by Svyatoslav Pashchenko – LGT Impact Fellow 2017

When I think of boarding school, the first image that comes is an elite preparatory school. It’s certainly not something I thought that lower income families living in Sub-Saharan Africa would have as an option for their child’s education. So, you can imagine my surprise when during research in Uganda I came across a low-income parent with 5 children – all living together in a two room home with no plumbing or a kitchen – who recounted to me the reasons she decided to send her eldest son to a boarding school.

As part of my LGT Impact Fellowship at Bridge, I have been researching the educational decisions, needs, and aspirations of low-income families in Uganda. A large part of this work informs Bridge’s effort to improve parent involvement and engagement with their child’s education and ensure that Bridge is meeting the needs of these parents. Through this effort, I recently discovered that being able to send your child to boarding school emerged as one of the top wishes that parents had. Thus, I dove into the phenomenon of boarding school in Uganda. Although Bridge does not offer boarding as an option for its schools, understanding why it’s important to parents and what it means to them is still important.

The research has made me confront these differences in thinking and to reassess my own understanding of parent’s educational aspirations. Today, parents in Uganda have more and more choices on where they can send their child to school and the growth of boarding schools that cater to different income ranges is certainly part of this trend. However, as I looked more closely, I found that while higher cost boarding schools tended to be more consistent in the quality of amenities, services and education that they provide, lower cost boarding schools – that is those that tend to cater to lower income families – have a great deal of variance – a reality not lost on parents. That said, parents saw boarding schools as more than just a place with things like dorms, books, and teachers.

Growing up, boarding schools was never on my parents’ radar because it was, for us, a completely unachievable dream. Yet, my parents had other dreams and hopes for us. I don’t recall ever talking to my parents about going to university; still, somehow I assumed my sisters and I would attend – despite my father being a pizza delivery man and my mom a grocery store clerk. My parents’ dreams for a better life for us were so strong that we all just assumed we’d get there.

For many low-income parents in Uganda, the idea that all of their kids will go to university is something that they hope for but also know that it is not something that they can safely presume will happen. To get into a university, not only does the child have to do well academically but they also have to score high marks on national exams like the PLE in order to advance through school. Consequently, even sending one child to university is a huge accomplishment and a privilege hard fought for – especially low-income families. Getting a child into a boarding school, however, helps parents feel like they are one step closer to achieving this dream – a dream that if realized will mean that their family will have a more prosperous future.

So then, beyond serving as a type of affirmation, what does boarding school mean for parents? Well, it can be quite diverse. On one level, it’s unquestionably connected to aspirations – a desire to give something to your child and most often, it’s something that the parents did not have access to themselves. There is also the aspiration for a brighter future and higher social standing. I had parents and school staff share stories of prominent Ugandans who had attended boarding school. As a staff member once pointed out to me, “remember presidents Museveni and Kagame went to the same boarding school”. On another level, parents expressed more practical benefits that boarding schools provide like more learning, better discipline, a better environment, and a chance to make better friends and build stronger connections. For example, parents stressed that boarding schools help their child develop a “learning mindset” while also keeping them in a secure environment where they will be safe and free from negative influences. Living in low-income neighborhoods can be and is often tough – there can be higher crime, poor/no services, etc. Many parents are trying to protect and insulate their children from some of these realities and thus see boarding schools as an avenue to do that.

So what can we take from this research? At a minimum, by looking at what boarding school means to parents it has helped us gain a broader and deeper understanding of our parents and see areas where aspirations and ideals align. For example, some of the things that we hear from Bridge parents is how much they value the school uniform and how they want it to make their child look “sharp” and “smart”; how they want trained, “mature” teachers; how important discipline is; how they want more extra-curricular programs. In other words, similar to boarding school parents, Bridge parents also want to give their child a better education that they can feel proud of and confident in.

While we may not be able to act on every wish that parents make, this project has helped the team gain a greater empathy for our parents that can, in turn, inspire new ideas on ways that we can continue building schools that not only deliver excellent academic gains but also tap into parents’ aspiration and vision for their children and family.