Posted by: passedportsnyc | September 17, 2009

Not So Hopeless Afterall

“Goodmorning visitor. Welcome!” chanted a chorus of 25 navy blue clad six-year-olds standing at attention.

As such are all visitors to the School of Saint Jude greeted. All 1100+ students split between two campuses dress in identical blue uniforms, stand at the beginning of each class to greet their teachers in unison, and speak only English to one another.** All have passed a rigorous entrance examination. Most impresively, all come from homes that have not more than two rooms and/or do not have electricity.

The School of Saint Jude in Arusha, Tanzania, which I visited at the end of August, was named for the saint of hopeless causes. It has quickly become on of the most sought after schools in the country. Founded in 2002 by Australian Gemma Sisia, the school exists to provide opportunity to the bightest and poorest of the poor. It strictly and rigorously follows the national curriculum, testing all students at the end of each year to earn passage to the next grade. But the school’s tests set the bar significantly higher than the national standards, guaranteeing that if students can pass the school tests, the national tests will be a breeze. From grade four students are required to board – even if they live next door – to ensure that they have time and light for homework. All primary students pass the 8th grade examination and continue on to secondary school.

In order to fully grasp the scope of this feat, one needs an understanding of Tanzanian education more broadly. Tanzania had acheived nearly-universal primary education by the early 1980’s. After President Nyerere stepped down in 1985, primary education rates fell drastically and have wavered between 50 and 75% ever since. However, even when enrollment rates are high, very few 8th graders pass the national examination required for entry into secondary school. The few who do pass are challenged by school fees (primary school is free), increasing family pressure to work, and, often, long commutes. As a result only about 5% of Tanzanians graduate from secondary school, and fewer still continue on to university.

I asked a number of people why the Tanzanian education system continues to languish in mediocrity. Teachers in Tanzania are poorly trained and poorly paid. Many purposely fail students in order to make extra money with private tutoring. The government often does not have the money to pay their wages. As a result, many skip school regularly in order to pursue other sources of income.

The country is littered with vacant and crumbling school buildings that lack teachers, students, books, funds, or some combination of the above.

In this land of failed and abandoned development projects, Gemma Sisia has done something right. She didn’t just build the school or provide funds for teachers. She took a wholistic approach. She used the funds she raised to build the school, train the teachers, start a farm (to provide food for students and staff), buy books, computers and supplies, design and implement entry exams, curriculum, and benchmarks, buy buses, hire drivers, and even to visit the homes of every student to ensure they meet the poverty requirement. She has done this so successfully that the institution she has built has about 3 times the computers and twice the library volumes of the similarly-sized public school in New York City where I worked.

(As an educator I would prefer to see less rote memorization and testing, more focus on creativity and critical thinking, and a generally more progressive approach to education, especially in a country whose economy is so desperately lacking in innovation. But given the general state of education in the country, perhaps a back to basics approach is the place to start. Innovation can come later.)

More institutions like these could go a long way in improving Tanzanians’ access to education. Ideally such operations would be undertaken by Tanzanians, but it is unlikely that Tanzanians would be able to access the fundraising resources available to someone from a wealthier nation. But what is most needed is a massive government overhaul of the education system. On the teacher end this means comprehensive teacher-training program, increased wages, supplies, anti-corruption mechanisms to ensure that students are not cheated of their education nor parents of their money. On the student end it means no school fees through the secondary level, a chance to re-take the entry exam for secondary school, and transport in places where the nearest school is too far to walk.

Unfortunately such an undertaking is prohibitively expensive for the government of a people whose avergage GDP is less the $400, whose tax revenues are proportionally meager, and which is still reeling from an IMF-imposed “structural adjustment program” to pay off debt from previous international aid packages. Meantime, we should all hope that there are more Gemma Sisias in the world.

** The first language of most Tanzanians is any one of almost 200 local tribal languages. Swahili and English have been designated as the national languages and both are taught in schools in an effort to linguistically unite the country. In order to get any of the “good” jobs – in the government, the UN, NGOs, international corporations, or high-end tourism – you must be fluent in both, but very few Tanzanians reach this level, especially in English.


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