Dominic Mukwaya arrived in Pasco County ready to learn. When he left his village in Uganda a month ago, more than 30 members of his extended family joined him at the airport — nearly all of them watching a plane take off for the very first time in their lives.
Not only was it his first plane ride and his first trip to America, but it was also the first time Mukwaya has ever left the Kyotera region of his country, where running water was just introduced last spring, and electricity is still a future goal.
Despite that, Mukwaya has schooled more than 650 orphans whose families were ravaged by the HIV epidemic there. He has pushed for more adult education as well — especially for women, who traditionally did not go to school when they were younger.
“Some of the people in my district went to school and were not doing good, and others could not afford to pay for the school fees,” Mukwaya said. “We started a sustainability project where, in the long term, we can help those who might not be able to learn otherwise.”
Mukwaya returned home last weekend after his two-week trip to Land O’ Lakes, participating in the annual International Leadership Fellows Institute from the National Educator Program. That program, based in Denver, chose the Pasco County Schools out of more than a dozen national applicants to host this institute. It’s designed to empower teachers to become strong leaders, and give students equal access to success.
The seminar itself, which also included 20 hand-picked Pasco educators, lasted two weeks. It’s part of the overall institute program designed to operate for the next year, connecting participants not only with face-to-face visits, but also technologically through online communication services like Skype. It’s meant to be a give and take, where these administrators learn from each other, and take all of it back to incorporate into their own classrooms.
“What we have found so far that whether you’re teaching in a major metropolitan area or the jungle by the lake, it’s remarkable the similarities on how schools and classrooms operate,” said Mark Thompson, executive director of NEP. “We found much more in common than we thought.”
The recent conference in Land O’ Lakes was led by Diane Varano, principal of the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences in Brooklyn. She makes the trip each year to help form new bonds among the education leaders, giving them tools to reinvigorate classrooms.
It’s a much-needed wakeup call for many teachers, who in recent years have complained about being forced to teach to state-mandated tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Instead, the learning process must be more experiential, said Mark Xing, who is the director of teaching affairs for a 2,000-student school system in Shenzhen, China. Located just north of Hong Kong, Shenzhen is a city of more than 10 million people that was an early adopter of capitalism in the traditionally communist country. Because of that, the school there has been working to include both Chinese and American curriculums.
“In China, a lot of parents would like to send their children to study in the United States,” Xing said. “They want their children to know more about American culture, and we actually started this program to meet the parents’ needs.”
There was some concern that requiring both Chinese and American studies for elementary school-aged students might be too much. Instead, Xing has found his students embracing both equally, and that will give them an edge as technology continues to shrink the world and China plays an ever-expanding role in world economics.
Mukwaya’s curriculum also is experience-based, but not quite the same way. In his region, English is being taught as a third language — behind the local Luganda and the regional Swahili. But while math and reading are essential in the learning process for both children and adults, so are vocational skills that will help not only make money for his students, but save money as well.
“We started with writing and reading, and now they are going up to do more functional things like how to weave mats from palm leaves and make bags from banana fibers,” Mukwaya said. “We’re also teaching many of our women how they can save money, and how they can be sustainable financially.”
Both Mukwaya and Xing will return to Land O’ Lakes next year to share progress on changes they’ve instituted because of the program and report back on how well they have worked, with the goal of helping the district’s program to grow and evolve.
“This isn’t just about someone coming here and learning things. We are learning a great deal from them,” Thompson said. “We can teach them some of our best practices when it comes to education, but they are not just learning ours, they are teaching us theirs, too, and that’s the kind of dialogue we want to have.”