I recently took my niece (Tasha) on what I enthusiastically described as a treasure hunt, which was my creative way of packaging a school hunting expedition in Juja and its environs.
You should have seen us in our matching khaki pants, plain white t-shirts and bata ngomas. We took the extra effort to look like model citizens as I had come across an article that made it clear that appearances matter, especially when it comes to the kind of school I had in mind.
Tasha had just turned three barely a week prior to the treasure hunt, but you couldn't tell by looking at her. She stood head and shoulders above all the girls in her age group. Having recently fallen in love with dreadlocks, her new hairstyle would be enough to convince any potential tutor that she was almost turning four.
Her eyes were beaming with excitement when we took exit 14 on Thika Superhighway and then made a left turn into a long and winding driveway at the first school. Not knowing whether this will be deemed as a good review, let's just say that the school is located a couple of metres from the Kenyatta Road exit, on your way towards Juja.
One thing you need to know about my niece and her cute little dreadlocks is that she never opens up to strangers. It takes her a 'minute' before she deems any stranger worthy of hearing her speak.
She takes an eternity sizing up any new face. If you pass her first phase of scrutineering which is usually characterised by long stares, you then graduate to the next level where she will let you play with her but she will still maintain her vow of silence (I call this the mime phase). Any attempts you make to speak are met by a swift index finger to the mouth gesture.
Once you get past level II of the Tasha test, she may decide to give you a handful of words - if she deems you worthy of her time. However, if you happen to find her among family and friends, you'd find it hard to believe that she is the same person.
Among familiar phases she is as loud as the infamous 45-seater Githurai buses.
This was why I was surprised when she immediately opened up to the teacher/head recruit/vetting officer at the first school we got to.
After making our way through the long winding road, we found our way to the administration block that stood out among the indegenous trees planted in neat rows on either side.
In terms of appearances, this particular school went all out. Walking through the paved hallways, it felt like we were walking into a Walt Disney fantasyland but with little nuggets of wisdom hitting you at every turn.
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Brightly colored letters, numbers, pictures turned the hallways into classes of their own and Tasha couldn't contain her joy. She was busy goofing around with the images and numbers when a lady approached us from my blind side.
She introduced herself and went straight in. I stood back and watched, knowing Tasha would just give her the cold shoulder. Shock on me!
I don't know what she said but my niece was immediately engaged and chatting her up like they were long lost friends. Wow...I muttered. I was both impressed and jealous if that makes any sense at all.
After being taken around the school where we got to check out the various facilities including a swimming pool where it took a lot of convincing to make it clear to Tasha that Khakis aren't meant for swimming, we got down to business.
As my niece got busy building a lego castle inside one of the prettiest staff rooms I had been in, the teacher/head recruit/vetting officer and I got into the real stuff.
I wanted to know if Tasha were to join, what grade would she be enrolled in. That's the big question.
I know that every parent thinks and genuinely believes that their 3-year-olds are geniuses. In my head Tasha was just as smart if not smarter than Stephen Hawking. She had already mastered the alphabet, she could count on a dime, make coherent sentences, color within any given boundaries, code in python, fly to the moon etc.
However, I soon learned that all these meant little in most of the schools I visited. When it comes to enrolling, age seems to take first priority. The only place where Tasha's age didn't seem to matter was in the Montessori schools we visited.
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Fun Fact; Montessori is a system of education for young children that seeks to develop natural interests and activities rather than use formal teaching methods.
The method was developed in the early 20th century by Italian physician Maria Montessori, who developed her theories through scientific experimentation with her students; the method has since been used in many parts of the world, in public and private schools alike.
Okay, back to Juja.
I was told that if I wanted my niece to join in September 2022, then she'd have to enroll in what they called 'reception' class. Having grown up in the early 90's, this was a bit confusing to me so I had to ask what kind of stuff she'd be learning in reception - also known as baby class depending on the school.
That was how I got to know that kids in reception class learn how to recognise the letters and sounds of the alphabet. They will also learn to read common words, coloring within any given boundaries etc.
I asked if there was a cognitive test my genius niece could take in order to determine if a kid who could already do all that she was supposed to learn in reception class, belonged in reception class.
Don't get me wrong. I do appreciate the process but it just didn't make sense to enroll a kid in a class where she'd get to learn stuff that she had already mastered.
Especially if you bear in mind the amount of money the schools I visited charge for these classes. For example, the one we visited first (just past Kenyatta Road), tuition fee was set at Ksh44,500 per term, plus a Ksh10,200 annual charge for learning resources, and an Ksh12,500 admission fee
That's already Ksh 67,200 without even factoring in their transport fee. I know that this was just a treasure hunt and I wasn't actually enrolling my niece but good God when did schools get this expensive?
Now you get why I insisted on having cognitive tests to see if we could skip reception class altogether, and make some pretty significant savings.
No was the short and simple answer.
We got to visit seven more schools in the area and the answer, fee range and facilities were pretty much the same. The only difference worth noting was that Tasha never uttered a single word to any other teacher during our treasure hunt.
This created a bias towards the first teacher we met and I took a mental and literal note of the same - which I then shared with my sister (Tasha's mum) later on.
One thing I also noted during our road trip across the various schools was that parents were now coming up with little ways to make savings when it came to schools. Carpooling is a serious thing among parents, especially in gated communities.
This is because some of the transport fees I came across were exorbitant to put it mildly. How else would you explain schools demanding Ksh 6,500 for a two-way trip to a school that is located within the same gated community. You'd be basically paying to have your kid crossing two or three roads max in a bus.
At the end of our educational road trip Tasha was beaming with excitement. She couldn't wait to tell her mum everything, and neither could I. We were both exhausted but we had a lot of fun.
Tasha was already asleep by the time I got to her mum's place.
Out of curiosity, I recently went online to try and compare school fee rates around other neighborhoods in Nairobi, bearing in mind what I had come across during my treasure hunt with Tasha.
This proved to be a wormhole as the internet sucked me deeper and deeper into a world where some parents were paying as much as Ksh1.6 million per year for students in pre-kindergarten.
It was how I came to learn of a school in the leafy suburb of Kileleshwa where a school that sits on a 35-acre land parcel of land charges Ksh1,921,500 per year for children aged between 6-13 years
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Despite the mind-boggling fees, I get that any parent would want to give their child any advantage they can afford in life and if that means enrolling in a posh 'group of schools' then so be it.
However, it is important to find a school that not only fits your budget, but one where your kid stands the best chance of having the said advantage in life. A school where the value on offer is clear to see. A school with teachers who can get Tasha to open up in a matter of seconds.
If you believe that determining which grade a child should be enrolled in should be dependent on a cognitive test and not age - like I do, then my recent road trip taught me that Montessori schools are a safe bet. But that’s just me and I'm in no way recommending this. If you are actually looking into enrolling your child into school do your own comparisons and make an informed choice.
There could be traditional schools that offer the same i.e. not locking a child out based on age alone. The key thing is to ask prior to enrolling, you could save as much as Ksh70,000 just by asking that simple question.
Overall, I now understand why all my friends who have kids keep saying 'kulea ndio gharama - raising a kid is expensive'.