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  • Denisa Mayari

Indonesia's First International School: Highland School Kabanjahe


Contrary to popular belief, Indonesia's first international school did not emerge in bustling metropolises such as Jakarta or Surabaya. Instead, it found its roots in the lesser-known town of Kabanjahe, nestled in North Sumatra. During the colonial era, Kabanjahe, along with Berastagi, thrived as vacation destinations, boasting an array of hotels and accommodations. This growth was spurred by the opening of roads to the highlands of Karo and the establishment of an airfield in Berastagi on September 16, 1934.


Amidst the booming tourism and infrastructure development, Highland School Kabanjahe, the first international school in Indonesia, was built. Founded in 1925 by the British couple William Stanley Cookson alongside his partner Bernice, the school aimed to cater to the educational needs of expatriate families residing in various parts of Indonesia, as well as Singapore and the Malay Peninsula.


Cookson, a former rubber plantation worker in Malaysia, sought a healthier environment for retirement and chose the serene highlands of Karo as his new home. Motivated by a desire to provide quality education for the children of fellow expatriates, Cookson and his wife embarked on the ambitious endeavor of establishing Highland School. The appealing climate and picturesque highland views, often likened to those of Europe where many of the students came from, are added selling points.


The school quickly gained traction among the expatriate community, attracting students from diverse backgrounds and nationalities. With an all-white teaching staff recruited from the West, the school offered a curriculum on par with European standards, providing a sense of familiarity for both students and parents.


As word of the school's reputation spread, enrollment soared, and Highland School soon became a prestigious hub for international education in the region. The campus, spanning 15 acres, housed not only classrooms but also dormitories, allowing students to fully immerse themselves in their educational experience by staying on-site.


Advertisements in local newspapers touted the school's comprehensive offerings, including a wide range of extracurricular activities and amenities. Highland School's emphasis on discipline, responsibility, and academic excellence set it apart as a beacon of quality education in the heart of North Sumatra. 


However, despite its initial success, Highland School's glory days were short-lived. The beginning of World War II and the subsequent Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies dealt a severe blow to the school's operations. Forced to close its doors in 1942, Highland School Kabanjahe faded into obscurity, leaving behind a legacy of pioneering international education in Indonesia.

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