Innovation in Education: School Children Improve Their Families' Livelihoods

At URDT, It Takes a Child to Raise a Village

November 25, 2009

Why not educate children to become masterful in envisioning and creating a better life for themselves and their families? That’s the innovative approach to education that URDT has been practicing for almost a decade. The result: students’ families’ incomes increase by 20% while the kids are still in school! We offer a description of the four key educational innovations being practiced by the Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme.


One of the toughest challenges in education is finding ways to motivate and inspire kids who come from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds. Children who come to school hungry, distracted by problems at home, and ill-prepared, are hard to engage and to teach. In many parts of the world, parents who never went to school and are struggling everyday to make ends meet, often prefer to keep their able-bodied kids at home to help earn money on the family’s farm or business, or to tend the younger kids and do housework. Even when they do let their kids go to school, these parents often aren’t supportive. As soon as the child comes home after school, he or she is put to work for the family. There’s no time or energy for studying and little appreciation for the child’s academic achievements.

This is the story of an innovative approach to educating children from poor and disadvantaged families that is succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations. Not only are children graduating with honors, they cause their families’ incomes to increase by 20 percent while they are attending school! Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDT) has created an innovative and replicable approach to primary and secondary education that can be applied all over the world—even in developed countries—wherever there are children from disadvantaged homes who need a different kind of education: education that is designed to empower kids, not pour information into their heads.


Since 2000, Uganda Rural Development and Training (URDT) in Kagadi, Kibaale District, has been running a Girls’ School for 240 girls that has brought increased health, prosperity, and peace to the surrounding villages in over four counties of rural, western Uganda—a region in which the average income is $1 a day.

Here are some of the real innovations that the URDT founders, the dedicated teachers at this school, and their willing and eager female students have co-designed over the past decade:

  1. Unique Co-Curriculum. Academics plus training in visionary leadership and integrated development.
  2. Two-Generation Education. Kids teach their parents much of what they learn. Parents are encouraged to take local courses.
  3. Back Home Projects. Kids and their families commit to designing and completing a project designed to improve the family’s lifestyle each term. The kids are graded on the accomplishments of their families each semester.
  4. Community Outreach thru Drama and Radio. The children teach core values of human rights, gender equality, nutrition and sanitation, environmental sustainability, and peace and justice by writing and producing plays in their communities and by producing radio programs that reach a broad population.

Girls Education Movement. Educating girls in cultures in which girls’ education is not the norm is now recognized as a fundamental lever for systemic and long-term change. URDT’s Girls’ School has been active in the Girls’ Education Movement. Its girls have won awards and have been recognized as leaders by the international community.

Expanding and Replicating the Model

Yet URDT’s leaders are convinced that their model for innovative education and child-led development will work with boys and girls, in regular schools as well as boarding schools, in urban settings as well as rural settings.

For the last two years, URDT has also been running the public primary and secondary schools in neighboring districts and is already achieving remarkable results for both boys and girls, their families, and their communities. The Uganda Ministry of Education is following their work closely with an eye to incorporating this model into the national curriculum.


First: A Grass Roots Self-Help Initiative

URDT began in 1987 in the small trading center of Kagadi in western Uganda, when its three founders, Mwalimu Musheshe (an agronomist), Ephrem Rutaboba (a water and sanitation expert), and Sylvana Franco Veltkamp (who had spent much of her early career working for the United Nations), met with village and tribal leaders and asked them if they’d like to improve the living and economic conditions of their communities. After receiving a warm welcome, the team began with a series of participatory planning workshops in which they asked the men and women, old and young, how their current living conditions were, how they would ideally like them to be, and what they wanted to do to change their current circumstances to achieve their visions.

Next: A Demonstration Farm and Vocational Institute

Over the next 12 years, URDT grew from two guys and a truck showing people how to protect their wells, build latrines, prevent disease, and grow more profitable crops to a bustling 80-acre campus with a demonstration organic farm, a vocational and technical institute, human rights and land rights advocacy, tools and training for craftspeople, and many extension services. Kagadi town had grown to be a thriving trading center with over 30 stores. Three women graduates of the Institute had launched a thriving community savings bank which provided loans to businesses and farmers.

The Opportunity: Educate Girls as Change Agents

In the late 1990s, Mwalimu Musheshe, by then, well respected in the community, was approached by a successful businessman and asked if he could help. The businessman wanted to find a bright girl from a poor rural family and give her the advantage of a world-class education. He wanted to send her abroad to receive a top quality education in England or Switzerland. Musheshe asked, “How much money do you plan to spend?” The benefactor replied: “$20,000.” Musheshe said, “With $20,000, I could start a school for hundreds of girls like that.” So he did.


The URDT Girls’ School uses the approved Ugandan public school curriculum for primary and secondary students: English (the country’s official language), math, science, history, social studies, physical education, and art. To that core curriculum the Girls’ School has added...


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