Striking from a Distance

Fair Warning:  I want to warn my readers that this is a very different kind of post for me.  We’ve dedicated this blog over the past year to writing about our observations, challenges and needs while living in Ethiopia, particularly at a children’s home in Wolaita Soddo.  That will continue, but today I’m missing Chicago and my former teacher friends and colleagues as they head for the picket lines for the 2nd day as the Chicago Teacher’s Union faces off against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Ed.  This blog post will be political and not really about Ethiopia.  Feel free to cease reading here if you’d prefer.


Before moving to Ethiopia, I spent five years as a CTU member (Chicago Teacher’s Union) and high school social studies teacher at UPLIFT Community High School, a CPS (Chicago Public Schools) high school in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  Those were fabulous years that I have very fond memories of.  During those five years, I learned that Chicago was a pivotal place in the nation when it came to the debate and struggle around public education.  Just to demonstrate the influence of Chicago on the national education scene, President Obama calls Chicago home.  During his years as a Chicago resident, he played basketball often with Arne Duncan, then the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.  When Obama went to the White House, he took Mr. Duncan with him as the new Secretary of Education.  To further cement the Washington to Chicago connection, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now Mayor of Chicago, not long ago replacing long-time Mayor Richard Daley.

Legally, this strike in Chicago is over teacher compensation.  Rahm wants to lengthen the school day for students in CPS without a fair increase in compensation for teachers and he wants to attach compensation of teachers to student scores on standardized tests.  Unofficially, though, this strike is about much more than teacher compensation, but because of state law in IL, the CTU can’t strike over the real issues; they can only strike over compensation.  The real issues are about class sizes, resources, and a well-rounded support staff in schools (social workers, educational psychologists, nurses, special education teachers, librarians, after-school activity directors, etc.).  It’s about standing up for neighborhood and community schools, which have become under-resourced dumping grounds for all the students with certain challenges that the magnet schools and charter / contract schools don’t want.  It’s about standing up for the teacher profession, because most CTU teachers in CPS are good, qualified teachers who are doing their best everyday to help provide an education to students in an incredibly challenging environment.  It’s about saying, “we are professionals, we are teachers, we are educators, we have skills and knowledge and abilities; stop dumping all the system’s problems on us and give us the tools and resources we need to do our job before you condemn us.”

Though I’m a long ways away from Chicago now, and can’t claim to be intimately involved with this specific strike and struggle, upon reflecting on my current situation, I felt I had something to add to the conversation to show my support to my former colleagues and friends.

About two months ago, I took at job at a private international school here in Addis Ababa.  My family and I wanted to remain a longer time in Ethiopia, but needed a job that paid money in order to do so.  This job provides that for us.  This school is a private, English language international school that serves the international community of Addis Ababa. Most of the students have parents that work at embassies, the Africa Union, the UN, or some big international development organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and USAID.  As a fully private school, the yearly tuition is no joke; it is steep, on pare with lots of private schools in the Chicago area.  As a strong proponent of public education, I find myself in the awkward position of now working for a private school only accessible to families with considerable resources.

One of the things I’ve learned from this experience so far, however, is just what a private education looks like.  My previous experience in CPS and now my new position, has provided me with a unique opportunity to compare the two.  I now have an insider’s perspective on the kind of education that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s kids are likely getting while attending the private University of Chicago Lab School.  It’s interesting that politicians who send their kids to elite private schools are often the ones saying things like, “we can’t fix public education by just throwing money at the problem,” or citing some research study that claims that class size doesn’t actually matter when it comes to quality of education.  Strangely, someone failed to pass that kind of research on to the people running private schools like mine.  Let me tell you a little about my school, where my school puts value, and what kind of education kids get when there are resources.

My new school has a large, open campus, with green space, playgrounds, sports fields, a track, flowers, trees and gardens.  It has excellent facilities, including science labs, music and art rooms, computer labs, a well-stocked library, a nice gym, cafeteria, etc.  My school has new uniforms for all the sports teams, it pays its coaches, it sends its teams on out-of-town trips for tournaments and competitions, and it has a well-qualified athletic director whose sole job is to oversee the athletic program and ensure its quality.  My school has a bunch of great after school activities offered four days / week and some on weekends. My school has new-edition textbooks, literature books and supplies for all students.  My school has a 1-to-1-laptop program where all students from grades 6 – 12 are issued a laptop for the duration of their academic year.  My school has great wireless Internet throughout the campus, and has access to online e-learning and student e-portfolio programs that are integrated into every class.  My school has an extensive, professional IT staff that services, maintains and provides support for all technology on campus.  Every classroom in my new school is equipped with an LCD projector and many classrooms have smart boards and document readers.  The student cafeteria serves fabulous meals that are healthy and have variety at very reasonable prices.

My new school values its teachers and recognizes that a quality education requires teachers that are taken care of and provided with appropriate resources.  There is a full-time staffed copy center that can turn around my photocopy requests within 30 min.  There is a non-stop supply of coffee for teachers and staff in various locations around campus.  There are computers and printers (with ink) at every staff workspace.  There is a “teacher store” on campus where teachers can go get pretty much any classroom supply he / she could ever need without paying for it out of his / her own pocket.  Teachers are provided with adequate preparatory time, collaboration time and professional development time, built into the school day.  Teachers are compensated with a good salary and great benefits (medical, dental, retirement, etc.).  Teachers are given appropriate benefit days, including sick leave, personal days, and professional development leave days, and teachers are not made to feel guilty for using these days when they need to.  Teachers are given $1500 / year as a professional development allowance so they can attend professional development conferences and trainings.  Teachers are given a personal technology allowance, so they can stay updated with the necessary technology tools to be an affective teacher.  Teachers are provided with opportunities to further their education and encouraged to participate in these opportunities (in CPS I knew principals and district staff that voiced frustration over teachers getting higher degrees because it meant they would cost more on the school’s budget… I was also part of hiring committees that were told we couldn’t hire teachers with more than one degree or with more than a couple of years experience because the school couldn’t afford it).  The administrative staff and school board also often host appreciation events with food and drink just to show teachers that their hard work is not unnoticed.

And as for that issue about class sizes and staff-to-student ratios: all of my classes are between 15 – 20 students maximum.  I never have a classroom without adequate desks and space.  I always have enough textbooks and literature books for all my students.  There is a whole staff of teaching assistants, most of which have teacher qualifications of their own.  Every elementary school classroom, despite only have a maximum of 20 kids, has a primary teacher, plus a qualified teaching assistant in the room, not to mention the extra “specials” teachers for art, foreign language, music and PE.  Despite being a relatively small school by CPS standards (about 800 students from PK – 12th grade), there’s a whole ELL department with several qualified ELL teachers who provide pull-out and push-in support.  There is a special education department that includes school social workers, educational psychologists and special education teachers that provide both push-in and pull-out support, though only a small percentage of our student body has special ed. needs (compared to 30% of the student body at my previous CPS high school).  Beyond this, there are custodians, lab techs., grounds keepers, facility maintenance staff, extra coaches and coaching assistants, office staff, security staff, after-school activity staff, etc.  For a student body of 800 kids, there are 80 full-time faculty, plus 40 TAs, 6 full-time IT specialists, and an administrative team of 20 (and, by the way, the school director and principals are all actual educators who have spent years as teachers in classrooms; they’re not former lawyers, business-people, nor military generals).

This is the kind of education that kids from well-resourced families are getting.  This is the kind of education that Rahm Emanuel’s kids are getting.  Now, while it may be true, that taxpayers can’t afford to pay for the full extent of this kind of education in our public system, it is also true that resources do matter.  If resources didn’t matter, why would those who can afford it, send their kids to private schools with absurd amounts of resources?  If we really believed in equal education for all of America’s kids, don’t you think the kids coming from the least privileged backgrounds are exactly the kids who need the resources?  Don’t you think the schools with student populations that are 95 – 100% free and reduced lunch are exactly the places that should have extra resources?  Don’t you think that schools with student populations with 30% special education needs are exactly the places that need full-time social workers, qualified special education departments, and educational psychologists?  Don’t you think the schools where students bring a lot of pain and baggage from their pasts, their homes and their neighborhoods are exactly the schools that should have smaller class sizes?  Don’t you think the schools in gang invested, high-crime and violent neighborhoods are exactly the places that need more resources for after-school activities?  Don’t you think the schools in predominately immigrant communities are exactly the schools that needs greater ELL support?  Don’t you think the schools with transient student populations and with kids well-behind grade level are exactly the schools that need adequate and current educational materials?

And don’t you think the teachers that work in these schools deserve to be taken care of?

Support the CTU and support public education.


Sticker Shock

Eighty thousand dollars is a lot of money.  A price tag with $80 thousand on it causes some sticker shock.  This is what we’re trying to raise for the deep borehole well in Wolaita Soddo for the kids at the CCC orphanage.

We’re at nearly $60 thousand.  A lot of people have given generously to help us get to this point.  We have enough to move forward with the drilling and casing of the well, which is scheduled to begin in October.  We’d like to express a big thanks to all of you who have donated to this cause.  We still need $20 thousand more to fully complete the project.

In the process of raising funds for this well, we’ve experience some push back from some people asking why it costs so much to drill this well.  These are very legitimate concerns.  It is a big price tag and with the amount of wastage and corruption that sometimes happens with “aid and development” projects, I fully respect these questions.  If people are going to donate to a cause, they want to be assured that their money is going to be used wisely and effectively.  Below I have set out to provide a little explanation of the costs for the CCC well project.

The price is a combination of factors, mostly connected to the depth to which we have to drill and from which we have to pump in order to have a consistent, reliable water source, given our location.  People who haven’t been to Ethiopia, do not always realize that much of the country is highland terrain.  People often have images of dry, low-lying savanna and desert.  There are certainly parts of Ethiopia that are hot, low and dry, but the majority of the country actually sits on terrain above 6000 feet.  The capital city of Addis Ababa, for example, lies mostly between 7500 and 8000 feet.  The town of Soddo in the Wolaita Zone, where the CCC orphanage is located, lies between 6000 and 7000 feet (the CCC orphanage itself is at 6500 feet).  This elevation, combined with the specific geological and hydrological characteristics of the area, means that in order to hit an aquifer that will supply year-round water, a deep borehole well on our compound will likely be between 500 and 600 feet deep.  That’s a very deep well.

There are very few places in North America where people have to drill to 500 feet to hit a consistent water source.  I grew up with my family home on a well outside of Moncton, NB, Canada.  Our well of 90 feet has served my family home well for over 30 years.  I just did a quick search online of well logs in various regions of the United States.  This is by no means an exhaustive piece of research, but in Ohio I found most wells between 30 – 80 feet deep.  In Oregon, I found wells between 100 – 200 feet deep, with a few over 300.  In Missouri, I found wells everywhere from 50 – 300 feet.  Even in Colorado, where the elevations are similar to Ethiopia, I found most wells between 200 – 400 feet, with very few over 500 feet deep.  In fact, in regions of Colorado where the elevation was similar to Soddo (between 6000 – 7000 feet), most of the wells I found were still less than 200 feet deep.  The same would be true of most of the African continent.  There would be very few places in Africa with terrain at the elevation that it is in Wolaita Soddo.  Every well will be different and very specific to the exact drilling location, but the point is, drilling to over 500 feet to find consistent water is a problem quite unique to our location in Wolaita.  Drilling to this kind of depth is expensive.

The best quote that we received for the drilling and casing of our well is through Water is Life International ( and their drilling partner Hawassa Salem Drillers PLC.  They have quoted us at $80 / meter.  Of course, once a well is drilled, it must be cased to keep the well from collapsing.  Our costs for casing will be at $60 / meter (for PVC casing because steel was just too cost prohibitive).  Obviously, the deeper one has to drill and case, the more costly a well will be.  At these costs, just the per meter costs of drilling and casing a well to 180 meters is over $25,000 and that doesn’t include mobilization costs for the rig and equipment, purification and testing costs for the well, site preparation costs, etc.  It also doesn’t even touch on pump purchase and installation costs, water storage costs, piping costs, labor, taxes (15% VAT here in Ethiopia), etc.

Another unique aspect of the CCC compound is that it sits on a side-hill that slopes at a 60-degree angle, down into a small gorge about 600 feet below the children’s home.  Our hydro-geological survey and report for the site recommends that we drill on the lower end of the compound because that is the cheapest and most probable place to hit water.  What this means, though, is that we have to, not only pump water to the surface of the well, but we have to pump it up our side hill to the top of the compound and then to the top of our storage tanks.  We will, therefore, need a pump with the capacity to pump water a total of 1,100 vertical feet (over 500 feet from water level to the surface of the well, then an additional 500 vertical feet from the surface of the well to the top of our water storage tanks).  These kinds of pumps are expensive, to the tune of $12,000, plus they require 3-phase electrical power, which the orphanage compound does not currently have.  Installing 3-phase electrical power with a 21 KW transformer on our compound costs another $9000.  You can quickly see how these costs are adding up.

As we explored this project and costs of it, we researched all the cheaper options available.  Unfortunately, each of these options failed to meet the specific needs of our orphanage compound.

First, we looked at hand-dug wells with hand-pumps.  These types of wells are very popular around Africa because they’re cheap.  You can dig a well with local, unskilled labor and install an pretty low-tech pumping system like the India Mark II or the Afridev or even a rope and washer system and have a well completed that can serve the needs a 100 or so people in a village for probably between $500 – $1000.  The cost-to-impact ratio of these types of wells is fabulous.  Let’s say a $1000 well with India Mark II pump serves a community of 100 people.  That’s $10 / person.  That’s really ensuring that donated funds have maximum impact.  The problem is that the CCC compound has a hand-dug well that’s 18 meters deep and is completely dry and useless for almost half the year because shallow groundwater simply isn’t sufficient in Wolaita to supply year-round water.

Second, we looked at new hand-drilling technology like what is being used by groups like iDE in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia.  This technology involves a human-powered bit apparatus that can drill through soft geological formations down to 200 feet using only local manpower.  These drill teams are charging about $6 / meter (as compared to the $80 / meter that we’ve been quoted).  This type of technology is having a huge impact on communities in the Rift Valley because it’s bringing a consistent water source to farming communities for drinking and irrigation at affordable costs.  A 200-foot well, installed with a small diesel pump, can provide water to a community of a 100+ families.  With drilling, casing and pumping, this kind of deep well could be done for well under $10,000, which could easily provide water for 500+ people with a cost-to-impact ratio of less than $20 / person. The problem is, this technology cannot handle the medium-to-hard geological formations of Wolaita, nor the 500+ feet of depth required for a year-round well in Wolaita.

Third, a lot of people have suggested to us water filtration systems.  Biosand filters have become a popular tool for purifying water in developing countries.  These filters can be developed for about $100 and can serve about 100 people.  That’s a great cost-to-impact ratio; that’s $1 / person to provide clean drinking water.  Obviously, though, the catch is that one needs to have a water source in order to purify water through a filter.  In Wolaita during the dry season, its not only an issue of unclean water, it’s an issue of water period.  If we don’t receive water from the town (we commonly only receive a few hours / week of town water from Dec. – Mar.), we have to rely on “donkey water,” which is water carried in jerry cans on the backs of donkeys from a spring 30 min. away.  As we learned last year, it’s very difficult to run a healthy children’s home of 60 kids when our only source of water many days is by the jerry can.  It would take 1 donkey water carrier with two donkeys all day to make the 6 trips to and from the spring necessary to supply enough water for us to barely function at the home.  Barely functioning meant that drinking water was rationed, toilets weren’t flushed, and cleaning and bathing was limited.  Our issue at the CCC orphanage is less about water quality and more about water access.

So it is very true that the cost-to-impact ratio of our well project for the orphanage is poor in comparison to other possible water projects one could donate to.  You could donate $1000 to an organization installing Biosand filters and impact 1000 people.  You cold donate a $1000 to an organization digging hand-dug wells and impact at least a 100 people.  You could donate a $1000 to an organization involved in hand-drilling technology, and together with 10 other like-donors, you could impact 500 – 1000 people.  Or you could donate a $1000 to our glassofhope project for a well for the CCC orphanage, and only after we raise another $79,000, could you help to impact 60 kids.  If you base it on the cost-to-impact of your donated money, our project does not make sense.

But here’s the thing.  Donating to all those other great water projects doesn’t help get water to the 60 kids living at the CCC orphanage in Wolaita Soddo, because those projects don’t work for the CCC compound.  There is sticker shock with this project, but it is the only way to provide consistent, year-round water for the CCC orphanage.  We only have $20 thousand more to go; please help us keep the momentum going.  Please share, email, facebook, tweet, blog, etc.



Just to put it slightly in perspective…  the two presidential candidate campaigns for U.S. president during the month of July alone received a total of $175 million in donated funds.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to do the cost-to-impact analysis of those funds…