19 April 2014

Uganda: Taibah Flips Convention to Embrace All

When I ask why her school, Taibah International School, is known as a home for stubborn rebellious children, Edna Byenkya replies in a matter-of-fact manner.

"There is that stereotype that we are spoilt but each school you go to, you find a group which behaves in a way that is not agreeable ... One thing is certain, we are different because of the different nationalities. You learn different views and ideas; so, you learn a lot from everyone," Byenkya says.

To many parents, that would qualify as the height of arrogance. Yet in fact, her self-esteem and assertiveness is the kind schools should be looking out for - children bold enough to speak their minds and defend themselves in an intelligent conversation.

They are the kind employers are looking for - assertive and multitalented enough to survive in the job market. For many parents who have not been to and interacted with Taibah International School, it comes off as a school for rich spoilt kids, who don't care about education and pay more attention to growing long hair and luxury.

Best in Africa

But Ayikoru Asiki, one of the school's recent graduates, was not only the best in Uganda in the 2013 Cambridge IGCSE exams; she was also the best in Africa. Asiki scored over 90% in all her eight subjects. The British Council is still tallying her results against those of all IGCSE candidates, to find out if she beat all Cambridge students in the world.

She didn't just go away with good grades but with great talent in music and drama, a core activity at Taibah, Asiki is now an assistant teacher at a college in the UK where she is also a student. Like Asiki, Byenkya is convinced she is special.

When she was joining, her parents' intention was for Byenkya to get the best in her academic work. Along the way, they realised she needed a balance between academics and co-curricular activities. Taibah is about more than what you learn from class and what you get out of the books. To them, exams are part of the education system and not an end.

The school encourages students to learn from themselves, leading to impressive performances in theatre productions, work experience and entrepreneurship.

"My parents now encourage me to balance out academics and co-curricula activities because they go hand-in-hand. I perform really well and I would say if I was in another school, I don't think I would have got the grades I got in O-level," she says.

"We have a process where they switch teachers. The teachers in year 11 are always around 24 hours seven days. They were very helpful."

First, they do not turn away any child whether suspended from another school or considered unmanageable by their parents, as long as they book early. According to the assistant Principal Edward Lukwago, Taibah has an open policy that embraces students who are not well endowed in the academics, as well as those who are hyperactive and rebellious.

Lukwago explains that it is the school's job to help pupils with different social and academic needs to excel.

"We believe every child deserves a good education regardless of their weakness as pupil and academic challenges," Lukwago says. "A parent who has been benching other schools with a student of aggregate five comes here late and when they realise we enrolled one with aggregate 12 they cannot believe it."

A former teacher at St Mary's College Kisubi (SMACK), Lukwago says he gets more fulfilment as a teacher at Taibah than he did at his old school.

"There was little work to do because [SMACK] selects top kids, highly gifted and intellectually able. You needed little input in terms of teaching and emphasis because they would understand quickly," he explains. "In fact my supervisor would tell me, 'you are over-explaining'. When you come here, that is when you do the real teaching the way we are trained at university.... As a teacher, you are supposed to cater for all the abilities and this is what you find in a normal school."

What Taibah does with stubborn kids is to handle each child as an individual and understand their strengths, weaknesses and what can be done to help them. So, they maintain 25 students per class so that the child sees what he or she is learning, and the teacher knows every child and their parent.

These students sometimes learn using the projector. In addition, it is mandatory for students to own laptop computers, as some work is done through research. Lukwago said many children who joined with bad grades now get better grade.

Handling discipline

They also look at the 'stubborn' students who have been expelled from other schools. Lukwago explains that Taibah takes some time to understand the problem before a student is expelled because they expect anything from adolescents and teenagers with raging hormones, undergoing change.

If they have made noise, attempted to have relationships, Taibah believes it is unfair to expel them.

"We would rather educate them about their age, dangers of escaping and drinking alcohol and why it is wrong for their age," he says. "What other schools do is to bully them into hiding the bad behaviour so they do all the bad things but ensure that they are never caught. And every school has such children."

The school's corrective approach is discipline management and not punishment as the latter is associated with revenge and anger. Yet what is more important is to correct behaviour.

"When you expel a child, who are you sending them to? Which school is designed to handle them? Our punishments are more corrective than punitive. We do detentions, for example, if you have not done work, you will stay in class with a teacher when others are going for swimming, football or something that is liked by everyone. They find this more painful than corporal punishment."

The school also punishes the students by sending them out to community service. Some of the punitive measures include joining the chefs in the kitchen to cook the day's school meal, working with the cleaners, washing the school bus or washing the utensils for that day.

Consequently, the student learns that it is easier to stay in class than spend the whole day in the kitchen. Lukwago says some think the punishment is a good excuse to spend the day outside class but soon find that after one hour, they are ready to apologise. Taibah also canes their students with permission from their parents.

"We have expelled some students where the parents are not cooperating with us to help the child. For example, a child is insolent and disrespectful to the teacher," Lukwago says. "When the parent gangs up with the child against the teacher, we consider that we have failed. But when a parent is willing to cooperate, we are willing to help."

The second attraction is their approach to boarding school by providing a weekly boarding school.

Liberal boarding system

Cisio Birungi chose Taibah for her child because the school allows a parent to visit their child any day they want during break hours. A parent can also pick their child every Friday evening or Saturday and return the child on Sunday evening or Monday before classes begin.

"We created an opportunity for the busy parent. But we realised there was no logic why schools should create a gap between a child and their parent by having children for three months and providing one visitation day," Lukwago explains.

This system is good because a parent comes to school any time every week to talk to the child and the teacher. When a child knows the parent will interact with the teachers, they do well because they know the teacher will report them."

The well-manicured green environment, with many trees dotting the compound, is kept clean by the "Uncles".

The school houses its students in houses, as opposed to dormitories. Each house accommodates 24 children with two house mothers, who teach children how to care for their bodies.

Houses, not dorms

The school provides them with a balanced diet with the options of vegetables, fresh juice and fruits to keep the children healthy and strong. Each child must settle at the dining table and wait for their house mother to serve them. Taibah has a washing machine, used by all the students. It is the responsibility of the house mother to ensure all the clothes are washed, dried and returned to their owners.

Their approach to education has attracted over 1,000 students to join Taibah International School's pre-primary, primary and secondary sections. Of the 640 children in primary school, 180 are in day programme. For the day child doing Cambridge programme, school fees is $1,000 (Shs 2,500,000) per term, while day scholars on the conventional Ugandan system pay Shs 900,000 per term, a figure that will increase next term.

One satisfied parent, Assey Kiwanuka says that he likes the school because they feed well, sleep well and learn well.

"They are also cheap because if you compare how much a child in a day school pays and how much I pay at Taibah, they are cheaper considering the daily feeding, transport of a day scholar," Kiwanuka says.

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