When two of our staff members approached me about an educational and technology exchange with schools on the island nation of Cabo Verde, it did not take much convincing to get me on board. After all, New Bedford has a rich and storied connection with this West African nation that can be traced back to the whaling days. After eight months of planning, we traveled there to share our teaching methods and our technology with two schools: a high school and an elementary school. As the executive director of the Global Learning Charter Public School and former superintendent of a public school system, I have been around education for over 30 years. I’ve also done quite a bit of traveling, so I’ve seen a thing or two. I never could have imagined that this experience would be so emotional for me.
We spent eight days on the island of Sao Vicente. I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people, the wonderful food, and the warm and open smiles on the children’s faces. But what we saw at one of the two schools left me devastated.
We left for Cape Verde on June 20th. Besides me, the travelers included our technology director and technology coordinator, our English language director, two classroom teachers, the director of student, family and community life, and our college and career counselor. Weeks before, we had sent 35 notebook computers that our school was no longer using but that still had some life in them. We brought with us some school supplies to donate, including Rubik cubes, which the Cape Verde teachers had requested, and which had been donated by our board members and others. We were ready!
After three flights we arrived in Sao Vicente, tired, jet lagged and somewhat anxious. Once we had our luggage, we headed to the outer airport terminal. That’s when we heard it: Singing! The high school’s choir was there to welcome us. It was beautiful! The warm smiles, the hugs, the kindness: suddenly, I was no longer tired or anxious.
Our first visit was to the Escola Secunduria Jorge Barbosa, a high school in Sao Vicente. Eighteen hundred students attend the school which has a budget of $100,000. The few computers they have are old. The internet connection is sporadic. There were few supplies and the school relies heavily on donations. Yet, the students were happy, and spoke excitedly about what they were learning and about all they planned to do with their lives.
The principal, Gilda Fortes, is a passionate educator. She embraced the opportunity to collaborate with GLCPS, and vigorously expressed her appreciation for our visit, our gifts and our partnership. I will never forget the children’s smiles when they saw the computers, supplies and the Rubik cubes.
Yet the children seemed so happy!
Escola Secunduria Jorge Barbosa was like a palace compared to the other school we visited.
We drove about 30 miles to Salamansa Elementary School which served students in grades 4, 5 and 6. The building looked like a shanty. There was no running water. Electrical power was sporadic. The principal showed us several boxes of donated computers sitting in boxes; unused because there was nowhere to house them. Here, there were far fewer supplies and teaching materials. At recess, the children kicked around a partially deflated soccer ball outside in the dirt. Worse, the children had not had a hot breakfast in four months; the school had run out of money to purchase rice and beans. Standing there, feeling overwhelmed by the situation, we dug into our wallets on the spot. At least we could make sure the children would not go without breakfast.
When we visited the classrooms, we were again greeted by children who were smiling, happy, eager to learn.
A trip like this makes you appreciate everything you have that is taken for granted. It reminded me that dedicated teachers can bring lessons to life even in stark circumstances, even with severely limited supplies, even without computers. But it doesn’t have to be this way. My hope is that we can make a difference for these kids. We are making plans to raise funds for the schools and continue to work with their teachers. We know we can learn from them, too. The joy expressed by the students for their teachers, for their schools, makes that very clear. When it comes to education, there is only one thing that truly matters. It’s all about the kids.