School ‘Family Units’ Provide Confidence, Moral Compass and Academic Achievement

June 1, 2010

3 In Kampala’s slums, Ugandan children — many who have lost their parents — commonly live in one room shelters. Their guardians, facing their own daily struggle for survival, can hardly fulfill these children’s parenting needs.

A local school has stepped forward to bridge the gap. Each Monday at Railway Primary School from 4 to 5 p.m., 22 “families” of groups of forty-five children each gather under the shade of the umbrella trees scattered around the school grounds with a teacher who is their designated “Parent.”

Railway’s Headmistress Olivia Muhumuza developed her Family Formation initiative 4-years ago as a complement to the USAID-funded UNITY education project. Implemented by Creative Associates International, UNITY also supports activities under the Presidential Initiative on communicating to Young about HIV/AIDS (PIASCY), launched by Uganda’s President Y. Museveni in 2002.

With seven million school children and the population aged 10 to 24 making up 33 percent of the country, President Museveni decided that teachers would be the agents of change in passing on AIDS awareness and prevention messages to children. PIASCY has helped decrease Uganda’s prevalence rate for HIV/AIDS from was near thirty percent of the population to approximately six percent.

“The idea for the Family Formation groups started with PIASCY,” said Muhumuza, Railway’s headmistress for 9-years. “Whenever we discussed issues, the children had so many questions, we realized they needed more than AIDS awareness, many were victims of rape or violence and had behavioral problems; their guardians did not have time to instill discipline and morals, or give them love.”

Railway Primary School’s “Families” psycho-social interventions are rooted in the children’s needs and trauma. According to Muhumuza, their complex home situations deny them a sense of community and belonging that is a necessity to a child’s well being and moral development. With a teacher designated as “Mother” or “Father,” the children who range from 8 to 16-years-old are taught kindness and how to care and support each other. The units are a mix of older and younger children, so that the older ones are able to teach them basics such as how to wash their uniforms. Topics for the family units are designed at the beginning of each term by a team of teachers led by Muhumuza, so that all units are united in their mission.

When Muhumuza first took the helm of Railway, 11-year old girl students were becoming pregnant because they accepted “gifts” from strangers. After extensive research into the backgrounds of the children, Muhumuza initiated a number of clubs and vocational activities at the school. Now, her girl students make handicrafts from local materials which they sell to fund the costs of books and uniforms. That program along with the Family units has greatly reduced the dropout rate for girls due to pregnancy.

“We have 12 students at Railway living on the streets and because of our guidance and “Families,” they are able to come to school and though they return to the street at night – they are focused on their school work since they have a sense of belonging,” said Muhumuza.”They keep coming to our school every day and are doing well in class because of the support they receive.”

Leadership skills, communications skills, building healthy relationships with their “Mothers” and “Fathers” and school peers and development of moral character bring to Railway Primary School’s children the richness of hope and a grounding in academics that has enabled 60 percent of its students to pursue secondary school.

The school provides a variety of clubs, including writing, reading and drama to its 1397 students while190 children meet with designated “parents” each Monday. Asha, a student at the school, summed up the students feelings for Railway in her writing club, “Our school is evergreen, we have clean classes, latrines, a canteen. Our headmistress Mrs. Muhumuza is a very wonderful lady. She makes us proud of our school. We are disciplined and well behaved children. I thank the headmistress and the teachers for the wonderful job they have done. I will always love my school.”

—Alexandra Pratt and Roseline Tekeu

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