Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What is the Secret of Achungo's Success?

Achungo is frequently asked by Education Ministry and school administrators throughout Kenya about the “secret” behind their academic success and exemplary student discipline.  The key has nothing to do with enforcement imposed on the students but rather lies in a deeply held mission shared by staff and students alike.  It is imparted to new teachers by Director Michael Nyangi as soon as they come on-board.

Michael meets with new teachers in a one-on-one where he gives them the background that imparts that vision.  He starts by telling them his story.
Michael grew up in this rural part of Homa Bay County, Nyanza, where jobs are almost non-existent and those few are nearly all farm-work.  His father died when he was 7, so his family struggled, largely surviving on their garden plot.  Friends and family helped him with secondary expenses.  Then as he took work in Nairobi, an employer helped him save for college.  In 2003 Michael graduated with a CPA-Kenya and began working in a bank, his dream job.  He was living in Kibera and on his walks to work noticed the desperation of some single mothers.  His heart went out to them so gave them a little money and noticed later that they had used it to purchase corn to roast and sell.  They had begun a business.

At age 22, Michael quit his job and dedicated himself full-time to helping the women of Nairobi slums start small businesses and over the course of some years built up a 15-person office of microfinance called Lomoro.  During that same time, as he went home on holidays, Michael noticed the desperation of small children, apparently orphans, on the street scrounging garbage for enough food to survive.  And his heart went out to them.  He had known hardship as a child and it hurt him to see any child left abandoned.

He began to take those children into his home and he and his mother cared for them.  By 2005, with a few dozen children, Michael formed the Achungo Community Centre CBO, rented a small shed in Rodi-Kopany, and began to teach the children with the volunteer help of some widows from a local church.   Thus began the Achungo Educational Centre that has now grown to 2 primaries with about 450 students. 

We have graduated 3 Standard 8 classes with 100% passing the KCPE and now in secondaries, some in national schools and some of them have top scores for the entire county.   Our students are self-motivated in their studies and there are no classroom discipline problems.   When a teacher is not in the class, the students quietly study independently or in groups, often led by the student “monitor”.  Even the Baby class is well-behaved.   In the six years that I’ve brought teams from the U.S. to visit Achungo schools, there has never been a switch used in any classroom.  Caning never happens, in fact it is entirely unnecessary. 

As Michael tells his story to his new teachers, he makes the point that they need to share his vision for these orphans and understand their struggles.  They must become like fathers and mothers to them.  “Teaching these children is a calling,” Michael tells them.

“After I tell them my story,” Michael says, ”I tell them about our orphans, some of their stories, and I take them to visit some of their homes so that they can understand their struggles.” 

Some of our children are living with good Samaritans who saw them on the street and took them in, like Michael did.  Most are living with a relative, an aunt or elderly grandmother, and some are with parents.  Our Standard 8 students live on campus because they are up at 5 a.m. to begin studies before school and are studying until 9 p.m.  And there are also some Standard 7 students on-campus. 

But there also have always been a small number of younger children who live on-campus or with a teacher because of abuse or neglect from their guardian or parent.  Our orphans lost their parents to AIDS or to the violence of 2007 or to starvation, illness or accidents, or simply abandonment.   They have suffered and gone hungry.  Many were out of school because their guardians needed their help or because they were gathering wood to make charcoal so that the family could survive.   Michael wants his teachers to know what these orphans already know – education is their key to escaping the age-old cycle of extreme poverty. For them it changes everything.  These children put their whole heart and full effort into their studies.  It is their key to a bright future.

Michael’s teachers emulate his faith and humility, his integrity and compassion.  They love their children and the encouragement and respect they hold for their students is evident in every classroom by every student.  That is the secret to their exemplary classroom discipline and academic excellence.  Michael tells his teachers, “We don’t want any child to fail.  Not all will be superior in a given subject but they will have strengths in other areas.  Some may struggle because of emotional issues, but we don’t want to neglect them, let alone expel them.”    If a student is struggling academically, they are tutored, both by teachers and by other students.  That is how Achungo achieves 100% passing the KCPE.

And the teachers are supported and encouraged by Michael and his Headmasters.  It is all-important to Michael that he and his headmasters not become arrogant with position but always be approachable for the teachers.  “We must be easy for the teachers to talk to and must give them the authority to carry out their responsibilities independently, trusting them to make their own decisions,” says Michael.   That fosters an atmosphere of collaboration and one where everyone is comfortable to bring up any issue to Michael and their Headmaster because they know they will not be blamed or ignored but will be joined in collaborative problem-solving – for the sake of the children.

Too often when someone achieves an administrative position in a school, they become so self-important that they alienate their teachers and that disaffection of staff ends up hurting the students with neglect or even abuse.  That will never happen at Achungo.

Our teachers are like a family.  They collaborate in many ways and they support each other in a creative manner, even pooling funds at times to help a colleague.   A committee of the experienced teachers guides the assessment process for new teacher candidates.  They feel the empowerment of being involved in decisions about hiring and about school management in general.  The love and respect and encouragement that they experience is something they also pass on to their students.  That is the secret of Achungo.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Our First Graduates Enter High School

8th Graders, November 2014
We have our first graduates!!  In 2014 Achungo Educational Centre (the new name for the primary school that is part of Achungo Children's Centre, Kenya), had its first 8th grade class.   The next step in Kenya is secondary school (equivalent to high school in the U.S.) for the 4 years called Levels 1 through 4.  Acceptance into secondary depends on a student's results on the Kenya Certification of Primary Education (KCPE) exam that is taken at the end of 8th grade.

Girls' Dorm
8th graders studying
Our students spent the year studying hard for the KCPE.  All of our 8th graders moved onto campus into the new girls' and boys' dorms so that they could rise at 5:30 a.m. every day.  They study from 6 am - 7 am, then wash up before school starts at 7:30.  They study for an hour after school and then have a break at 5:30 for supper before returning to study from 7 pm to 9 pm.  Much of this study time is either independent study or more often, group study with one of the students leading a discussion of practice questions or study topics.  On our trips we have spent time with them as they study and tried to help, but often found the questions so difficult that they ended up tutoring us!!

In November, after the 3 days of their 8th grade final exams, the next week was 4 days of KCPE exams and then they left for break (school is out for all of December).  It was early January before we had the results that everyone had been waiting for.  Every one of the 15 passed!   That is an exceptional result and we are very proud of them.  Apparently it is very rare for a school to have everyone pass and Director Michael says many families with students in nearby schools were very distressed because so many did not pass.  Michael was congratulated by the authorities for the high average score and now has many parents asking him for their children to be able to enroll at Achungo! 

In our province of Nyanza, according to the latest data, 74.7% of school-aged children enroll in primary school (2000), but secondary enrollment rates drop dramatically.  In Kenya as a whole, the percentage of children of official secondary age who are enrolled in secondary school is only 50%.  However, in the Homa Bay District (our area), it is much worse with only 23.5% of secondary school-aged children enrolled!!

Director Michael with some of our new grads at a nearby high school
On the heels of the exam results, the children also received information about the secondary schools that they'd been accepted into.  Acceptance is primarily based on score and location.  

There are 3 tiers of schools.  
The top tier are National Secondaries, but there is only 1 national boys and 1 national girls secondary within our county so only very high scores qualify.  The next tier is Provincial and third tier is District.  District schools are often local, day schools where most other secondaries are boarding schools.  Two of our students were accepted into District school and all the rest into Provincial schools!!

This is a very big step.  Our graduates now have to learn survival in these much bigger classes and schools, but some are excelling already.  Duke and Clement are in one of the top schools in the entire county and for the first term of this school year, Duke placed first and Clement 4th in their class (out of 60)!!   We have great hopes for the road ahead for all our children!!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Charity Run in Germany

                             Charity Run
 Hello, dear friends

On September 16th, the Max-Schmeling-School in Hamburg, Germany, organized a charity run. The weather was sunny and pleasant, ideal for running. We had 35 students from two 4th grade classes from the Elementary School Oejendorfer Damm in Hamburg, Germany join us. About 650 students from our school participated in this charity run. Both students and teachers did a great job of running, everybody thoroughly enjoyed this event! The school record was a combined 33,812 km run in 4.5 hours which translates into 21,009 miles.

Hallo, liebe Freunde,
am Dienstag, dem 16 September, hat die MSS (Max-Schmeling- Stadtteilschule ) einen Charity Lauf gemacht.
Das Wetter war sonnig und angenehm, ideal zum laufen. Wir hatten 2 vierte  Klassen von der Schule Öjendorfer Damm zu Gast. Sie kamen mit 35 Schülern. Von unserer Schule haben ungefähr 650 Schüler teilgenommen.
Die Schüler und einige Lehrer sind wunderbar und mit Freuden gelaufen. Der Schulrekord war 33,812 km in viereinhalb Stunden.

Benjamin, Aleksandra, Rosana, Ayla, Wiktoria, Pascal, Furkan and Denis (Students from grade 7)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Two New Ambassadors

In October 2014, Jake (9) and Luke (7) Smith visited Achungo along with their parents, Nate and Jen.  They had already involved the students at their school, Oak Knoll in Menlo Park.  And they knew they'd have stories to tell on their return, but no one expected this family to take the story of Achungo so far so fast.

I think the first thing they did was get their little brothers interested.  Sammy and Micah came to the first team meeting and seemed just totally enthralled!

Here are the 4-year-olds at the bottom of the picture on the left.  Until that moment I never realized they could sit so still or pay so much attention to anything!!

Next these energetic and enterprising boys held a lemonade stand on a number of occasions to raise money for their trip to visit the children at Achungo.

At the same time, they were mobilizing others.  Jen led her mothers group ("Mothers Together" at Menlo Park Presbyterian) to get new backpacks for the Achungo 8th graders (picture at left) and fill them with school materials and other gifts.  Their aunt Leslye designed some lovely Zazzle T-shirts for each 8th grader.

 And the students in Jake's and Luke's classes wrote letters to the students at Achungo which Jake and Luke took to them during their visit.  They've brought back return letters from Achungo and their classes are thrilled to have begun a pen pal program with these children in Kenya!

In the photo on the left the Achungo students are excited to receive their letters and are working on their return letters.

And in this picture the Achungo 8th graders are receiving the wonderful backpacks!

Yes, the backpacks made it to Kenya.  And on their return, Jake and Luke made sure their fellow students at Oak Knoll knew about it!

The picture to the right is from the door to Luke's classroom with the pictures of the children of Achungo receiving the backpacks.

Jake and Luke not only shared with their classes but gave a presentation over the video news program at their school, sharing the wonderful experience they had with the children of Achungo and how much they all valued the backpacks.

Below are the notes from their talks.  They talk about how the Achungo children seemed to have so little but were the happiest kids they'd ever met.  What a wonderful representation of how the experience of Achungo changes us and impacts our lives!!

Thanks, Jake and Luke!

Video of Jake and Luke at Oak Knoll School, Menlo Park

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Grassroots Neighborhood Fundraising

Returning home one Saturday afternoon I found a basket at our door with $9.50 of cash and a note:
"this is from our lemonade stand and it is for the orphans; from Neekie, Bella, Max, Grace, Fiona and Phillip".
I was floored!

We live in a small neighborhood and I knew these kids were my neighbors.  Apparently Neekie (10) organized this herself--and it was a well-organized enterprise!

Here she is (on the far right) with her friends (from left:  Fiona, Grace, Max and Bella).

Since then they have held other lemonade stands and mailbox washes and even car washes with Phillip biking around the neighborhood to solicit interest.  At the lemonade stand above they had a menu of options that included a slushee (on order, Neekie would run inside and get her mother to make one in the blender) or for about 5 cents you could pet their sweet Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Sky (in the background near the potted plant).

Neekie's mother, Fojan, tells us that she's cleaning out her closet to find clothes to send to the Kenyan orphans and is quite motivated in all this.  Last month she invited us to present to the students at her school, Bowman International School in Palo Alto.  Neekie introduced me to her fellow students!

Neekie was a keynote speaker at our annual Achungo Tea event in December and made sure to drag her friends on-stage with her to be interviewed.  It was truly the highlight of the event.   

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Trinity School - our sister school in Menlo Park

Last Thursday we presented to the student body at The Trinity School, a private preschool and primary in Menlo Park.  They have been a sort of sister school to Achungo since early 2011 when 5th grader and friend, Karen Rader, brought Achungo to her class as a 5th grade service project.

Here Karen is presenting to Monte a gift from Trinity including the school medallion and a letter signed by all the 5th graders. 

To the left is the letter and the medallion from Trinity and to the right is the letter from Achungo and the Achungo children in response
On our June 2011 trip to Achungo, we presented the medallion and letter to the children of Achungo and they provided a letter from Achungo back to Trinity, signed by Achungo's 5th graders.

 Since then, the students of Trinity have collected used clothing and shoes and such that supplied many wonderful things to the children of Achungo in addition to writing letters that our children have enjoyed and they have responded with letters and cards to the children of Trinity.

 This year Trinity donated 30 used Mac laptops to Achungo.  We've taken 20 out already and they are in excellent condition.  We set them up during our June 2013 trip and the Achungo students immediately began learning on them.  These are children who live in mud huts in one of the most economically depressed areas of the world.  The computer skills they learn will set them apart from all other primary school students and prepare them to be outstanding candidates for potential employment.

Monte has presented several times to Trinity's 5th grade class, sharing pictures and interactive discussion of life in rural Kenya while they took notes on their laptops and asked insightful questions.  He has presented a few times to the 2nd grade and other classes, and it is always a delightful experience.  When Michael Nyangi visited last December, he was able to share with a number of Trinity classes also.

This visit last Thursday Monte shared pictures like those here, including some of the laptops in use, of their past gifts and of the progress at Achungo since they first engaged with us (our classes were in tin sheds at that time and are now in our new campus!).  We also had letters from Achungo's 5th, 6th and 7th graders and cards from the younger classes that we distributed to the Trinity classes.

This is a very special relationship for us all!!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

News from Hamburg, Germany

News from Hamburg, Germany
I would like to introduce a new thread in this blog about activities in Hamburg leaded by Armin Opitz concerning support to the Achungo Children Centre.
My real name is Stefan Menck and I am, like Armin, teacher at a school in the Eastern Part of Hamburg, Germany.
With much work Armin was able to install an annual sponsored walk.
So I would like to announce the Achungo Sponsored Walk 2013 which will be held on the 12th of September.
Like last year two schools will participate: Our school, which is a secondary school and the school Oejendorfer Damm which is an elementary school. This means that about 800 pupils will start running on this coming september morning.

I will add news (and some photos of the last years walk) as soon as possible.

In future we will write this thread in German and English so that some of our younger pupils (who aren't capable of reading English) may follow this thread too.

Stefan Menck