hiring of Wout van Dijk (from Holland) in 1976 as the school’s Plant Manager (and his wife, Marina, as the school nurse).  He undertook the responsibility of the construction of the buildings of the school and all maintenance, including vehicles.  Wout was trained in mechanics in Holland and had practical skills that gave him the ability to undertake this work in Yemen.  When hired he was working in a  printing shop in Amsterdam used by Brother Andrew.  Brother Andrew became quite famous for smuggling Bibles into the communist countries during the cold war.  A few years after Wout joined our school, Brother Andrew traveled to Sanaa to hold Easter sunrise services in the countryside and later on the grounds of the school.  Through Wout, he became a good friend of us in the school.

A most important key person to join us in Sanaa was Duane Root, who had many years in Idaho as a band leader and high school principal.  He became the school’s Director of Instruction in 1979, departed after two years, became a very successful Superintendent of Schools in Marsing, Idaho, but preferred working again in Yemen and returned for the 1984-85 school year.  Duane and I met at Seattle Pacific College where we became roommates and good friends as college students.  When Margery and I were in Monterey, California (where I was in the Army Language School studying Arabic) and Duane was at nearby Fort Ord in the Army basic training, we invited him to join us during the 1957 Christmas week holiday to go with us in our car to Albany, Oregon to spend Christmas.  We also thought he might meet Margery’s identical twin sister, Margaret (which he did!).  We did not become friends because we are bothers-in-law; we are brothers-in-law because we were first friends!

Duane  continued with us in Sanaa as we co-founded QSI in 1991.  He also was the Director of our school in Ukraine for two years before moving back to Idaho where he founded Quality Schools Services (QSS), which serves QSI by ordering and purchasing books and educational materials for our schools, and arranging for these to be shipped to our many schools.  Margaret worked in the school office in Yemen and Ukraine and continues today working with Duane in QSS.

Duane and Margaret Root

Duane has been on the QSI Board of Directors for many years.  He has been the board’s Chairman since 1999.  As co-founder and board Chairman, as well as a school administrator, Duane has played a major role in the success of QSI.

Overall, the success of QSI is a result of the quality of administrators and teachers that are working in our schools and at QSI headquarters in Malta.  The success of any organization is primarily aligned with the quality of people within.  I have great appreciation for our people in QSI, particularly for those with us for many years whose career is with QSI.

In the early 1980’s, I had been given the book All Our Children Learning, by Benjamin Bloom.  I found that it gave an outline of a commonsense approach to teaching, called Mastery Learning.  I tried to implement this approach with our teachers, but was unable to effect a significant change in the traditional model of teaching that was the normal practice of teachers.

In January of 1986 I attended the first Outcome-Based Education (OBE) conference, which was under the leadership of Dr. Bill Spady, that took place in Phoenix, Arizona.  I chose to attend this since in an advertisement, Mastery Learning was mentioned as a subject of this conference.  What I heard from Dr Spady took only minutes to realize that this was a way to implement Mastery Learning.  Basically the school’s structure needed to change from using time as a boundary condition to using time as a resource along with a number of other changes to make in the school.  I was able to bring Dr. Spady to speak with our staff during the 1986-87 school year in Yemen and during that year the school’s Exit Outcomes were created (which are basically today’s Exit Outcomes for QSI).  This was done by a volunteer of staff in Sanaa International School that met once a week during the 1986-87 school year.  Duane played a major part in this activity.

Once the Exit Outcomes were in place, we implemented the OBE model for the four secondary level classes for the 1987-88 school year.  To do this, a written curriculum needed to be in place (rather than using textbooks as curriculum).  Since time was limited, we told the teachers to write down what a student was expected to learn and divide the year into ten units.  These were written in the form of “The Student Will……..” (or TSW’s) stating what the student would do that is measurable.  This set of TSW’s in a unit were used determine a student’s mastery of the unit.  If a student did not show mastery, he/she was given more time find success.  This was the beginning of the “Success for All” approach in QSI.  We did not give low grades (C’s and D’s) and move on to the next unit.  By being sure that a student mastered a unit, he/she was better able to be successful on the next unit of study.

In the 1988-89 school year, we added the 12 and 13 year old classes to this OBE model of teaching and then added the 6 thru 11 year old classes in the 1989-90 school year.  This action resulted in an amazing improvement in the education provided to the students in Sanaa International School.

This is a brief summary of the OBE model that led to not only the success of our students in Yemen, but also to having a model of education and curriculum that could be carried to other schools that QSI may establish.  At about this time the communist empire was coming apart.  The former USSR became 15 independent countries.  The countries in Eastern Europe became free from Russian domination and abandoned communism for freedom.  In 1991, Albania became a free country that led to the need for an international school since the western countries would now establish diplomatic relations, and other organizations, including the United Nations, would be sending workers to Albania, many with families in need of an international school.  On my return from recruiting in the USA in the spring of 1991, I stopped in Tirana on the way home to Yemen.  This stopover resulted in the establishment, in the fall of 1991, of the first QSI school outside of Yemen.

At about the same time the country of Southern Yemen (with its capital in Aden) became united with Northern Yemen.  A Canadian oil company (CANOXY, which became NEXEN) needed a school for their families and welcomed QSI to open a school in Aden in the fall of 1991.

This was the start of QSI in 1991, a school in Albania and the two schools in Yemen (Sanaa and Aden).  The rest is history as QSI now has schools in ten of the 15 countries of the former USSR as well as schools in most of the former Eastern European schools. 

As a non-profit organization QSI is not looking at places to start schools from a point of a profitable business opportunity, but the QSI approach, as a service organization, is to respond to requests where a school is needed.  Most of our schools resulted from requests of personnel in American embassies.  We also have schools requested by UN personnel, oil companies, NATO, and some individual parents.  During the early years of QSI, I made many trips to visit cities in response to requests for a school, to see if a school could be established.

Today we have 35 schools in 29 different countries (in five continents, or six if East Timor is considered part of the Australian continent).  We continue to get requests as the reputation of QSI is known by more people.  A recent request has come from a parent whose family transferred to another country where a QSI school is needed, which may result in a new QSI school.  What are the factors that distinguish QSI schools in a positive way from traditional schools?  Below are some that identify the success factors of QSI:

  ●  Success Orientations (more important in life than academic achievements, which are important)
  ●  Hiring teachers and administrators who love children and develop respect from the students.
  ●  Hiring teachers and administrators who are excellent examples of lifestyles for students to imitate.
  ●  Using time as a resource, allowing students to successfully complete a unit of study.
  ●  Placing students in units of study for which the student has the prerequisite skills for success.
  ●  Being careful to avoid placing students in units of study that are already mastered, wasting their time.
  ●  Having a reporting system that shows mastery grades, when completed.
  ●  Having a reporting system that does not give C’s or D’s, but gives time to reach A’s or B’s.
  ●  Giving a student with a B grade the opportunity to change to an A grade later in the school year.

In summary, we emphasize “Success” in QSI for life as well as academics.  All children want to be successful.  If we provide the conditions for success, it brings the students to have positive feelings and want to come to school.  This is our goal.  The results lead to successful lives for our graduates that include success in universities.  Following is a recent unsolicited e-mail from a parent of students in a QSI school:

We will miss the school community dearly and we are very grateful for the past 4 years: we've seen our children grow, thrive, and enjoy going to school every day. We firmly believe that they couldn't have had a better start in their academic journey, which is now anchored on solid foundations, both in terms of knowledge and perhaps even more importantly in terms of personal values and development. That's very precious for them and for us. You've set the bar high for the next school.  We are sure that they will keep fond memories of their international friends, loving and dedicated teachers, and all the lovely staff.  💖

Hopefully, this is the view that the vast majority of our parents have of our QSI schools.  This is our goal as an international service organization.

I wish all in QSI continuing success in the next 50 years of QSI’s history 😊.

I welcome comments that can be sent to my e-mail address: jim-gilson@qsi.org