Starkid School and Rescue Center Trip: Practicum in International Affairs

by Hannah Barrueta Sacksteder, Brigid Miller, Lisa I. Romero, Thea Smaavik Hegstad, and Paw Velling

“All the data that you are presenting is wrong,” said Rosalyn Kimatu, director of Starkid School and Rescue Centre. This is not what you want to hear from your client after working for six months to produce a data report that you flew halfway around the world to present. Stumbling through an apology, we assured Rosalyn that we would review the data and return with the correct findings.IMG_0148

In April 2018, five GPIAers – Hannah, Lisa, Brigid, Paw, Thea – traveled to Nairobi, Kenya with the purpose of presenting a report, conducting data collection and installing monitoring and evaluation protocols for follow-up data collection, and testing some Worst and Best Practices for our client, Starkid School and Rescue Centre. Located in Nairobi’s Githogoro slum, Starkid boards around 60 orphans and vulnerable children, and provides an education to over 200 students in the surrounding community. Struggling through economic hardship and with an eye on fundraising, Starkid enlisted a GPIA student team to evaluate its educational performance with the aim of producing a grant proposal and attracting donors. Led by our fearless commander, Professor Mark Johnson we spent our PIA I semester evaluating the available data on Starkid, which let us tell you, was not easy to acquire. The Starkid exam scores were low, most very low, with nothing above a B-, a sprinkling of C’s, but mostly D’s and below, including four Fails. University admission in Kenya requires a C+, so we set that as one standard of success. We compared the Starkid scores with the national averages, which were surprisingly difficult to acquire, and found a similar trend of very low scores – F’s and D’s. While this was not the bright shiny measure of success we had envisioned, it meant that we could certainly make the case that this slum school was achieving at the level of national average in spite of tremendous obstacles.After producing an initial report and subsequent grant proposal, Starkid’s U.S. partner, African Children’s Haven, invited us to Kenya to present our findings, and supplied generous financial and on-ground support. We were ecstatic. Luckily, GPIA graciously provided each of us with a travel scholarship and a Studley Fund grant to implement work from the s “Best and Worst Practices in International Aid” Studio, led by Prof. Mark, in which we were enrolled.  Like many PIA students participating in the New School’s Practicum in International Affairs (PIA) option for a final project, we were eager to field test our two years of in-classroom learning.

We had only one week in Nairobi to present our report and conduct monitoring and evaluation (and do a little sightseeing). Our first task was to finally visit the school to weigh and measure the kids, in order to calculate their Body Mass Index (BMI) levels as an indicator of nourishment . We thought that this would be simple and straightforward -, how young and naive we were. After meeting the students and walking through the school, which is made up of several small, tin-roofed brick-buildings, we started the measurement process. We quickly set up in a classroom an assembly-line system where we all had our own crucial jobs. Lisa coaxed the students with cookies to line them up, Hannah would ask them to step on and off a scale, Thea and Mark would measure heights, we would all bark out our numbers, and Brigid would input the data on to the computer – nobody knows what Paw was off doing. As we speedily processed 20 students, thinking to ourselves, “We are so clever and effective. We will be done in no time,” the electricity went out. All data we had input but had not saved was lost. Fantastic.

So we started again. Lisa re-gathered all the children back, we re-weighed and re-measured, and wrote the data into a printed spreadsheet. No need for electricity. But we had a new problem – our hosts and wranglers were yelling at us that we had to leave immediately in order to make our next appointment. We held them off by lying that we were almost finished. After one hour and 60 children, we completed this first task, and headed to our next appointment which, it must be noted, we were only a little late for.

Later that week, came the presentation fiasco. The data report presentation was the foundation of the workshop. Since we had worked so hard on the report and Mark had prepared us thoroughly for these workshops, we believed nothing could go wrong.

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Later that week, came the presentation fiasco. The data report presentation was the foundation of the workshop. Since we had worked so hard on the report and Mark had prepared us thoroughly for these workshops, we believed nothing could go wrong.

On the first day, we met the 15-plus Starkid teachers, after which Brigid led us through an ice-breaker  Community Mapping exercise, which is meant to draw out meaningful community sites, such as, in this case, churches, hospitals, the police station, and speed bumps. Yes, speed bumps. We found out they were significant because kids were being killed trying to cross the highway in front of the school, and the new speed bumps has made the crossing safer.

The next agenda item was Thea guiding the group through a “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” (S.W.O.T.) exercise, to highlight and prioritize the school’s main needs. Breaking up into small groups, each facilitated by a New School team member, the teachers walked us through their concerns. This activity was incredibly successful. Full of promise, we moved on to the grand report presentation. Then Rosalyn rained on our parade.

“All the data that you are presenting is wrong,” said Rosalyn.

“Excuse me? No, that can’t be.”

Rosalyn was right – but so were we. The data was wrong, but that was because we had based our report on the data that was sent to us – which was faulty due to a communications mix-up. Earlier in the year, after numerous email requests, we had received what appeared to be the school’s secondary exam scores. They were in fact primary school exam scores, which made our subsequent findings and data analysis incorrect. Did we mention that this report was the main reason for our trip?

We quickly apologized. The next morning Rosalyn brought the correct secondary school data, and we began new analysis. On the bright side, we were now certain it was the correct data. On the not-so-bright side, the students’ examination results were worse – one C- and nothing above that, with most students in the D-range.

We shared the new findings, and the teachers did not seem overly concerned. “At Starkid, we don’t compare the children by grades,” one teacher, Patricia, said. “We look at them as unique individuals with a lot of talents. They cannot all get A’s but some are artists or can run fast and we appreciate their uniqueness. We seek to see their individual improvement.” Will funders who measure success through high exam scores appreciate that sentiment? IMG_0278

The second workshop day was chaotic. Again breaking up into small groups, we discussed the faculty’s top five priorities that had emerged from the SWOT exercise. Exploring ways to support the school, such as teacher salary increases, school supplies, transportation (school bus), food, and teacher training, we noticed the Starkid community becoming excited about the possibilities of obtaining what was being discussed.  We had to temper this excitement with some real-talk about how, while we would do our best to deliver on the priorities, the world of fundraising was harsh. This is unfortunately true. Our limited grantwriting and fundraising experience had taught us that, while we would like to raise money for higher teacher salaries and better teaching supplies, sometimes these goals are simply unmeetable. This does not mean we will not try. We will. We are an obstinate bunch. Lisa is working on applying for funding to support current Starkid students with scholarships for school fees, uniforms, and books. Paw is attempting to create a “best-practice” slum tour in the Githogoro area, highlighting Starkid as the main stop to increase donations. Thea is exploring voluntourism opportunities that could bring a foreign volunteer teacher who would also have to pay to hire a new local teacher, so as not to displace any labor. Hannah and Brigid are re-writing the data report. As a team, we are writing an unexpected grant proposal for a school bus, which would address the community’s expressed need for transportation as well as generate revenue through rental of the bus to other community members.

Starkid was originally just a Practicum, a way to wrap-up our time at SGPIA. However, it became an experience where our client told us our work of many months was completely wrong. Without the opportunity to visit the school and interact directly with the director, teachers, and community, the students would have remained as mere numbers in our minds. The data report would have remained incorrect, and therefore ineffective.  We would have graduated and the small school in Kenya would have faded from memory. Yet, our experience made it palpable. We saw Rosalyn’s resourcefulness, the teachers’ dedication, the students’ hard work, and the inaccuracy of our report. We finally grasped that our job was to listen and observe, and we were able to transform the experience – and the data – into a grant proposal in the hopes of leaving a longer-lasting impact on Starkid.

If the Practicum’s aim is to merge in-classroom learning with real-life experience, our trip to Kenya delivered on this goal. One thing is certain – we learned from our mistakes. We adapted to realities and not to our idealized expectations. As a team, we backed each other up and worked together to tackle the many angles of a community-based project such as this one. We learned that in order to be right, we sometimes first had to be wrong. So, the next time a client tells us, “All the data that you are presenting is wrong,” we can respond with “Okay. How can we fix it?”

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The team!