It really has been an amazing year at Kisimani School in Tanzania, and a reminder (certainly to me) that hope prevails, and systemic change can happen, even if slowly. After 11 years, it truly feels like the vision this community had for their school has come to fruition, and will only continue to flourish from here.
With that, we are very excited to share incredible news that came out just last week…
big news --
Isn’t that astounding news? We started this school in partnership with the local community 11 years ago with the vision to bring equal opportunity education to local kids who were not attending school. To see the slow, but sustainable success unfold in this way has been not just rewarding, but truly inspiring. Kisimani has grown into the model school that they always aspired to be.
Please join me in congratulating our head teacher, Enock Laiser, our entire staff who work so tirelessly to support our students, and of course the newest graduates of Kisimani School who are continuing their education and off to make the impact they deserve to have the chance to make.
- Leah and the Friends of Kisimani School
Written by Leah, September 2022:
For those who might not know as much about my personal history with Kisimani School in Tanzania, here’s a little backstory.
(Sometimes it’s like a game of telephone - between the enthusiasm and genuinely good intentions that others have around wanting to share about the project, sometimes my story can come out the other end sounding a little different…a little more white savior-y than is appropriate. According to hearsay, I run an orphanage, I run a school for girls, I do mission work, I started the only English-speaking school in Tanzania, I swooped in and saved a whole community.)
Here’s the real deal. We first went to Tanzania back in 2008 when Aidan had an internship at the UN for the summer between his first and second year of law school. I had just reached a point of sustainability and health in my Arbonne business where I felt I could take the summer off and go with him, no agenda.
I had been working as a teacher at the time, so I figured I would keep my eyes and ears open once I got there and if a good opportunity arose for me to be of service in some way, I would do that. I ended up volunteering for the summer or a small local school, where I met my good Tanzanian friend James, who cofounded Kisimani School with me. The more I learned about the systemic inequity in the public school system there, the more conversations the two of us had about how we might be able to rattle the cage from within.
In Tanzania, higher education is always taught in English. However, public elementary school is taught in Swahili and private school is taught in English. This gives families who can afford school fees for their child to attend a private English language school a significant advantage over public school kids when it comes time to take the huge exam required to get into secondary school.
James and I thought, what if a public school could get a charter to teach the private school curriculum in English…what would happen? How much more progress might those kids be able to make in life? We originally intended to partner with the school where I had volunteered , but after one of many rodeos with internal corruption and mismanaging of funds we decided to start fresh and look for a community that already had a need for a new school.
After more than six months of James organizing meetings with various village leaders, we finally met the parents in Mkonoo village.
They were in this so-close-yet-so-far-away forgotten zone: close enough to town to see what they were missing, but far enough away that their kids were lacking access to education. The closest public school was 7 or 11 km away walking distance - too far for any parent to comfortably send their young child, especially during the rainy season when roads and bridges would get washed out with mud. They had their own vision for a community school, and had already set aside a village land for their project. They had already been advocating for a school for five years to the government before we even met.
You know those moments when you 'just know'?
I remember so clearly standing on that side of land, hearing through James who would translate for me, what their vision was, how committed they were, and how they could already see it even though we were standing in a dusty empty open field. We just knew.
We listened to the need, and instead of asking how can we swoop in and do this for you, we asked "how can we work together and how can we help your vision come to life"? We asked them if they would be open to the idea of our charter school taught in English, and they were so enthusiastic and excited about potentially being able to model positive change for the whole education system. We agreed on a three-pillared cost sharing model, where we (the eventual nonprofit), the community and the government would all share the cost and responsibility of developing and operating the school.
We were really just two late 20s idealists at the time. One of us from America, female and white, one of us from Tanzania, male and Black, both coming from certain privileges In the context of our own countries and cultures, with a shared enthusiasm for helping make positive change. Did I have pretty much only white savior stories to model myself after? Yep. Did I Iearn what that meant and how not to perpetuate those harmful narratives along the way? I sincerely hope so. We have never arrived, and I am always learning.
We failed a lot. We failed over and over again, in fact. We failed and failed forward more times than I can count, and it’s only because of all of our missteps, mistakes, learning, trying again, knowing better (then doing better), that we have the story that we have to tell today.
After nearly a year of initial fundraising, we completed construction on the first for classrooms of school in summer of 2011. We had less than 200 students and roll to start school when it opened a few months later. Each year, we found our way through sharing the responsibilities and cost of building out the infrastructure of the school, thing to add one new class every year for the next seven years. Only a few years in however, word had spread quickly that there was a tuition-free, sliding scale donation-only public School teaching in English in the area. We quickly reached 500 students enrolled.
Then 700. Then 1,000 - and we all ran together to keep up with the growth. (The parents, the government and my non-profit, Friends of Kisimani.) Families started buying plots of land close by to be zoned for our school. The government started to invest in improving and building roads to connect the growing Community to the services they needed. Women who used to be an hour away from a hospital during childbirth were able to get to town in time. The stories went on and on, and we re-committed each year to rise to meet the moment.
In 2018, our first class of 7th graders took the big exam required to continue to secondary school when they graduated. If they pass, their access to higher education continues. If they don't, it does not. This is the way the system is.
In 2018, Kisimani School was ranked the number one performing School academically in the District. 100% of the 7th graders passed their exam and continued to Secondary School.
They have repeated that graduation rate every year since.
And here we are. Looking ahead to the future and imagining how our school might be a model for change country-wide.
I do not share all of this for you to sing my personal praises, however, I will be honest and say that Kisimani School's continued success is one of the things I am most proud of so far in my time on this Earth. But isn't it what we're all really here to do? To grow ourselves, we can give to others?
The most beautiful thing to me at this point is that, over there, I am pretty much invisible. What we see is a thriving community school, a government that is proud of what they invested in, kids succeeding, teachers growing and evolving...and the rare mention of some friends in America who helped light the initial match and stoke the fire over the years.
That's the story. And it's still being written.
Wow. What an update from Samuel Yonah, the director of EPI (Education Progress Initiatives)! He shared the progress of our teacher training program and was absolutely thrilled at the evolution he is seeing in our staff, teachers and leadership.
Check out the full testimonials from our teachers and staff below! (You are welcome to download the pdf.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
It was so exciting to hear.
After just a few months of working with our school, one of our lead trainers showed up one day and saw something he had never seen before: Enock - our dedicated, sometimes serious, very results-driven teacher who has taken Kisimani School to new academic heights - was PLAYING with students in the yard. He had never seen Enock play with students before. In fact, he was teaching them a game that the teacher trainers had taught to the staff a few weeks earlier.
So, what's the big deal?
Culturally, especially in Maasai culture (our school has representation from many different tribes and religions with in Tanzania, but we do have a large Maasai demographic), play can be seen as unproductive and sometimes a waste of time. You don't go to school to play, you go to school to work and learn. The teacher trainers have been spending a lot of time and care on addressing this perspective to support our teachers in embracing more student-centered methodologies.
Samwel (director of EPI) described our teachers as "very very positive, hungry to learn. They want to learn something every time the mentors come to school."
When he was talking with students, the kids are also reflecting that the teachers are playing with them more and teaching them in a new way that is a lot more FUN!
Everyone is starting to feel that learning is fun and that PLAY is invaluable as a learning tool. As one of our teachers put it, "it's not just teaching the kids at Kisimani, it is affecting my family and how I am treating my kids at home."
What incredible feedback and how exciting to have our school be a hub for not just academic excellence but a new way of thinking about teaching. Thank you Education Progress Initiatives for all that you are doing to support Kisimani School! And thank you to all of you who are Friends of Kisimani, for supporting this initiative.
What a seismic shift that will have a ripple effect for years to come.
Marcia was the dear mother of Kisimani School co-founder Leah Wagner Leonard, and we feel bittersweet gratitude to thank all who made a donation in her memory this year. She passed away on January 22, and her full memorial page can be viewed here.
Marcia visited Kisimani School more than 7 times over the years, and was always the first to champion our projects and programs. She supported the school not just as a Friend of Kisimani, but as a board member, and most importantly, as Leah's always-supportive mom. She was the first to ask how everything was going at school, the first to share a fundraising campaign, and the first to reply back to good news with an 'I'm proud of you!'.
In her honor, more than $14,000 has been donated towards our ongoing and upcoming projects in partnership with Kisimani School, and we know she would be proud and touched by your generosity.
Her favorite bird was the lilac-breasted roller, whose primary habitat is in sub-Saharan Africa, including Tanzania. We will think of her every time we see one there, and every time we have good news to share from school.
May her memory be a blessing.
Thank you to our long-time volunteer and one of our most generous Friends of Kisimani, Trish McWhorter for capturing this wonderful interview with our teacher, Frank Mgaya!
Get to know Frank - how long he's been teaching at Kisimani, what he's most proud of, challenged by - and something we would not have guessed about him.
Education Progress Initiatives (EPI) is heading into their 6th month working with our teachers at Kisimani School, and the program is going so well.
Samwel Yonah, the program director had this wonderful feedback to share:
"We had great cooperation from the head teacher, everyone was very supportive and receptive from day one, both at the school and from the government. Buy-in from the city was very receptive and open, especially to scale the training to other schools and use the same teachers from Kisimani to train future teachers at neighboring schools."
Wow! To have government officials asking 'what are you doing that is working so well?' and express a desire to scale the program to other schools is a huge win. From the beginning, one of the visions the community at Kisimani had was to be a model school and show what was possible when we invest in education, resources and teacher training. Change needs to come from within, and because EPI is doing such a phenomenal job leading our teachers, they are setting an example to follow.
Samwel went on to say: " We have an idea to organize a workshop at the end of the year and start to scale to other schools. We want other teachers to see 'wow, Kisimani is one of the best schools' and how can we learn from them and duplicate their success, not just academically but in other ways as well."
Kisimani was ranked #1 in the district in 2018,n and every year since has had a 100% graduation rate, which is very impressive. The next step is modeling modern and progressive classroom management strategies that can give healthy alternatives to teachers who have been trained with outdated and sometimes harmful behavior modification strategies such as corporal punishment.
We have always had a zero tolerance policy for corporal punishment at Kisimani School, but the honest feedback that some of our newer teacher gave was that that was how they were taught and trained, and without an alternative they were struggling to teach classrooms of 50 or more students with positive reinforcement.
Take a look at what one of our teachers had to say after a particularly inspiring training session with EPI:
THANK YOU AND CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL OF OUR TEACHERS AND MENTORS FROM EPI!