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S.African parents complain about Oprah school rules

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters Life!) - Parents of students at Oprah Winfrey’s all-girl leadership academy want better access to their children, comparing the school’s restrictions on visits, phone calls and e-mail contact to prison rules.

A file photo of talk show host and businesswoman Oprah Winfrey and some of the first 152 students of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of the school in Meyerton, outside Johannesburg January 2, 2007. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A few mothers complained that a two-hour visit one Sunday a month was not long enough to reconnect with their daughters who are staying full-time at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in Henley-on-Klip, according to South Africa’s Media 24.

“It was a nightmare. We had only two hours to see my child. Surely this isn’t a prison or an institution?” Frances Mans, the foster mother of student Gweneth Mulder, was quoted as saying after a recent weekend visit.

A second mother, Angela Conradie, said her homesick daughter was very upset over the rules.

“Michelle phones me in tears sometimes, and then I don’t know what to say to her,” Conradie said.

School authorities said Winfrey, currently back in South Africa for a short stint to teach and handle administrative issues, has spoken to concerned parents but is not currently considering a major change to the visitation schedule.

“There are the interests of parents to see their girls and there are practical and logistical matters to deal with,” John Samuel, chief operating officer, told Reuters.

“We are very clear that we don’t want in any way to interfere with the relationship between girls... and family.”

SCHOOL’S IN

Oprah hand-selected the first class of 152 poor, mostly black pupils to attend her new five-star private school outside Johannesburg, boasting state-of-the-art science laboratories, a yoga studio and beauty salon situated over 52 acres.

The billionaire television queen paid the $40 million price tag and vowed to cover school-related expenses for students, such as food, luxury lodging and university fees for graduates.

The motivation for Oprah is to give disadvantaged girls with gifted minds a chance to become South Africa’s future leaders.

“When you educate a girl you begin to change the face of a nation,” Oprah said at the January launch attended by celebrities like Tina Turner, Mariah Carey and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela whose idea it was to build the school.

Officials have praised the lavish donation, however education rights activist have not been so kind.

ActionAid, a global development group, said the school exposes the stark disparities in South Africa’s education system -- still haunted by the legacy of apartheid -- and an insult to millions of poor children worldwide wanting a decent education.

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