By Ali Nagle, 5th Grade Reading Teacher, TEAM Academy
For most, February in the northeast is synonymous with heavy coats, slushy snow, bitter winds and hoping the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow. But for me, February is a month of frenzied preparation for another trip to East Africa. For the past five years, I have been traveling to both Kenya and Rwanda growing TEAM School’s international social justice program, TEAM in Africa. In the spring of my first year working at TEAM Academy, a KIPP School in Newark, my students and I watched a documentary about the opening of Oprah’s school in South Africa. As the film ended and the lights flicked on, a few of my eighth grade students raised their hands and asked, “Why can’t we do that?”
“Open a school…help kids in Africa who don’t have any other options, someone who doesn’t have as much as we do.”
I was shocked. Not by the students’ desire to help or their need for action, after all we have talked to them about being the change they wish to see in the world for almost four years. I was mostly shocked because starting a school or working in Africa was totally out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know anyone working in Africa. I didn’t even have a passport. What a crazy idea.
Crazy, indeed. Even having worked at TEAM less than a year I knew one thing to be true: there is no such thing as an idea too crazy. No matter what I asked Ryan Hill (TEAM’s Executive Director) or Sha Reagans (my School Leader) to do at school, their response was always the same: “Go ahead. If it is good for our kids, go ahead.” The autonomy and freedom afforded to teachers at TEAM Schools is unparalleled. As a professional, I felt very fortunate that the leadership at my school never told me “no, that’s ridiculous” and I felt our students deserved the same. And so it began.
During the next summer, Ryan Hill, Steve Small (our Chief Financial Officer), and I researched possible connections in Africa. Our goal was to establish partnerships with schools our students and teachers could visit and work at for extended periods of time and where contributing to a child’s education would change their trajectory in life. A number of TEAM Schools’ supporters and advocates who had ties to Africa helped us find two rural schools located in countries that were safe for travel. One in Rwanda and one in Kenya. Through months of emails, lots of brainstorming meetings with students at TEAM Academy, and one fact-finding journey to both countries in May, TEAM in Africa was born.
TEAM in Africa is a student-led partnership on every level. We have two projects in the works, aimed specifically at meeting the needs at our two partner schools in East Africa.
Kenya Project – Building Infrastructure
Kyandili Primary School is a government-run school just outside Machakos, Kenya. The school has eight grades of students, but the Kenyan government only pays the salary of five teachers, leaving three classes of students to fend for themselves on a daily basis. However, Kynadili’s immediate needs all revolved around its infrastructure. The school headmaster, Jackson, and the rest of the staff at Kyandili felt passionately about our work together being an equal partnership. They decided if we could help build new buildings, they promised to find the funding to pay additional teachers. I am happy to say that both ends have kept their word.
How did we keep our word? Through nearly 5,000 cupcakes sold, penny wars at three different campuses, dollar jean days, photo shows, and epic school dances planned, advertised and executed by our kids. Slowly but surely, the students at TEAM Schools raised nearly $10,000 to re-build the buildings.
Rwanda Project – Teaching English
Kabwende Primary Center is a government-run school in Kinigi, Rwanda, at the base of the Virunga Mountains. The school buildings are in decent shape, even in rural Rwanda, thanks in part to the international aid that flooded the country after the genocide. Kabwende’s immediate needs were not building related. Instead, the school’s Headmaster pleaded, “We need help learning and teaching English.” In 2007, most, if not all, of the students and teachers at Kabwende spoke Kinywarwanda and French—few spoke English fluently. Yet the Rwandan government had just mandated all instruction be delivered in English, as opposed to being delivered in French, as had been the case since colonization.
But how would our students in Newark help students 7,000 miles away? Rosetta Stone or closed circuit TV lessons? No electricity at Kabwende. What about books? And with that, Books & Beyond was born. Students at TEAM Schools’ two middle schools and high school partner with college students at Indiana University to write, illustrate, and publish books in English for every single student at Kabwende Primary.
We decided to have students write and publish their own books, rather than simply fundraise and buy existing books because of the value created in the process. In writing the books, our students are able to make sure all of the material is culturally relevant to Rwandan students, learn about the fundamentals of leveled literacy and book writing, and be creative. Additionally, we wanted our students to model the writing process so that the Rwandan students would be able to write their own stories as well.
Our partnership with Indiana specifically was sparked after a TEAM Schools supporter mentioned Indiana’s Global Village Living Learning Center. The program is a haven for college students yearning to make a change in the world and discover their place in a global society. Furthermore, Indiana and Newark couldn’t be more different and allowing students from both cities to visit and learn from the other only made the project that much richer.
Books & Beyond has flourished over the past four years and developed into an amazing learning experience for all involved. Students at TEAM Schools are mentored by Indiana University students in regards to both writing as well as college life.
Even as I prepare to leave for Kenya in less than a week, we are actively planning our trip to Rwanda in July. While I will travel alone this February, the trip to Rwanda in the summer will include ten Indiana University students, four TEAM Schools students and other supporters from our KIPP network.
It’s such an exciting and hectic time as we watch everything grow. Often times I have to slow down and allow myself to soak everything in. It’s hard to imagine that in just a few days I will be in Kenya helping to open the library TEAM Schools students have funded, planning the next phase of our partnership at Kyandili as we continue to work to make the school a safe haven for learning, and training teachers on small group instruction in both reading and creative writing. Most of all I am excited to simply be back in Kenya—see the teachers, students and families who have become part of our TEAM and family.
This is part 1 of a series of posts by Ali about her experience with TEAM in Africa. Click to read her second post, Five Years of Work Come to Fruition in East Africa. To learn more about Ali and why she teaches at KIPP, click here.