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The high cost of free education

Kenya's public primary schools stopped charging fees in 2003. Standards have fallen, even at the capital's best institution, as classroom sizes swell.

February 26, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Nairobi, Kenya — THE story of Olympic Primary School reads like a movie script.

A spirited campus in Africa's largest slum overcomes dire surroundings to triumph as the top-ranked public elementary school in Kenya's capital, beating better-funded private academies and sending dozens of graduates to the nation's top high schools.

Unfortunately, the saga doesn't come with a Hollywood ending.

Perched on a hill overlooking Kenya's notorious Kibera shantytown, the school is at the center of a growing public education crisis spurred by a national decision in 2003 to make primary education free to all. The move swelled Olympic's classrooms to record size, stretched its budget and eroded the school's hard-won standards.

Four years later, some of the brightest students are transferring to private competitors, causing the school's ranking to slip. Rather than being visited by international dignitaries praising its accomplishments, the school and its bulging classrooms are a tourist stop for guides offering sightseers a glimpse of Kenya's poverty and education woes.

Last month, Olympic's enrollment was 2,510 students, making it one of the largest schools in the country. With just 30 teachers, the average class size is 84, more than double what it was when the school was ranked No. 1.

"That's deadly," said Anne Nganga, Olympic's founder and former principal.

In 2004, having reached retirement age at 55 and fed up with the public school system, Nganga launched a private academy a few miles away. She worries that Olympic's facilities and teaching staff are stretched too thin. "I'm afraid it is going to break," she said.

Until 2003, Kenyan parents had to pay $150 a year to send their children to public primary school. That was less than what most private institutions charged, but even so the schools were out of reach for millions of children. Many families here live on just a few dollars a day.

Since the fees were eliminated, more than 1 million additional youngsters have entered public schools. The action has won international praise for President Mwai Kibaki, who is seeking reelection this year. His government said recently that it would attempt to extend free education into high school.

SO far, however, officials have failed to back their ambitious policy with adequate resources. Enrollment is up 24% since the fees were dropped, but the number of school facilities has barely expanded and the number of teachers has fallen 6%, according to the Education Ministry.

There are 10,000 fewer teachers than before the schools became free. With teacher salaries starting at slightly more than that of a maid -- about $210 a month -- some have quit in frustration and others have gone to private schools.

The government gives public schools $14.50 a year for each enrolled child, money that is supposed to cover everything from books and pencils to janitors and desks. At some schools, students must share textbooks. At a few, they sit on the floor or rocks because there isn't enough furniture.

At Olympic, because of its reputation, 3,000 newcomers showed up to enroll in 2003 when free education debuted. At the time, 1,700 children were being taught there. Frustrated parents threatened to burn down the new principal's office if she didn't enroll their children.

Even now, a line of hopeful parents snaked outside her office door one recent morning. With enrollment already at record levels, Principal Ruth Namulundu must seek a balance between the school's obligation as a government facility to admit students and her desire to maintain Olympic's academic standards.

This day, she accepted one youngster and asked the other parents to try again next month.

"I don't have the teachers," Namulundu said. "Admissions is a big problem. We have to provide access. But my teachers don't understand why I have to keep admitting students."

School infrastructure and upkeep are constant struggles. There are no functioning computers. A urine stench from nearby toilets wafts into the first-grade classrooms.

Recess commences in a dirt field with a couple of grazing cows but no playground equipment. During the weekly schoolwide assembly and prayer, students squeeze shoulder to shoulder in a courtyard the size of a volleyball court.

Desperate for funding, school officials recently asked each student to contribute 1 cent so brooms and buckets could be purchased to keep the classrooms tidy.

For Emmanuel Onyango, 14, Olympic's struggle to maintain excellence is anything but academic. His future is riding in large part on his school's performance.

The fresh-faced eighth-grader has consistently ranked No. 1 or 2 in his class since the first grade. In a schoolwide competition last year, he won a $5 book voucher, which he used to buy a Danielle Steel romance novel.

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