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School launched by NIU professors provides hope, transforms lives of girls in rural Kenya

November 29, 2011
Teresa Wasonga

Teresa Wasonga

As with many associate professors, Teresa Wasonga in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations in the College of Education leads a busy professional life, with a full slate of teaching, research and service commitments.

During the spring and summer of 2011, she traveled to her native country of Kenya to conduct research for the International Successful School Principal Project. As a Fulbright Fellow, she also taught doctoral classes at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton. In addition, she worked with students and administrators, assisting with and serving as an external examiner for masters’ theses.

And, in her spare time, Wasonga helped to open the Jane Adeny Memorial School (JAMS) for Girls in rural Kenya.

The school is in Muhoroni,Kenya, on 10 acres of land that Wasonga’s mother provided. It only seems fitting that she would name the school in memory of her mother, Jane Adeny, who always stressed the importance of education.

Initial funding for the school came from Wasonga and her husband, Andrew W. Otieno, and resulted in a second mortgage on their home. Family and friends also provided donations to launch the building project.

Wasonga had a clear vision for what she wanted to achieve: She dreamed of building a school that would be a model for the Kenyan educational system.

Students, faculty and staff at JAMS in July of 2011.

Students, faculty and staff at JAMS in July of 2011.

“Children need a place where they can get the education they need to change their lives” Wasonga says. “I felt that the only way we could accomplish this was to have an institution where we could design and implement innovative ideas.”

The task is daunting in a country where 18,421,000 people – 45.9 percent of the country’s population – live below the poverty line.  Many of these individuals live in Kenya’s undeveloped and isolated rural areas.

Only 18.7 percent percent of the country’s population finishes secondary school, and a mere 3 percent go on to receive a university education.

This is due in large part because families must pay for their students’ tuition, books, uniforms, transport and food at the secondary level.  Add to that the cost of room and board for students who come from rural areas, and it starts to become clear why education rates are so low overall and especially for individuals in remote areas.

Meeting basic needs for survival, such as food and shelter, quickly takes precedence over the luxury of an education.

When considering these statistics, it is also important to bear in mind that the likelihood of a girl going to school is less than that of a boy, and within the classroom setting, boys are given priority.

“When it comes to quality of education, girls don’t get the same opportunities,” Wasonga says. “It is, unfortunately, ‘survival of the fittest’ when it comes to education.”

Wasonga and Diana Swanson, associate professor of Women’s Studies and English at NIU, recently gave a presentation titled, “Beyond the Single Story: Jane Adeny Memorial School,” in which they discussed the primary methods used to educate students in Kenya (lecture, memorization, and group rote response) and how JAMS differs from the traditional Kenyan school.

In the current system, students are neither encouraged to ask questions nor expected to participate in class discussions.

“Teachers talk and students listen,” Wasonga says.

Corporal punishment ensures compliance, and schools routinely struggle with a lack of resources. Ultimately, the education of the children suffers.

Within this context, then, Jane Adeny Memorial School is highly unusual. Students are encouraged to ask questions, participate in discussions and research topics that interest them.

Students discuss a returned exam with the teacher.

Students discuss a returned exam with the teacher.

As a result, JAMS students are exceeding expectations.

They are passing standardized exams with flying colors and are now being challenged with more difficult exams designed by their teachers, specifically for students at JAMS.  Wasonga is seeing the results of these strategies:  “(The) girls speak up and ask questions and express themselves much better than when they first arrived,” she says.

In addition to studies and classroom activities, the girls are required to participate in agricultural duties and outdoor activities.

The school has large gardens that are an abundant source of ingredients for the fresh meals prepared at the school. Students also play soccer every day, with neighborhood kids joining in the fun.

In pictures that Wasonga shares, JAMS is clean and orderly compared to other rural Kenyan schools, and it is comparable to what one finds in schools serving the more affluent segments of the Kenyan population. JAMS prides itself on being self-sustaining by raising the bulk of its own food and using solar panels for energy.

Swanson and Wasonga acknowledge that the school soon will need many more solar panels and water storage tanks, and in the not-too-distant future will need to drill its own well, to ensure clean and available water even during times of drought.

Inside the dormitory.

Inside the dormitory.

Currently, JAMS consists of a classroom building; a building that houses the library, a laboratory and project development rooms; a dormitory for the girls; and a guest house for teachers and volunteers.

While at school, the girls receive three nutritional meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and textbooks of their own.

For many, these are all “firsts ” – the first time that they have had enough food to eat, the first time they have had a bed to sleep in and the first time they have not had to share a textbook.

A dining hall is set to be completed by December 2011, taking the place of the existing temporary dining hall. New staff will come on board in January 2012, and the construction of living quarters for staff will begin soon after.

Current enrollment is 12 girls, but that number will more than triple when an additional 30 girls join the ranks in January 2012. Wasonga’s long-term goal is to have between 120 and 160 female students enrolled at any given time. Scholarships and a sliding fee scale ensure that students have the opportunity to attend JAMS without putting an undue burden on their families. Just $800 (USD) a year pays for a student’s education, room and board, for a total of $3,200 for full four-year secondary education.

Swanson traveled to Kenya as a volunteer at JAMS, and what she experienced there has inspired her to take on fundraising on behalf of the school and its students. She is looking for individuals who would sponsor a girl for four years, providing an unprecedented opportunity to transform a girl’s life.

“In this school, Teresa is creating a school culture and curriculum that teaches not only academic content, but also a world ethos of economic and social justice that will make these girls leaders,” Swanson says. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

Wasonga’s motto for the school is “A girls’ school that is ‘good enough for the richest, open to the poorest,’ ” a saying she adapted from the philosophy of former U.S. Secretary of Education Horace Mann (1796-1859), who felt that education was the “great equalizer,” and that schools should be equal and available to rich and poor alike  (Horace Mann, 1849, in Rees, J.W., 2000).

If the overall achievements of its students are any indication, JAMS is indeed meeting – and even exceeding – its motto.

For more information about the school, contact Wasonga at [email protected] or [email protected] or Swanson at [email protected].