St. Ed’s all in on ‘life-changing’ Kenya Tutoring Project

Student tutors Avery Gerber and Sylvia Kong [Photo: Denise Ritchie]

Upper School students at Saint Edward’s School have been making global connections through a Kenya Tutoring Project, reaching across the Atlantic Ocean via the Internet to provide schoolchildren at the Phildan Memorial Education Center in Ahero, Kenya, with peer-tutoring services and friendship.

Although their lives are worlds apart in terms of distance and privilege, neither the nearly 7,800 miles separating the communities nor the differences in lifestyles have hindered the interconnectedness they have created through the World Wide Web.

The project grew out of an 18-month certificate program attended by Louise Kennedy, chair of the St. Edward’s English department. The program, administered through Columbia University’s Teachers College, touched on human rights, globalization and the esthetic of the global community.

“Some of the big buzzwords in education are 21st century skills and global competence. I know what the concept means intellectually, but I didn’t really know how that translated into the classroom,” says Kennedy, of a concept that promotes communicating and collaborating with peers from diverse cultures.

At the completion of the program, she and nine other women visited Kakamega, Kenya – the second largest and most impoverished county in Kenya – to help build an HIV and AIDS education program for the local health center.

“We visited very remote, extremely poor villages, where infection rates are as high as 50 percent. We were bringing free testing in, and we were with people as they discovered whether they had HIV or not,” recalls Kennedy.

After spending a month educating and raising awareness among the populace, she says, “I fell in love with these people; they are just the most generous, kind-hearted people.”

During an online global conference, she was introduced to Kasey Beck, who was beginning to institute tutoring initiatives. Beck matched Kennedy with the Phildan Memorial Education Center, where the majority of children are either orphans or have only one parent as a result of the HIV epidemic.

The program at St. Edward’s has just completed its second year. On a rotating basis, 20 Upper School students went to school during the pre-dawn hours to tutor as many as 40 youngsters at the Phildan School.

One of the most difficult parts for students attending the prestigious private school in Vero Beach has been relating to the school conditions of their African counterparts.

“When it rains over there, the water rushes right through the classroom buildings, which are made of mud, sticks and a corrugated roof,” says Kennedy. “It’s a miracle to me that we have computers working in that space, where during the rainy season, they stand in ankle-deep water and mud during lunch.”

The Vero Beach students formed a special bond with their counterparts in the small, East African agricultural community, and Kennedy says she was surprised by the mutual empathy developed by students on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Our kids are seeing these humans and understanding how poor they really are, and how every day there’s no electricity, no water,” says Kennedy.

At one point, when there was a riot in the region and the power was cut off, the St. Edward’s students became worried when they couldn’t reach their friends. Two weeks later the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting occurred, and the children at Phildan were worried about their Vero Beach buddies.

“They said, ‘We feel so sorry for you that you have to worry about being shot by a gun when you go to your school,’” recalls Kennedy.

“For our students, it was a wake-up call. Anytime you can increase students’ exposure to the world and develop a connection to someone who is totally different from them, you’re doing something powerful. We could actually have an effect on an entire village if we continue this program,” she adds.

Most of the Kenyan students are in what would be the equivalent of the eighth grade here, but when they log in each morning, the St. Edward’s tutors assist whoever is on the other end of the line.

“You have to be very flexible, because although each kid has an assigned student on the other end, they have things like outbreaks of tuberculosis or other illnesses and floods that make roads impassable. So the kids just roll with it,” says Kennedy.

Kenyan students must take and pass a national exam at the end of eighth grade in order to move into high school, and the goal of the tutors is to help the Phildan students to prepare for it.

With help from their American friends, six students were able to take the exam this past year; three passed and were deemed eligible to be accepted into a high school, and three very nearly made the cut.

However, the cost to attend high school is $150 per year for each student, a large sum for orphans in a poor farming community. After Kennedy spread the word, the St. Edward’s community funded those students’ education for a year.

The St. Edward’s students also benefit from the program by developing a broader awareness of other cultures, enhancing their communication and technological skills, and reinforcing their school’s core content.

The program uses Flipgrid, a lesson-sharing platform that can be viewed by students on both sides of the globe. Due to the instability of power and internet connections, students were sometimes unable to get through to Ahero, so they created a cache of videos to reinforce key concepts, which Phildan students can watch.

Once word spread about the Kenya Tutoring Project, students from all grade levels wanted to get involved.

Since homes in the remote village generally have no running water or electricity, the Lower School students realized that flashlights could help their friends to do their homework at night. They launched a design/think process where students are designing solar flashlights and outputting them via a 3-D printer.

“It’s a full campus initiative at this point,” explains Kennedy.

“This has been a life-changing experience,” says Fiona Zimmerman, a St. Edward’s junior. “Through this program, we have a really big experience to see how they live. Even though it’s through Skype, we’re truly living with them and being a pretty big part of their lives. I think they’ve had the same effect on us.”

Her brother Ivor Zimmerman, a senior, adds, “Studies have shown that the best ways to help a society or an economy is to educate the people. Once people are educated, they can educate the next generation. Education is one of the most important resources for a place to have.”

Eddie Pines, a junior, was surprised at how much he had in common with the children in Ahero, adding that the global connection has been a rewarding experience.

“I get the joy of teaching these kids and helping them accomplish something good in their life,” he says.

“This has opened the students up to new ways of thinking about the world and what they have to give. It’s a really good feeling to think that you’ve helped a kid get to the next stage of their education, potentially out of that situation,” says Kennedy.

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