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'Building Tomorrow' - one school at a time in Uganda

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Chelsea Clinton visits with school children at the Building Tomorrow Academy of Gita, about an hour outside of Uganda's capital of Kampala.

KAMPALA, Uganda – The Building Tomorrow Academy of Gita, about an hour outside of Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, is an amazing example of what can be accomplished when local communities and international organizations work together toward innovative solutions to educational challenges.  

 
While in Uganda last week, I met the dynamic tag team of George Srour, the American founder and “chief dreamer,” and Joseph Kalisa, the Ugandan country director, behind the school in Gita, as well as seven other Building Tomorrow “academies” in Uganda.
 
Building Tomorrow’s mission in Uganda is to do more than just build one-room cookie-cutter school houses. So far they have built eight “academies” – each with seven classrooms and space for up to 325 elementary school students.
 
And the best part is that schools like the one in Gita are built with robust local involvement: the school's surrounding communities help build them and the government promises to pay teacher salaries and ongoing operational costs after construction is complete.
 
The result is a real public- civil society partnership that is showing real results – and clearly making a difference.    



School project turns into dream
Srour started BT in 2005, the same year he graduated from the College of William & Mary in Virginia.   
 
The inspiration for BT grew out of a visit to Uganda and then a holiday fundraising campaign Srour spearheaded during his senior year at William and Mary called “Christmas in Kampala.” The campaign raised more than $45,000 for the construction of a new school in the capital city. 
 
As Srour told me, he realized in his final months of college that raising money was necessary, but not sufficient to fundamentally change education in Uganda, a country with about 50 percent of the population under 15, according to the CIA World Factbook. He realized they needed to do more.  
 
It is a place in which Srour has no family ties, but a clear calling. 
 
When I asked Kalisa, a Ugandan, if he could imagine doing anything else? He said, “Only when we’re done.” Srour had the same answer.

 

Barbara Kinney

Chelsea Clinton visits with school children at the Building Tomorrow Academy of Gita, about an hour outside of Uganda's capital of Kampala.

 
Gita school
The school in Gita opened in 2010, the result of BT’s first – though not last – multidisciplinary collaboration with an American university partner. 
 
In the 2007-2008 school year, undergraduate architecture and engineering students at the University of Virginia’s Architecture Studio reCOVER and its Engineering in Context Capstone Design Program designed Gita’s seven classrooms, its library, its latrines, its office space and its outdoor play and learning space (including a sports field and garden). 
 
Other students from the University of Virginia raised money to help the architecture and engineering students’ plans become a reality, including a stationary bike ride ‘across Uganda,’ in which students rode more than 7,500 miles to help raise the necessary $60,000 to build and supply a BT Academy. 
 
Srour and Kalisa clearly still couldn’t believe  –  even years later  – so many people rode so many miles so far away to help kids in Gita, in rural Uganda.
 
Although the design and funding came from the University of Virginia, the local community around Gita built the school.  Through more than 20,000 hours of donated labor, prospective parents and grandparents made the BT Academy in Gita a reality. It was the best-looking, most inviting school we saw on our drive down the dirt road, and yes, still one made of mud and bricks and stone and with outdoor, though hygienic and private, latrines. 
 
The kids were curious, the teachers engaged, the parents proud – and all treated their school space with dignity and respect.
 
Sustainable model
Ultimately, BT academies, including Gita, are public government schools.  Once the building is complete, BT in Uganda, through an agreement with the Ugandan government and with Kalisa’s supervision, selects high quality teachers who will make the most of the open, welcoming environment BT academies offer. 

In a video diary, former President Bill Clinton talks about working with the charity City Year to help open a school library and vegetable garden for South African youth, and celebrating Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday.

The Ugandan government then pays for the ongoing operating costs of the schools and the teachers’ and supervisors’ salaries.  This arrangement – versus many other efforts in the U.S. to raise money to build a school somewhere far away with no plans for what happens after the doors open – has a clear plan for sustainable impact: it creates clarity around what is the local community’s responsibility, what is the Ugandan government’s responsibility and what is BT’s responsibility. 
 
That longer-term focus and clarity make BT distinctive – and more likely to have better results for its students, their parents – and their university partners back in the U.S.
 
BT now has eight schools up and running in Uganda, with another six close to completion. More than 25 college and university campuses in the U.S. have contributed funds, designs and time to help more than 1,800 Ugandan kids get a better education – and future. 
 
Next up: teacher academy

One new area of focus for Srour and Kalisa is building teacher capacity – they are clearly concerned there are soon not going to be enough high caliber teachers for the schools they are building already and dreaming about. 
 
Srour and Kalisa’s answer? Build a teacher training academy. 
 
Chelsea Clinton is an NBC News Special Correspondent. She was recently traveling with her father, former President Bill Clinton, to visit Clinton Foundation, Clinton Health Access Initiative and Clinton Global Initiative projects in a number of sub-Saharan African countries, including Uganda. In 2011, Building Tomorrow made a commitment at the Clinton Global Initiative to have built at least 60 schools in Uganda over the next 5 years.

 

 

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