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Ballet Creating A Learning Structure For Children Out of School in Rwanda

March 15, 2016

By Janelle Junkin, PhD candidate, Creative Arts Therapies Department

Rwanda, land of a thousand hills. A completely apt description of a country that is lush with life re-growing post genocide. I had the privilege of traveling to Kigali, Rwanda, twice; once in August 2015 and again in January 2016. I traveled with MindLeaps, an international NGO that uses ballet, being the only ones in the entire country of Rwanda to have a fully operational ballet dance studio, as a way to bring children who are out of school, into a learning environment. (Out of school children typically eat once a day, if they are able, some sleep overnight on the streets and most work doing odd jobs in their neighborhoods in order to have enough money to eat.)

Mindleaps, under the direction of their founder and executive director, Rebecca Davis, seeks to end the cycle of poverty in Rwanda using the discipline of dance to improve both cognitive and non-cognitive skills so that the children can return to school, and through their education find employment, housing and eat regularly, thus ending their tenure on the streets. 90% of the children who live are out of school are boys, however, there are girls who also experience this life. MindLeaps currently works with 90 children ages nine - 18, 60 boys and 30 girls.

The staff in Rwanda are all Rwandans, with the exception of one staff member who leads the English aspect of the program and does fundraising to ensure that there is money to send the children to school. When the children enter MindLeaps, they automatically receive a two-hour ballet class and after demonstrating their commitment to the program, earn the right to participate in the entire MindLeaps program which includes showering, washing their clothes, eating one meal (typically porridge) once a day, taking an English and an IT class (IT because this is what the country of Rwanda is focused on in their rebuilding efforts). To date they have eight children in boarding school, one child who is completing a vocational training program and two who will begin vocational training in February 2016.

My work with MindLeaps aims to determine the program’s success. Working under the tutelage of Dr. Michael Leeds, an economist at Temple University, and Dr. Patrick McSharry, a mathematician from Oxford University and visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Kigali, I have been collecting and analyzing data about the program.

MindLeaps developed an internal scale that measures student progress in cognitive and non-cognitive skills through their dance curriculum. Preliminary data analysis shows that all students improve their scores between 85-125% within 3 months of joining the program, leading the staff to believe that the students are ready to return to school, when funding becomes available. Two additional questions emerged from this preliminary analysis: why are the students who attend boarding school so successful and how do we explain the children who ultimately become a part of the MindLeaps program versus those who do not? To answer the question regarding student success in boarding school, we are analyzing the data from the boarding school, comparing the children who do not live on the streets with the eight who do, and then running a predictability model to begin to determine if this is just a phenomena or if we can accurately predict that MindLeaps students, after three months in the dance program, will excel in school.

To begin to answer the question about why students choose to be in the MindLeaps program, we conducted surveys with 200 children who live on the street and surveys with the 90 children in the program specifically focused on social economic status, family history, birth order, etc. in order to run a Heckman’s Analysis. Finally, we administered a cognitive test, the Panga Munthu Test developed by Dr. Robert Serpell and colleagues in Zambia during the 1980’s for the continent of Africa, but more specifically for East Africa. In addition, we conducted interviews with staff and students to learn more about the organization, the needs, and the lives of the children who participate in MindLeaps. We are beginning the analysis phase of the research.

One of the most exciting aspects of my participation occurred in January 2016 when I returned to Rwanda to train four of the boys who are a part of MindLeaps and are out of school, to collect the data about the children who live on the street. In addition, I was able to work with their social worker, several of their teachers and a volunteer from Italy (a judge), to administer the Panga Munthu Test and to conduct the surveys with the children who are part of the MindLeaps program. I am humbled by this experience, especially by the boys who assisted in collecting the data about the children who are out of school – I know that we would not have this data if had not been for them and I am humbled that these boys who have no more than a 3rd to 5th grade education at best did not allow this to hinder them in completing the data collection.

I have learned so much about Rwanda, about MindLeaps, data collection and analysis, international research and myself, and I know that I will only continue to learn as I complete the analysis. This opportunity has been nothing short of remarkable and I am grateful to MindLeaps for allowing me to learn from them and for Drexel University’s Creative Arts Therapies Department for allowing this learning opportunity.