The Williams Unified School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to send President Sylvia Vaca and Superintendent Edgar Lampkin to Africa to check out an educational opportunity they think would give students a multi-cultural educational experience. At a special meeting on Feb. 26, the board approved an out-of-country travel expense for $5,000 for the pair to go to Rwanda to learn more about a program offered by African Education Support Foundation Overseas Learning Adventure, a non-profit organization registered out of Salinas.
“This is a student program,” Vaca said. “It is for the high school level.”
Teachers, however, said out-of-country travel at (taxpayer) expense is too much money for a program that would likely benefit very few Williams Unified students.
Emma Agnew, a member of the Elementary School Leadership Team, said teachers are still working in classrooms that lack supplies, the site budget recently had to cover a reading program license, and that lack of funding often leaves students without extras, such as field trips.
“We don’t have what we need for our kids at our sites,” she said. “We are told ‘if you need pencils, go buy them yourself because your (classroom) budgets are frozen.’ We don’t have library books for our kindergarten teachers but we can go to Rwanda?”
Although a website for African Education Support Foundation could not be found, Cynthia Hess, a Salinas High School math teacher, is listed as the executive director. She is expected to give a presentation about the program at the March school board meeting.
Hess’ social media account states that the purpose of the Foundation is to conduct trips to Rwanda for individuals desiring to see the country in a “contributory” format, performing needed maintenance and enhancements to the local school systems.
“We also work with a school in the North of Rwanda, Sonrise School, where we have assisted them with becoming an SAT test center site, A GAFE (Google Apps For Education) school, and we are setting up AP classes, with training for teachers and student support services.”
Williams Unified School District hopes to partner with the Foundation to take 30-40 juniors and seniors from the United States to Rwanda for a summer semester.
While there, students would take or would continue to take coursework from Williams Unified credentialed teachers, officials said.
“Experiences outside of Williams can be extremely valuable, impactful, and life-changing,” Lampkin said. “This program will give our students that opportunity.”
Lampkin said the district is striving to put programs in place that will help students reach a level of success and level of excellence “that hasn’t been there before,” and that a semester abroad would allow students to step outside the regular context of school in general.
He said a key part of the district’s educational reform is to immerse students in other cultures and languages. Rwanda residents speak their native Kinyawanda, universal Bantu, as well as English (official) and French.
In order to make the student program work, as well and be able to pay for it, Lampkin said the district would also have to enroll juniors and seniors from other schools districts for the semester spent abroad.
“Students would be enrolled through our district and they would become our students if they are not our students already,” Lampkin said.
Williams Unified would also be the district providing the courses, including math, statistics, English, Avid course (writing, inquiry), among others.
Trustee George Simmons said students could also come out of the semester abroad with a credential to teach English as a second language, as well as certification in a trade such as cooking. In some core classes, students would be able to earn a full year credit in one semester.
Students would not have to pay anything for the semester abroad because the district would recoup the cost of the program through the collection of Average Daily Attendance funding from the state.
Simmons, who was originally proposed to go to Rwanda but declined due to health reasons, said this sort of opportunity would typically be reserved for students from more affluent families. He said the costs to the district would be offset by the rewards of the program.
“It’s a trade-off that will be very beneficial to students later on in life, because they are going to learn life skills and make contacts that will last for the rest of their life. It’s like learning a different language.”
Africa is just one place that Lampkin and school officials plan to explore.
“We are also thinking about China,” Lampkin said.
Officials said putting any program for students to study abroad in place would likely take multiple trips by administrators to assure the safety and health of students before they embark on a 14-week stay in Africa.
According to the CIA, Rwanda is very high risk (2016) for food or waterborne illnesses, bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, animal contact diseases (rabies), and mosquito-borne illnesses (malaria). ■