Aaron Friedland’s life was always leading up to this: to start the Walking School Bus, an organization that not only provides transport for disadvantaged children in Uganda, but provides them with better nutritition and a more effective curriculum.
Born in South Africa, Friedland and his family left when he was one year old due to the danger of living there. The family moved to Vancouver, where, at a relatively young age, Friedland was diagnosed with dyslexia. Fortunately, Vancouver’s education system offered abundant support: extra lessons and tutoring helped pave the way for him to eventually go to McGill University.
“One of my elementary school principals told my parents that I would most likely not go to university,” Friedland says. “It really goes to show what an amazing education can do.”
Friedland was introduced to a Ugandan coffee farmer named JJ Keki when Keki came to Vancouver to speak about Delicious Peace, his interfaith coffee cooperative. The meeting would prove integral to the work Friedland does in Uganda today.
Keki spoke about witnessing the atrocity of the World Trade Center and how seeing the kind of destruction wrought by religious intolerance inspired him to go back to Uganda and launch Delicious Peace.
One of the unintended positive outcomes of Delicious Peace was that the coffee farmers began sending their children to school together, creating an emergence of interfaith schools in Uganda for the first time. Friedland’s mother was so touched by Keki’s story that the following year the family took a trip to the village of Nabagoya, one of Uganda’s Jewish enclaves.
“That trip very much changed my trajectory,” Friedland recalls. “What struck me was the distance that so many of the students were walking to school. I always had a pretty casual relationship with my education in that way. If I was tired or not in the mood, I just didn’t go. But seeing these kids traveling upwards of five kilometers to get to school was eye opening. It made me realize how much I had taken my access to education for granted.”
Friedland returned to McGill, where he was studying economics, with a head full of ideas about how to solve the problem of educational access in Uganda. Having formed relationships with community leaders like Keki and Jewish community organizer Enosh Mainah, the seeds for the Walking School Bus were planted, but it would be another few years before the organization would be launched.
Friedland began his master’s degree at McGill, still consumed by the idea of distance as a barrier to education. He started researching how distance impacts attendance rates, and traveled back to Uganda to collect more data. This time, he went to the more rural community of Putti, where he found an elementary school called the Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School. Friedland stayed for two weeks, traveling with pupils to school every morning. They would meet roughly three kilometers from school, which marked the halfway point for the pupils.
“When we would get to school, there was no food,” Friedland recalls. “I thought it was odd. I assumed they would eat after walking that far. I subsequently found out that they feed the students at 11 a.m., because there isn’t enough food in the dry season to get them over the hump of the day.”
Friedland spent time in the classrooms and saw to his surprise that English was part of the national curriculum. Unfortunately, many of the teachers relied on a call-and-response method that allowed the children to memorize without understanding the words. Friedland thought back to when he was in elementary school and how it would be for a student with dyslexia sitting in the classroom. He realized that helping children get to school was only one piece of the puzzle. Once they arrived, they needed adequate nutrition and a better curriculum that pushed for higher literacy. He went back to Vancouver with a resolve to create a comprehensive entity, capable of addressing all three issues: access, nutrition and curriculum.
“I realized that attendance rates are important, but that’s not what’s really going on; there is a much bigger issue,” he says. “I had an amazing support structure at McGill in terms of my professors. Along with some lofty goals, I created the Walking School Bus, which aims to address these three issues.”
Friedland immediately hired Mainah, the Jewish community organizer, as his director of Ugandan relations and started developing a holistic approach comprising three initiatives for three issues. In terms of access, the organization transports children in a school bus. In addition, it sponsors 16 scholars, top academic performers who come from particularly low socioeconomic circumstances.
The bus itself does two things efficiently. First, it transports pupils to school. After conducting 250 questionnaires and working with researchers to identify which children were highest risk and walked the furthest, those who would benefit the most were chosen first and foremost. The bus can hold 20 children at a time and serves 75 children daily. Secondly, the bus generates $28 every day by operating as a taxi in the afternoon. In this way, it sustains itself. Under the nutrition component, the organization supplies three things: chicken coops, water catchment systems and community-supported gardens. The water catchment systems are able to harvest just over 50,000 liters on a monthly basis, all from simply putting gutters and downspouts onto existing infrastructure.
“The reason we include water catchment is that in economics and development we’ll often see people having really good ideas, but ones that leave a negative impact, which they didn’t anticipate,” Friedland says. “For example, if we went into these communities and gave them chicken coops and gardens, we wouldn’t be addressing the issue of a finite amount of water. We wanted to ensure that our infrastructure was not going to have any unforeseen negative consequence.”
For the community gardens, certain hardy crops were chosen, including spinach, green beans, Irish potatoes, and dodo, a leafy green high in iron. Given the prevalence of anemia among Ugandans, Friedland and his team used linear programming, a mathematical model to help identify how to maximize iron production. From this, they were able to identify which crops and quantities would help to achieve their goal.
While the gardens do not provide enough food to replace the school feeding program, they add much-needed nutritional diversity. The garden also provides ample opportunities for teaching students about agricultural best practices.
The third and final initiative is curriculum enhancement. To this end, Friedland and his team have built solar-powered classrooms and developed a unique reading program called Simbi, for which they received the Next Einstein Award.
“We saw that students in these rural classrooms didn’t achieve a higher level of literacy because they weren’t taught the proper skills,” Friedland says.
“Another issue is that a lot of students in higher-income countries have access to education, but no incentive to connect with their reading. When we created Simbi, it bridged that gap. Students all over the world read books in Simbi. They see the text on the screen, they press the record now tab, then read aloud and press submit. Students in Uganda and across the world are now able to listen and read to that student’s voice. Listening and reading simultaneously is a really good teaching tool.”
In the solar-powered classrooms, Ugandan pupils use Simbi technology in conjunction with micro computers loaded with 64 GB of educational materials, everything from Ted Talks to Khan Academy. The micro computers are connected to routers, so that up to 200 devices can download books and stream videos simultaneously.
“Aaron realized that to buy scholastic materials would be very expensive, so he came up with this system where all the students could download the information on all different subjects,” Mainah says.
“The education system is becoming streamlined and the challenges are being solved. It was hard at first, but it’s getting easier. The main challenge now is that there are many demands from each school. When Aaron first announced that he wanted to start this organization, many people did not believe him. But slowly, he has managed to effect improvement in all three areas. Little by little, he is fulfilling our dreams.”
Currently, three schools in Uganda benefit from this trilateral aid: the Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School, Hadassah Primary School and Samei Kakungulu High School. All are interfaith, with the highest contingent being Muslim, followed by Jewish and Christian. Three other Ugandan communities have requested the access and nutrition programs.
In India, The Walking School Bus has a team working with three schools on nutrition and curriculum development, with the potential to increase substantially. Because the organization has these different initiatives, some have gained traction more quickly than others. There are over 40 schools worldwide using the Simbi program.
While the access initiative is only in Uganda for now, Friedland hopes to see it proliferate. “I want to see more data reflecting how well we’re doing to know with confidence that access is a model I want to scale,” he says.
“We’ve had communities in India request it, so we’ll see what happens. We vet every step as thoroughly as we can with a tiny team and a small budget, but we do pride ourselves on research.”