Despite changes to Kenya's education system, Down Syndrome students in public schools still face a different reality than their private school counterparts. Kait Bolongaro reports from Nairobi.
The Machakos Special Unit for the Mentally Disabled sits at the end of a dirt road, 63 kilometers south of Nairobi.
Inside the one-room school house, 16 students sit in four rows in the classroom. In the back row, Albert Mwendwa sits quietly. The 26-year-old is calm compared to his rambunctious schoolmates. He is shy and quickly hides his face behind his hands when he knows he is attracting attention.
"Mwendwa, the boy with Down syndrome, is quite different from the others," said Croccociscus Njeru, one of his teachers. "He is not violent. In most cases, he's calm and whatever you tell him to do he listens and tries to do it."
Mwendwa stares at the blackboard as two volunteer teaching assistants explain the reading exercises. 'Today is a cloudy day,' he repeats. Mwendwa follows his lessons as closely as possible, despite the fact that he cannot read or write.
He may not be able to write his name, but Mwendwa speaks Kamba, the local language, and some English. He can recite the alphabet and numbers by heart. Although his green school uniform isn't new, his clothes are clean and tidy.
Mwendwa is an unusual case at the Machakos Special Unit. Technically, he is older than the average school child, but since his level is similar to the other students, he has been allowed to stay in school longer.
"When the children are brought in we normally take what we call a case history of each child either from the parent or guardian," explained Esther Maluki, the current head of the Assessment Center. "Combined with the different materials we use and our knowledge, we are able to assess the disability the child has."
"I don't know much about the family, but when I saw the mother, I didn't think the family looked financially stable," said Njeru.
Mwendwa's teachers have noticed that he is quite good with his hands. He is a meticulous cleaner. The school would like to provide him a vocational training course in gardening so he can transition into a job after school.
The Machackos Special Unit
Like Mwendwa, most learners with Down syndrome attend public institutions. Students at the Machakos Special Unit don't pay school fees as public education is funded by the government. Non-profit organizations from other countries provide funding when the school lacks resources.
Croccociscus Njeru, a teacher at Machakos Special Unit, says it takes a bit of ingenuity to ensure students have the materials they need.
"We bridge the gap between our facilities and those in private schools by improvising," she said.
Esther Maluki, head of the Assessment Center, and Christopher Kasungo, the retired head, pose in front of the Assessment Center at the Machakos Special Unit
The teachers use the materials available to create instructional tools. Njeru explains that balls can be made from polythene bags and skipping ropes and hoops can be fashioned from branches.
"Private schools may have better resources than public schools, but the public system has an advantage over private in that we have more qualified manpower," says Grace Kyambi, a lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Special Education.
Special education in Kenya
The Kenyan government updated their policy for people living with disabilities when the constitution was changed in 2011. The new legislation includes a section for disabilities and allows for tax-free benefits and bonuses.
"I must say that the Kenya government has put disability in position," said Amar Panesar, founder of Circle Academy, a day school for children with disabilities.
For Lucy Mombo of the Down Syndrome Society of Kenya, the policy may be perfectly worded, but its implementation has been disappointing.
"[Kenya] has a very good policy in terms of acceptance and inclusion, but in practice, it's not a reality," she said.
In the Kenyan public school system, children with Down Syndrome usually attend mainstream schools. For certain subjects such as music or vocational classes, some students with mild handicaps are integrated into classes with regular students.
However, people with physical and intellectual disabilities are most often educated separately from the general population in facilities called special units. These classes are held in their own building on the same grounds as the regular school.
Life in a private school
Unlike Mwendwa, Yusuf Dida attends Circle Academy in Nairobi. His daily schedule is full of activities, including music lessons, swimming and literacy and computer training. The lessons are tailored to his needs and designed to help him continue developing.
Yusuf also speaks fluent Swahili and English. His mother, Estail Ibrahim Dida, even hopes that he will pursue a career in information technology.
Circle Academy is a private school for children with special needs in the Kilimani area of Nairobi. The academy was founded in 2000 by Amar Panesar, who remains the school's director.
The school's philosophy is one of personalized education to help students reach their full potential. Class sizes are small and limited to 12 children. Student to teacher ratios average at two to one, with most of the students given individual attention throughout the day.
Their programming is tailored to each child's specific needs and caters to many types of disabilities, including Down Syndrome. Students with trisomy 21 - the medical term for Down Syndrome - learn how to read, write, do mathematics and use the computer. Many of them are also multi-lingual.
Students also participate in a wide array of extra curricular activities - swimming, horseback riding, music lessons and art classes. There are also one-on-one occupational and speech therapy sessions to stimulate the students in different ways.
Amar Panesar was inspired to found the school because she wanted to provide the space for special needs children to learn at their own pace, instead of forcing children to adhere to strict time frames.
"Honestly, these children have taught me more than I have taught them," said Amar. "I have began to value my life so much more and I feel so content and so perfect just being with them."
Day schools like Circle Academy provide cutting edge instruction and personalized care to students with special needs. Many of the country's similar facilities are concentrated in Nairobi.
For most Kenyan families, such facilities remain out of reach.
"There are Down syndrome children living in an urban setting and in a rich family," said Mohammed Abduba Dida, Yusuf's father. "The fees at Circle Academy is almost half a million Kenyan shillings per year. So, I tend to wonder about poor families."
One size fits all?
Prior to the establishment of special units, Down syndrome children weren't integrated into the mainstream system. Instead, they were sent to specific special schools.
Lucy Mombo is concerned with how people with varying intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome, are placed in a single classroom. She explains that while the policy provides for assistance and support for smaller student-teacher ratios, these provisions are often not implemented in public schools.
Circle Academy also helps special needs children transition into mainstream schools. Amar Panesar is often disappointed by the education available there.
"Special needs units and small groups are popping up, but the quality is yet to come," she explained.
Ensuring quality special education
Teachers play a pivotal role in the education provided to students. For the time being, special education teachers trained at KISE aren't specialized in Down Syndrome.
But Grace Kyambi, a special education expert at KISE, points out that special education teachers are being trained to prepare individualized educational programs (IEP).
"Even if [Down syndrome students] are in the same class with children with other mental disabilities, a teacher who has been trained at KISE knows how to handle each leaner as an individual by preparing an IEP," she explains.
While the changes brought in under the new constitution have improved the situation for people with Down Syndrome in Kenya's education system, the question remains whether the policy will one day ensure that Mwendwa and Yusuf receive the same quality of education.