Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Happier Days

Sorry for not posting any original content in recent days.  I have been overwhelmed by the amount of administrative work I've had to do while in the States as well as suffering against the cold, which I am not used to, and has somehow sunken into my bones and nestled there.  I'm currently writing under a thick duvet, loads of extra blankets, and my favorite oversized sweater, and I'm STILL not warm.  I guess ten years in equatorial Africa will do that to you!

Anyway, I just thought I'd put up this cute video of me and my mom from the year that former Toa board member, Barbara Finkelstein, came to visit Moshi.  We had descended upon Msaranga Primary School for one of our famous "Friday Fundays," and were making paper crowns, pirates for the boys and princesses for the girls (, not that Toa insists upon sticking to traditional gender roles.  Always down for hijinks with the kids, Carla went all out on her princess crown.

It's a nice memory from a time in my life that felt really hopeful and happy unlike my current mood which is pretty much just overwhelmed and anxious and COLD at all times.  Sigh.  I know this too shall pass, but I am not enjoying life as a depressed popsicle....  At least I'll be back in Moshi in a mere six weeks!

Be well, everyone!!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Race Space

Please have a look below at this fascinating article from the Hechinger Report, a news outlet that "covers inequality and innovation in education with in-depth journalism that uses research, data, and stories from classrooms and campuses to show the public how education can be improved and why it matters."

I have reprinted the bulk of the lengthy and informative article written by Sarah Butrymowicz and Isaac Carey, but you can find the whole thing here, with some interesting tangential links:  Apparently, this piece is part of a larger series in collaboration with the Huffington Post that I will have to delve into at a later date when I have more time, but which can be found here if your appetites are whetted:

My point in sharing this piece is to highlight the difficulty in providing quality education to special needs students of color in a developed context.  How then to educate special needs students in Africa?  The story of Colson Brown is heartwarming and I applaud his mother for her persistence in getting her kid the care he needed to succeed.  But the story of Kenyatta Burns and the Durham Public Schools is a much more common reality.  I'm guessing that's true here in the United States as well as on the African continent.


Special Education's Hidden Racial Gap: Across the country, black and Latino children with special needs are far less likely to graduate than their white peers.

WASHINGTON — At the age of 3, Tyrone Colson was diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic abnormality that is often accompanied by developmental disabilities.  Because of this diagnosis, an individualized education plan (IEP) — documents detailing Colson's special needs, and a plan for how his school would help him reach his potential — was already in place when Colson arrived for his first day of school.

In theory, being diagnosed before he even started school should have given Colson a leg up.  The odds he faced, as a black boy in special education, were actually stacked against him.

"The services are out there, but a lot of times, parents of color just don't have the information and resources they need to fight for them," said Daisy Brown, Tyrone's mother.  Brown spent years pushing schools to follow the law, after giving up her job doing administrative support work for a government relations firm.

White students with special needs are far more likely to graduate with a traditional diploma than are their black and brown peers.  In ways big and small, the effects of race and racism magnify the negative consequences that often come with being placed into special education.  Not only are non-white students more likely to be assigned to lower resourced schools that struggle to provide them with the services they are entitled to, but navigating the special education system often presents unique challenges for parents of color, experts say.

A Hechinger Report analysis of federal data exposes the stark racial gap between different groups of special education students.  Nationally, 76% of white students in special education who exited high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma.  That falls to 65% for Hispanic students and 62% for black students with special needs.  But those racial gaps are much wider in some states.

In Wisconsin, 84% of white students in special education who exited high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma, while just 53% of black students and 71% Latino students with disabilities did so.  In Nevada, which has some of the very worst outcomes in the country for students with disabilities, just 17% of black students and 27% of Latino students exited with a regular diploma.  Nearly 40% of Nevada's white students with special needs received a diploma.

In essence, a special education placement exacerbates racial inequalities seen throughout the education system.  Experts say black and Latino parents often feel ignored and belittled at meetings with school officials, and their special needs children are more likely to attend schools in high-poverty districts that lack the resources to provide them with the services they need to catch up.

Paul Morgan, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that the economic disadvantage often faced by black and Latino special needs children has been exacerbated by the way Congress funds special education.  The federal government has failed to pay 40% of the "excess cost" of educating children with disabilities, a responsibility outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The burden of making up for those unfunded expenses falls on schools, and particularly hard on the poorer school districts that disproportionately serve black and brown students.

But the problem runs much deeper than differences between school districts.  In Washington, D.C., where there is just one school district, 77% of white students with special needs who exited during the 2014-15 school year left with a diploma, while just 57% of their black and Latino peers did.

In addition to being more likely to live in neighborhoods with better resourced schools, white and affluent parents are also often better positioned to take advantage of federal disability law to get what they need for their children, said Morgan.  "These services are often difficult to secure, they're expensive and schools don't necessarily want to provide them," he said.  "So it's parents who are better resourced, in terms of information and social networks and time, that are able to persist and go through the legal wrangling sometimes necessary to get what they need."

Morgan's research demonstrates that even when children in the same schools display the same needs, white English-speaking children are more likely to receive the services that they need to excel.

Even a well-informed parent like Daisy Brown, who spent hours on the internet researching special education services after she became her ailing mother's full-time caretaker, hit roadblocks when she tried to advocate for her son.  In middle school, administrators wanted to cut back the number of hours of speech therapy Tyrone received from one and a half hours a week to half an hour per week.  Brown was certain that her son would fall behind without those extra hours, so she used Tyrone's health insurance, a Medicaid program for children with disabilities, to get him help from outside services.  Brown picked him up every Thursday afternoon to go to a local hospital to get the additional therapy.  For the next five years, "Therapy Thursdays" became a family tradition.

The next hurdle came while Colson was still in middle school, when Brown realized that he had been placed on what is called the certificate track, which meant he would graduate with a certificate of completion, an alternate diploma that is not recognized by most colleges and employers.  That began a four-year-long fight to get him onto the diploma track.  "I just wasn't going to let them put him on the certificate track, where they just give them a piece of paper so they could work at a gas station," said Brown.

Colson, who is on the autism spectrum, initially had trouble using and comprehending complex words, but thanks to the additional therapy he received, Brown felt he had made great strides.  But school administrators ignored that progress, Brown said.

"He was smarter than anyone in the class.  The teacher counted on him to help her with the other students," Brown recalled.  "I would just keep going in and telling them, 'I think my son can be on the diploma track.'  But they put up brick walls."

Around the country, black and Latino students are far more likely to be put on the track toward these alternative diplomas.  During the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year of available federal data, more than 37,000 students with special needs graduated with a certificate instead of a diploma.  And while black and Latino students made up just 45% of students who exited the special education system that year, they made up 57% of those who received a certificate.  White students, on the other hand, were much more likely to leave high school with a traditional diploma.

Brown eventually used Tyrone's insurance for a second evaluation, outside of the school.  "The school's evaluations will tell you that the school is giving the child exactly what they need," said Brown.  The outside evaluation convinced school administrators to retest Colson: This time, they found he was ready for the diploma track.

While district spokesperson Kristina Saccone declined to address the specifics of Colson's case, citing federal student privacy laws, she said that the district is aware of these achievement gaps and is committed in its new strategy plan to addressing them.  Among the plan's strategic priorities is strengthening instruction for special education students.

"It's really important to continue to look at the achievement gap; it's a challenge for us and it's something that we are working on," said Saccone.  "We just got a report from the American Institutes for Research, highlighting the progress the district has made, but also specifically focusing on the achievement gaps that remain particularly for students of color and special education students."

Colson became one of the students to narrow that gap.  He eventually graduated with a traditional diploma, and is currently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia.  Brown's voice fills with pride when she talks about how her son excelled once he was placed on the diploma track.  "His transcript looks so beautiful, it's scary.  It starts out with him on the certificate track in ninth grade, and then he moves over to the diploma track, and there isn't a single C or D on that diploma-track work," she said.

Brown is matter-of-fact when she talks about the sacrifice she had to make to ensure her son beat the odds, however.  To help him succeed, she had to quit her own career.  "I realize that if I didn't leave the workforce my son wouldn't be as far along as he is," said Brown.

Not all students are as lucky.  Kenyatta Burns' story highlights what happens to the many black students in special education who don't have a parent in their corner, let alone one who is willing and able to quit their job and devote themselves full time to advocating for their child.  As a child, the now 20-year-old North Carolina native was in and out of foster care and often struggled with behavior problems.  Eventually, she received a diagnosis of ADHD and bipolar disorder.  The diagnoses should have triggered extra supports at school, but Burns said that much-needed help never materialized.

While Burns struggled at a Durham, North Carolina, elementary school, she says she began to catch up academically after she transferred to a middle school in nearby Raleigh.  But her success was short-lived.  She ended up back at Durham Public Schools in eighth grade.  That year, the school didn't ask her to take any end-of-course exams.  Instead, she was put in a room to watch movies while other students took their tests.  She was passed up to ninth grade anyway.

"When I got to high school, I crashed.  I didn't know what was going on," she said.  "I was screaming for help with work....  I would just sit in the room and let the days go by."

At the end of ninth grade, Burns' mom gave her a choice: go to school full-time or work full-time.  She picked working at a McDonald's.  Since making that decision, Burns has changed course, and is now pursuing a high school equivalency degree, with tutoring help from the Durham Literacy Center.  When she started going to the center two years ago, she said, she didn't even know how to multiply whole numbers.  She added she's learned a lot — including how inadequately the public schools prepared her.

"Now I thank God, I didn't let them skip me up.  I would have had a high school diploma, [but] would have never known how to.... use my commas, put in periods, capitalize words," she said.

The tutors at the literacy center work with Burns one-on-one and are patient when she doesn't understand something.  "That's what I wish I would have had in high school," she said.

"An IEP doesn’t mean that you're slow, it just means you have a hard time learning things," she added, referring to an Individualized Education Program: a set of documents, services, and supports given to all students in special education.

So far, Burns has passed the language arts portion of the high school equivalency exam and is hoping to go into real estate when she finishes the other sections.

Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer at Durham Public Schools, confirmed in an email that Burns had been a student in the system.  Sudderth said that the majority of students receiving special education services are on track to receive a regular diploma and spend the bulk of their time in classrooms with their general education peers.  The unique needs of each student are determined by a team of educators, the parents, and sometimes the student.

Meanwhile, in Washington, after learning how to make the system work for her son, Daisy Brown started looking for ways to help other children.  Brown now sits on two committees, one put together by the District's Department of Disability Services and another run by the D.C. Medicare program from which Tyrone received outside services and evaluations.  Both committees aim to help Washington children navigate the special education system.  As part of that work Brown runs workshops for parents on how to advocate for their children.

"It's not just about helping that child, it's helping that family be able to help that child.  Parents must learn how to get the help that they need," said Brown.  "As a parent, you have to break down the bricks that they put in front of you.  It's not an easy thing to do."

Parents who are aware of their rights can help close the gaps for their kids, Brown said.  "The first time, a parent sits down at an IEP meeting and can talk about what these scores mean and what concerns them, their [officials'] mouths drop," she said.  "They see this is not a parent who I can pull the wool over their eyes.  I've seen so many doors opened for parents."

Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, said the problem is much deeper than an information gap.  Racism and a lack of cultural competency often pervade meetings between school officials and parents and make it difficult for black and brown families to get what they need for their children, she said.

"Often people blame families for not being more involved, but schools are more likely to listen to white and upper-class parents," said Fine.  "Privileged parents are listened to.  When poor parents and parents of color fight for their children, they are seen as aggressive....  They are treated as if they don't know what they are talking about."

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Come Together

As anyone working in development can attest to, the most important thing of all (besides donors, besides resources, besides impact metrics and theories of change) is a solid public-private partnership with the local government players.

Without this fundamental groundwork in place, any change an NGO attempts to enact will likely fail or be short-lived.  One cannot underestimate the worth of local buy-in when trying to effect change in a developing country - not just at the community level, which is fairly easily won if you have a good idea and a vision of how that idea will bloom into action, but also at the government level, whether it be ward, district, region, or national.

Toa has made significant headway in solidifying our relationships with the Regional Commissioner of Kilimanjaro, the District Executive Director of Moshi Municipality, and all the various councilmen and women in the wards where we work.  I'm hoping to further strengthen these relationships in the year to come as Toa cannot operate in Tanzania without this all-important support.

Thus, the following article from the Tanzania Daily News caught my eye and piqued my interest.  It is about the insistence of the Zanzibari government that the state and NGOs be partners.

I'm pretty sure that the title of this blog entry, a nod to a popular Beatles song, is about some weird '60s druggy stuff, but for the purposes of Toa, let's keep it clean and focus on this couplet from the ditty: I know you, you know me / One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.

Come together.  Right now.  Over me.


The Minister of State at the President's Office, Zanzibar, Mr. Issa Haji Ussi, yesterday urged non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to complement the government's efforts to provide the best education possible to Tanzanians.

He said they should work closely and collaboratively in pursuing social development agendas, to neutralize the perception by some community members, that they were rivals.  Mr. Ussi made the remarks when gracing an event to launch a new office for Green Light Foundation in Zanzibar, an NGO which supports and motivates students across the country.

"NGOs should not fight or antagonize the government but work collaboratively with government institutions instead, towards achieving our development goals," the minister said.

Mr. Ussi said civil societies had a great role to play in supporting the government's provision of social services that include education, and commended the GLF for its commitment to address challenges facing Tanzanian students.

"As a nation, we need to create a learned society and I commend you for supporting that cause, thereby helping students prepare a better future for themselves, their families, and for the nation at large.  Without educating our young people, and imparting skills and knowledge on them, the nation will hardly attain the much needed success," he said.

The chairperson of the Green Light Foundation, Mr. Salim Omary, told the minister that the foundation was focused on motivating and inspiring students who are in need of both tangible and intangible assistance in Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania.

"We normally provide them with financial and material assistance including uniforms, bags, text and exercise books, and calculators that would enable students to best and easily cope with the educational challenges.  "But we also visit them, talk to them, and inspire them to pursue their dreams and avoid distractions that spoil their future," Mr. Omary said.

As part of the activities to mark the opening of the foundation's office, GLF conducted a tour to the State University of Zanzibar where two young entrepreneurs, Jokate Mwegelo and Nice-Monique Kimaryo gave motivational speeches to students.

The key theme was inspiring the student population to recognize self-employment as a viable career path.  The two young women shared their success stories and offered advice on how the students could venture into entrepreneurship amid the rising unemployment rate among college graduates.

"Let your education be a tool for exploiting many opportunities around you.  Set your dream and follow it relentlessly; you can be anyone you want to be as long as you stay focused," Ms. Jokate, a renowned actress and CEO of Kidoti Company, remarked.

Jokate was named by Africa Youth Awards as among the 100 Most Influential Young Africans in August of this year. Her company produces slippers, wigs, school bags, and other fashion accessories, under the Kidoti brand.

Ms. Nice-Kimaryo, a recent accounting graduate and co-founder and director of Go-Kimz Ltd, urged the would-be graduates at SUZA to use the education they had acquired to formulate business ideas.

She said they started with almost nothing, but gradually, and after studying the market, they were able to launch a brand called Kimz Hair that sells quality hair for crochet and other styles and their business had grown tremendously.

"Pitch your ideas to people and they will support you.  There is nothing like using the opportunity that you have right now: for instance, how do you use social media?  For us, our brand has grown through the use of social media.  We have many followers right now," she stated.