Rose looked up as a plane flew over her school and smiled. “I want to be a pilot when I grow up,” she said. Rose and I were standing outside her school in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi and the second largest slum in Africa. An estimated one million people within a 2.5 square kilometer radius live in this slum.
I was in Kenya to see the administration of the Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA) with RTI. In between my observations of the EGMA and classrooms, I got an opportunity to talk to some students about their interests in math and science, and what they want to be when they grow up. Despite the conditions they live in and their school environments, the children I spoke with are positive about their future and have admirable dreams they want to achieve…however, reality shows their difficult economic and school environments, and how these challenges may become barriers for these children to achieve their dreams.
Meet Rose, age 10, Kibera Slums, Nairobi, Kenya
Like other children growing up in Kibera, Rose faces many challenges that can jeopardize her education. In addition to growing up in awful living conditions, there is a lack of basic infrastructure and services in Kibera including safe water, proper housing and sanitation, health services, and access to an education. Because of the environment, many children go into prostitution, early marriage, and substance abuse. Most of the parents, who they themselves are either illiterate or do not have a education beyond primary school, work odd jobs, and struggle to make ends meet.
In addition to the environment of Kibera, Rose’s school, which is held up by tin walls is small – 6 classes are held within 15 square meters, and each class is divided by a thin metal makeshift wall. The classes in Rose’s school do not have proper lighting, and the one classroom board at the front of the class is difficult to read from a 2 meter distance. In addition, because of a lack of teachers, students are left alone for periods of time because teachers rotate from class to class. But, Rose, who is one of the brightest children in her school, and loves math, does not realize how these challenges can come in the way of her dreams. She excitedly tells me, “I count at least 5 planes that fly over my school every day. It’s exciting to see where they are going. I know that studying math and science will help me become a pilot.”
Meet James, age 9, rural Thika, Kenya
About an hour northeast of Nairobi, in the rural area of Thika, I met James, who wants to be a doctor when he grows up. To achieve his dream, James needs a strong foundation in math and science.
Unfortunately, like Rose’s school in Kibera, James’ school also lacks proper infrastructure. There is no electricity in the classrooms, and children rely on light from outside to do their work. Classes are large – 40 to 50 students per class – which makes it difficult for creative approaches to learning and management of students, therefore, pedagogy is limited to rote memorization, or reciting.
The principal of James’ school worries about her students. She says many of her students do not complete primary school, or if they finish, they don’t go to secondary school. One of the main obstacles for students, she says, is the lack of guidance from home. Just like the parents in Kibera, these parents also do not have awareness about the importance of education, and themselves are illiterate or have minimal education. The principal mentioned that many of her students drop out of primary school to work loading rocks on trucks, which is right behind the school, or go to Nairobi to work as maids.
James, who was scalded by hot water when he was 5, knows the power of doctors. Rolling up his sleeves, and looking at his scars, he told me that a doctor saved his life. “I want to be able to do the same for someone else,” he said.
Rose and James both have dreams that will require strong foundations in math and science. Unfortunately, many of our partner developing countries face challenges in providing early grade math education to their children. The Global Partnership can help Rose and James achieve their dreams. Under the strategic priority of improving learning outcomes and the quality of education, the Global Partnership recognizes that a strong foundation in mathematics during the early grades is crucial for future success in mathematics. Ensuring that students develop basic mathematics competencies in the early grades is essential for a country to build a strong foundation for every day and applied mathematics, as well as science and technology.
 The Global Partnership’s desire to work on early grade math is also noted in our Global Partnership for Education policy pledge, our quality strategy paper (presented to the Board in November 2011), and in the Global and Regional Activities (GRA) program.