This summer, 11 School of International Service graduate students participated in a unique practicum in Kenya, led by Professor Amanda Taylor, which focused on community development through education. The SIS practicum program is designed to give second-year master’s students real world experience in project management and consulting while preparing them for post-graduate careers.
In the Kenya-based practicum, called “Leadership Development, Program Design, and Assessment in International Education,” students had the opportunity to conduct field research and provide recommendations to a local non-governmental organization (NGO).
Nearly 70 percent of Nairobi’s population lives in informal settlements, with limited or no access to government services, including public education. Despite the elimination of school fees by the Kenyan government, which allowed greater access to schools by poor children, the capacity of schools to educate more children has not increased, creating a new barrier to receiving a quality education.
Taylor explains, “To fill this gap in education, residents of informal settlements developed their own schools but often lacked skilled leadership, teacher training, or the infrastructure to meet the needs of their students. In 2008, Dignitas, a Nairobi-based NGO, began partnering with these schools to strengthen leadership, improve instructional quality, and provide infrastructural support to help schools create an environment where all children can fulfill their potential. To advance its mission, Dignitas wanted to evaluate its work as well as strengthen its education for community development model.”
SIS students, working in teams, were given three tasks:
• Develop a progression model to allow Dignitas to help its partner schools transition to independence
• Design a culturally-responsive and comprehensive educational program evaluation toolkit
• Create a parent-community leadership development program
Dignitas has found it difficult to easily transfer teacher and leadership development program responsibilities to its partner schools. One practicum team looked at best practices from peer organizations and used information from interviews to develop a new model for Dignitas to implement, so that schools can more easily transition to independence.
Another team developed a toolkit to track and evaluate the organization’s teacher and leadership development program. Student achievement is often measured by test results, but at these schools, student populations fluctuate, making it difficult to know if teacher development programs are having an effect because not all students sit for tests. The team interviewed teachers, collected data, and developed a mechanism to evaluate the impact the programs have on teachers, which ultimately impacts student achievement.
The final team was tasked with designing a parent and community leadership development program to better engage parents as one step in community transformation through education. The group interviewed parents and community leaders as well as members of the Dignitas staff to determine what the stakeholders were most interested in and what was feasible to implement.
Mikaela Spencer, SIS/MA ‘16, describes the experience as a “hands on experiential learning component. It was fascinating to learn about Dignitas during class sessions and then travel to Nairobi to see the organization in action, observe how it functions up close, and carry out our group plan for our own research.”
Upon returning to the United States, students presented their recommendations to Dignitas. Taylor noted, “Students were inspired by the passion and commitment of community leaders to improve education for their children. And the work they completed and the opportunity to be in the field helped put into context what they learn in the classroom.”
Emilie Cooper, SIS/MA ‘16, said, “Working for Dignitas with the SIS Kenya practicum team was an invaluable professional experience that helped me grow as an international development practitioner. My fellow students and I established a positive working relationship with our client by understanding its needs, following up with requests, and producing requested deliverables under strict deadlines. Learning how to prepare and execute a work plan on the ground and engage in field research are skills I will certainly use in my future career. The “real life” experience of working as a consultant on a team was a challenging, rewarding milestone in my professional growth.”
To learn more about the practicum program at the School of International Service, visit: http://www.american.edu/sis/practica/index.cfm.