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The Dignitas Project: Private Low-Cost Schools in Mathare

The Dignitas Project: Private Low-Cost Schools in Mathare

I remember the first time I heard the concept of single mothers in a slum sending their children to private schools—I was 20 years old, and studying HIV-positive women entrepreneurs in Kibera. As I sat with a woman discussing her monthly spending, she told me she spent around 4000 shillings (~$45 USD) on school tuition for one child a year. In a place where most residents earn less than $1 USD a day, this is an enormous sum.

“With so little money, why in the world would she not send her children to the free public schools?” I thought to myself in dismay.

Little did I realize that for many children in other countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, China, and India, private schools symbolize a chance out of poverty and into better lives.

In 2003, Kenya launched its Free Primary Education (FPE) Programme. Enrolment shot up rapidly as many touted it as a step toward a better future for Kenya. However, free primary education created new problems that were not addressed in advance of such an ambitious endeavor. With a high influx of pupils came congested classrooms and an inability to meet the need of every individual seeking out an education. Quality fell as eager children flooded schools. As a response, private, low-cost schools were created by community members to meet the growing demand for education. These schools can be found all over slums in Nairobi, including Mathare Valley.

Mathare Valley is the second largest slum in Nairobi and has an estimated population of 600,000 people. Imagine the city of Boston squeezed into a space 1/30th of its size and you get Mathare. There are just three free government primary schools educating 3,000 children. If we estimate that half the population is children, then Mathare has 300,000 children. Where are the other 297,000 children going to school?

Over 18,000 of these children attend low-cost community schools in Mathare. Many of these schools face the same issues that government schools do such as overcrowding, lack of facilities and teachers, and more. However, these low-cost private schools do not have access to the same funding and resources that government schools have. Teachers are paid significantly less, and the sums parents pay must cover all of the school’s operational expenses such as rent and salaries. Despite all the odds being against them, a substantial number of these schools remarkably outperform government schools in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), the standardized exam that students in Standard 8 take to move on to secondary school. There is so much potential in these schools, but little is done to support them.

We always talk about educating women and children, yet we never talk about the quality of education they’re receiving. Why?

Dignitas Project, an education non-profit based in Mathare Valley, seeks to improve education quality by developing school and community-based leaders. We recruit teachers, principals, and emerging community leaders into our leadership institute program, a 1-year partnership where they are provided on-site support, professional development, technical assistance, and coaching. In addition, these leaders undergo an intensive three-week training where they grapple with ethics, how to invest students and families in the learning process, and develop a strong sense of agency, understanding that what they do matters. We attempt to build upon the talents that already exist in the community. In order to have a real, long-lasting, sustainable impact, we believe that the community needs to meaningfully engage in making change.

Locals outside the caso upendo exterior dignitas project in Kenya, Africa

Caso Upendo, one of Dignitas Project’s new partner schools in Kenya, Africa.
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All parents seek to equip their children for a better future. To many in Mathare, these low-cost community schools symbolize hope and a chance for dignity through education.

Eugenia Lee, Dignitas Project Program Associate, is a recent graduate of Tufts University with a passion for education, social entrepreneurship, and alleviating urban poverty. She has studied HIV-positive women in Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, home-based businesses in Dharavi in Mumbai, India, and conducted a school mapping project for Dignitas Project in 2010. She has experience in community and grassroots organizing, researching various issues in informal settlements, and believes strongly in Dignitas Project’s mission of developing teachers and leaders of the Mathare Valley community.