Quaker Valley teacher visits Kenya to help improve education
Seeing a friend's photos of children in Kenya moved Stacy Tessaro to want to visit the African country.
“My heart just went out to the children,” said Tessaro, 53 of McCandless.
The Quaker Valley Middle School science teacher went to Kenya in June to learn about its education system and find out if there was anything long term she could do to help improve education there.
She stayed in the coastal town of Ukunda with her friend Maria Allewelt of Marshall, the founder of Reflecting God's Grace Ministries, which helps children and women in Kenya.
Allewelt was able to arrange her visits to five schools.
“There's a lot of economic struggle there … Kenyans really value education. They do definitely see it as the way out of poverty,” Tessaro said.
There is a lot of pressure on students there because they must take tests that determine the quality of the high school they will attend, and in high school take tests that determine if they can go to college and how much financial aid they get, Tessaro said.
Students who don't do well on the tests for high school could end up in a school where classes have 60 students and the library has no books, she said.
“The tests pretty much just focus on memorization,” she said. “Students are taught how to do well on the test but not how to think or to problem solve.”
Classes don't involve the number of hands-on activities those in the United States do, Tessaro said.
By the end of the school year, Tessaro said, her seventh-graders have dissected 11 things, culminating with a cow eye, sheep heart and pig kidney.
When she shared photos of her students doing dissections with teachers in Kenya, they said that in their country, students wouldn't have that kind of opportunity until college.
Tessaro said that is partly because of the expense of supplies and partly because so much of the curriculum centers on the memorization needed to pass the tests.
High schools are segregated by gender, and Tessaro taught a chemistry class in a boys school and in a girls school.
“The kids could give me definitions, but they didn't understand the concepts,” she said.
She also taught a lesson on metamorphosis in insects and frogs to fourth- and fifth-graders at an elementary school.
The students were behind students in those grades here, which she attributes in part to the fact that the language for school in the former British colony is English, but children frequently don't know English before they start classes.
They typically speak a tribal language or Swahili.
The children essentially start school as English-as-a-second-language students, she said.
Students are well behaved because of the value placed on education and the recognition that it is a privilege, Tessaro said.
Although the country's primary and secondary schools are tuition free, financial issues still can prevent children from attending school, because families need to pay for books and uniforms.
“It's hard to live in Kenya,” Tessaro said.
When she ate lunch with teachers, the meal was beans and corn, she said.
“It's animal corn. It's not even corn we would eat,” she said.
The teachers wanted to know what she eats at home, and it was hard to have that conversation because the Kenyans couldn't imagine not eating corn constantly and the variety of food available to her.
She accompanied a church group to a school library to meet with a group of girls and provide them with feminine-hygiene products because girls often have to miss classes during their periods because they don't have the supplies.
“It was a very large room, and there wasn't a single book,” Tessaro said.
Tessaro's trip wasn't all research.
She said she visited Diani Beach, which was beautiful, and enjoyed seeing animals on a safari and the scenery.
“It was green and flowers and monkeys on the side of the road,” she said.
The country has a lot of natural resources, but most of the people don't benefit, Tessaro said: “There's a few people who are rich and a lot who are poor.”
She said the trip gave her a better understanding of the challenges facing the education system in Kenya but no clear way to help at this point.
Allewelt said she first visited Kenya in 1984 and fell in love with the country and the people.
Later, she and her husband, Gil, lived in Kenya for three years and returned to the United States when he became sick. Since he died in 2011, she has spent time in Kenya each year.
She said that as someone who has spent a lot of time in Kenya, it was interesting to host Tessaro, a first-time visitor.
“It's always interesting if someone comes from a different culture. They see things differently for the first time. Fresh eyes see different things,” Allewelt said.
Madelyn Dinnerstein is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.