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.