Opening and closing schools in urban informal settlements – the Dignitas approach

By Deborah Kimathi

Across Kenya, schools re-opened in January 2020 after nine long months of near universal anxiety and challenge.  Dignitas worked through our Leaders of Learning covid -19 response programming to keep learning and well-being on track for many of the children affected. We equipped school leaders and parents to support learning at home and to curb literacy and numeracy learning losses.

And now the path back to school is paved with yet more challenges. Re-opening came was not at all easy – particularly for Alternative Providers of Basic Education and Training (APBET) – institutions, which cater to the majority of urban poor families within Nairobi. 

A recent government mapping exercise counted 1,677 APBET institutions in Nairobi, with a student enrolment of 317,429 children. Many similar institutions remain uncounted due to time and resource restrictions. A NACONEK report said, “The APBET sector in Kenya continues to play a critical role in increasing access to basic education especially in urban informal settlements but there are serious gaps regarding the standards.”

In July 2020, Dignitas spoke to School Leaders from APBET schools across Nairobi.  The insights we gleaned were deeply concerning, but sadly not surprising, given the consistent neglect of the APBET sector. 

School leaders reported concerns about the re-enrolment of learners and teachers, damage to and neglect of school buildings. Some were even forced to look for new school premises.  Leaders were also worried about potentially high learner drop-out, and the sustainability of fee-paying schools, given that parents are not earning. 

Dignitas is committed to ensuring all children have the opportunity to thrive and succeed, and in 2020 it was incredibly important for us to walk with these typically underserved communities to both equip and support school leaders for the challenges ahead. 

We started planning ‘School Reopening and Recovery’ early on.  With our support, by January 2021, over 80 per cent of the participating schools had school reopening plans. The plans spoke to compliance with covid-19 measures and towards learner and staff wellbeing, parental engagement, and learning recovery strategies.

“I want to do my best to support learners who look up to me for guidance.  Dignitas is empowering us with skills and resources, we in turn continue to empower learners during this difficult period.  I’m happy that I have an opportunity to do something.” Said teacher Lilian, Kawangware when asked about the scheme.

School leaders need new competencies and resources to allow them to carefully manage the period of school reopening and recovery, and it is with this in mind that our team developed training and coaching modules, to be delivered virtually and accompanied by in-person, school-based coaching support (as allowed by public health guidance) over a period of 4-6 months. 

Based on our lessons learned in 2020, our ongoing support for school leadership teams will:

  • Prioritise socio-emotional learning in line with growing global calls to put learner wellbeing at the core of learner engagement. 
  • Recognize the need to prioritise educator wellbeing so that educators can approach teaching with the right mindset and ensure school and classroom culture is healthy and nurturing. 
  • Equip school leaders with new competencies for parental and caregiver engagement; recognising them as key partners in learning, extending a healthy learning and teaching culture beyond the school compound.

It’s been a tough eighteen months and the pandemic continues to threaten our country but by planning and above all, listening, Dignitas has been able to ease re-opening as much as it did the closure of Kenya’s hardest hit schools.

(Featured image: The Dignitas team consulting.)

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