Genna Weiss's Blog

Providing Greater Early Education Availability to the Children of Northern Ghana: An Interview with Andrew Garza of Titagya Schools

Could you ever imagine yourself making an impact on an entire nation? Andrew Garza, founding partner and chairman of the board of directors of [url=http://titagyaschools.org/wordpress/]Titagya Schools[/url], a social enterprise that is transforming the landscape of early education in northern Ghana, has set out to do just that. In this interview with Garza, learn about his incredible journey from interning in the northern Ghanian village of Dalun to breaking ground on early education schools for 120 students—with plans to expand. [img]/images/user/1752_17240364590398931195.jpg[/img]
[i]Interview by Genna Weiss[/i]
[b]Please tell us about Titagya and its overall mission.[/b]
Titagya Schools is a social enterprise focused on expanding the quality and availability of early education in rural northern Ghana. We currently operate a pre-school and a kindergarten for 120 students whose English-language and math skills are 3 years more advanced than those of public school students in the region. 50% of our students are female. We’re also partnering with the Ghanaian government to make early education less rote memorization-heavy and more reliant on interactive reading and learning exercises. Northern Ghana is a culturally and entrepreneurially vibrant area, the population of which subsists on an average of less than $1 per day. There are about 4 million people in northern Ghana.
[b]How did you decide to tackle such a major issue in this part of the world. [/b]
The long answer starts with a high school class on different religious, philosophical, and other belief systems that people throughout the past few hundred years have used to think about life. Buddhism particularly resonated with me, in terms of the emphasis on showing compassion for all people and recognizing that to a large extent we all want and fear the same things. My family also has a long tradition of Christian volunteerism and service, which has been a big influence.
These lenses led me to think about what the best way would be to spend my hopefully 80 years here, and I came to the conclusion that it would be to increase happiness by reducing extreme poverty. I read [i]The End of Poverty[/i] by Jeffrey Sachs the summer after my freshman year, and that got me interested in doing development work in sub-Saharan Africa, since it was the region with the highest concentration of extreme poverty. When I got back to school, I took a course on African history and decided that Ghana would be a great place to do an internship since it is English-speaking, had cultures and a political history that I wanted to learn more about, and had plenty of need.
The following summer I interned with a microfinance institution in a village called Dalun in northern Ghana. While I was there, I had conversations with a lot of people about what their biggest challenges were, and one of the key problems was students’ lack of preparedness for the formal education system. People grow up speaking Dagbani, which is the main local language in that part of the country. Children would often start primary school at the age of 10 and speak very little English, so many of them would fall behind and become demotivated from the very beginning. Then they would drop out of the system entirely to work on the farm.
The second, related problem was that teenage girls often had to stay home to watch their younger siblings, since the young children had nowhere to go during the day and most parents had to farm. Two young men – including our Managing Director, Manzah Habib – from the community and I decided to start a school in Dalun that would address both of those problems. We wanted to give kids a strong early start, the momentum from which would propel them through their educational careers. That success would enable them to become entrepreneurs who start businesses that employ people, principled political leaders, scientists who develop new medicines, and educators who build their country.
Helping to provide education for people also means a lot to me for personal reasons. My parents grew up in very supportive but economically humble conditions in Iowa and Mexico. The opportunities their top educations provided are what enabled them to support a comfortable life for our family and my experiences around the world that have changed how I see life. My own education has taught me to think critically, introduced me to my closest friends, and given me the confidence to start ambitious projects. I want everyone who is willing to work hard for it to have similar educational opportunities. My partners and I think it’s unacceptable that children who are born in rural, economically-poor areas systematically lack access to good early education, and we aim to change that.
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[b]How did you go about establishing Titagya? How have you managed to ensure that the organization would receive the support it needed to achieve its mission?[/b]
Titagya Schools started with several emails back and forth between my partners and me in 2006, when we decided that we would take action. As we were trying to assess how impactful it would be to start a pre-school, I remember reading a study that said early education could lead to $17 in social impact (largely through increased income) for every $1 invested in it. I was surprised by the 1,700% return and even more so because it seemed likely that the percentage of income gains from education would be higher in rural Ghana than in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where the study was conducted. We started with a vision for a 50-student pre-school in Dalun.
We chose the name “Titagya,” which means “we have changed” or “we have grown” in Dagbani, to signify the transformative nature of formal education. Next, we researched the educational landscape in Ghana, and we realized that most of the challenges we faced in Dalun were similar in other parts of the region and the country. We also learned that teaching in Ghana was reliant on rote-memorization techniques, an approach to teaching that was a holdover from past times when the colonial leaders didn’t want Ghanaians to become critical thinkers. After that, we researched various approaches to teaching from around the world and found out about how young children tend to learn most effectively when they are actively engaged in the learning process. We worked with the Bryn Mawr / Haverford College Education Program and other partners to design a curriculum that would teach our students math, English, and Dagbani, and above all foster in them a love of learning.
I learned how to incorporate a non-profit and get 501(c)(3) status from online resources and friends at a social entrepreneurship training program called StartingBloc, and then did that.
In order to fund our work, we have partnered with many generous individuals and organizations. In the beginning, I raised funds from friends and family, and we got some supplies from a Danish organization that partners with non-profits in northern Ghana. Our first institutional donor was a non-profit organization called Hands On the World Global, and our support base expanded to include more individual donors, college student groups, and organizations such as the Segal Family Foundation, Givology, Falcon Investment Advisors, Project Redwood, Friends of Ghana, and the Kiwanis Club. We’re profoundly grateful to all of our backers.
[b]What are the services that these children receive? What is the classroom experience like for them? [/b]
Our students attend our pre-school for a year and then the kindergarten for another year. The main service that they receive is outstanding preparation for primary school and beyond. We give them great pre-reading skills, including the ability to recognize basic words. They also practice speaking English with their classmates (or “colleagues,” as they call each other) during various role-playing and discussion activities. After one of our teachers has read a story, the children talk about what the characters were feeling and doing and why in different situations. This process increases their self-esteem, starts to develop their critical thinking skills, and rewards creativity. We also teach our children about the importance of sharing and putting yourself in your classmate’s shoes even if you both want to use the same toy. Empathy is an attitude that’s developed through habit, and we want our students to have high moral character to go along with their hard and soft skills.
We also give our students a strong foundation in math that is inspired by the “Singapore Math” approach, which helps children to understand the basics of what numbers mean. For instance, zero is a sophisticated concept, and it takes a while to get an intuitive sense of what it means. By using Legos to teach numbers, addition, subtraction, and even basic multiplication and division to the fastest-moving students, our children develop a strong understanding of what numbers mean. This is a critical foundation for what they will do throughout the rest of their academic careers.
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[b]Any personal stories you can share to highlight the impact of Titagya on the lives of students?[/b]
One former student of ours named Rahina came in as a shy 4-year old who knew very little English. She became one of our strongest students and loved to show off her basic multiplication skills. I was impressed to see her do that because she was a couple of years ahead of where I was at her age. I also loved seeing the outgoing, energetic side of a student who we initially thought was shy, and her family commented on how much more confident she had become. It’s great seeing our students at an age when their personalities are starting to develop. Rahina wants to eventually become a nurse so that she can help sick people get well, and we’re confident she’ll get there. We’re eager to keep supporting our students as they get older and see the various ways that they have impact in their communities.
[b]Where do you see the direction of Titagya heading in the next few years?[/b]
First, we will continue to build and operate more schools. This year we want to build one to two more schools and by 2017 we hope to operate 30 schools throughout half of the school districts in northern Ghana. This will enable us to directly serve more children, as well as to show that our model of interactive early education works in a variety of contexts and use parts of it as a platform for scaling up of public early education in the region.
Also, we plan to offer scholarships to “alumni” of our schools and to other needy and talented primary school students. In addition, we will stay in touch with our students even after they graduate from our schools, in order to keep supporting them and their families along the way. Having a community of successful and ambitious peers around you is a great motivator, and we want our students to have that as they get older.
Next, we see the government as one of our most valuable partners and plan to keep expanding our work together. We have learned a lot from the government’s educational successes and failures. For instance, we are impressed by many of the educational techniques that the Ghana Education Service (GES) has developed at its model school in Accra and implemented at kindergartens and primary schools in the Greater Accra area. We want to help the GES achieve its plan of making sure that every primary school in northern Ghana has its own kindergarten and collaborate with the government on making the classroom experience more interactive.
Finally, organizations often find that as they grow they have a hard time maintaining the quality of service that made them good in the first place. We make it an explicit goal to not only keep teaching well, but also to keep getting better and learning from our successes and mistakes over time.
[i]For more information about Titagya Schools' partnership with Givology, [url=http://www.givology.org/~tschools/]click here[/url].[/i]
[i]To learn more about Titagya Schools, [url=http://titagyaschools.org/wordpress/]click here[/url]. [/i]

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