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A groundbreaking African leader, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, visits Berkeley Prep

TAMPA — Students fidgeted nervously in the hot sun, and Secret Service agents scanned the crowd. A troop of bagpipers readied themselves.

Then, in a rush of security vans and more bodyguards, she was there. The president had arrived.

For two hours Friday, students at the leafy Berkeley Preparatory School hosted Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of the Republic of Liberia and Africa's first democratically elected female leader.

Sirleaf, 70, will deliver the commencement address today at the University of Tampa.

But she said her visit to Berkeley was personal, a way of thanking American supporters like university trustee and international banker David A. Straz Jr., her honorary consul in Tampa and the father of a student at the private school.

Since Liberia's emergence in 2003 from a civil war, Sirleaf said, America has played a key role in helping Liberia rebuild democratic institutions. And it has begun moving beyond a "patron relationship" based on extracting rubber and mineral resources.

"The building of (our) new army is thanks to each one of you, as citizens of the United States," she told students. "Thank you for being great friends and supporters of Liberia."

The school's pipe and drum corps blared a welcome at her arrival, and an elementary chorus set the tone with Let There Be Peace on Earth.

And these students were prepared. That much was clear from the moment the president fielded her first question following a speech to the high school.

What did she think of Liberia's new contracts with Firestone and steel giant Mittal, senior Allison Derrick asked.

"We took the decision to review all concession deals, because it did not pass the national interest test," Sirleaf said. A new deal would protect workers and leave more profits in Liberia, she said.

Berkeley officials were quick to point to one advantage of being a private school — their ability to quickly adapt their curriculum when a "teachable moment" presents itself. Without state tests or federal education standards to worry about, teachers have more discretion to stick with a topic.

Sixth-grade geography students did a mini-unit on Liberia, and seventh-grade U.S. history students compared the U.S. Civil War to Liberia's, said teacher Meghan Weddle.

Students peppered Sirleaf with questions about her Harvard education, her rise to power as finance minister and presidential candidate, and her Christian faith.

And she said they could help her nation rise from conflict, even from halfway around the world, just by sending books they might otherwise discard.

"It is our responsibility to get the schools open," Sirleaf said. "Our capital city was dark for 14 years. We restored some lights, and children danced in the streets."

A groundbreaking African leader, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, visits Berkeley Prep 05/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 10:40pm]
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