If you close your eyes and listen to children playing in the schoolyard, it could be any elementary school in the world, but this is Ithange Primary School two hours east of Nairobi, Kenya, off the main highway down a red dirt road partly washed away by recent rains. With the help of trained teachers and quality textbooks paid for by USAID, many of the second graders here are able to read their older siblings’ textbooks, say the parents who make up the local school board.
We have come to observe teacher Ann’s classroom where she is commanding the attention of 40-plus students and introducing them to new words in a story they are about to read. “How many of you can read the word ‘skirt’?” she asks. The children put their thumbs up if they know. “Who can tell the others what a skirt is?” She calls on several children. She pulls a skirt from her bag and holds it up. “Who can make a sentence using the word skirt?”
Brian, who is sitting in front of me at the back of the room wants to answer every question. The teacher has been taught to call on children randomly to make sure that each child is involved. “The teacher wears a skirt,” says Anna. Teacher Ann nods in affirmation and points to her own red skirt. Then she teaches the word “wear” and calls on Brian to come to the front of the room. He removes his green school uniform sweater and puts it on again. “Brian wears a sweater,” the teacher instructs. He is pleased to be in front of the class, a teacher in the making, perhaps. After they read the short passages about the clothes children wear, she asks them questions to be sure they have understood what they read. Then she asks a question that can’t be answered from the story. She is teaching them the difference between a factual question and an inference, says Dr. Ben Piper who runs this USAID-funded program implemented by RTI International. Beside Ben sits the head teacher, who is evaluating teacher Ann’s performance.
She works hard for 45 minutes, with a piece of chalk, a few props she brought from home and most importantly, the confidence gained from effective training. She knows that what she’s doing works. The schools that are participating in this Kenya Primary Math and Reading (PRIMR) Initiative are doing so well that the federal government would like to expand the initiative to all Kenya’s primary schools with help from global donors, especially USAID. This “scaling up” is an attempt to move from a focus on providing access to a primary education for all children, to a focus on providing a quality education and learning for all primary children.
The parents I spoke with in the schoolyard after the lesson are convinced it works. They have the anecdotal evidence, but they’ve also seen the data being gathered to assess reading and math programs in schools like Ithange Primary. Now parents are turning their attention to creating a community learning center where teachers and the children can access supplemental books, and one parent mentions the necessity of preparing Kenya’s pre-school teachers in the same way teacher Ann has been prepared.