Educating the Rich and Poor Together: The Story of the Maranyundo Girls School

Posted by Sister Ann Fox

As we struggle in our schools with issues of racism, economic disparity, and achievement gaps, we would not think that African schools would have much to offer us. We often dismiss them as places where students simply learn facts and then “regurgitate” them for tests. However, if we look deeper into some of the characteristics of African schools we might find some practices that could positively challenge our educational methods.

The following description from Rwanda is an excellent starting point. I am grateful to our friend, Sr. Juvenal , for allowing me to reconstruct her extemporaneous speech here. Sister, a member of the Benebikira Congregation, is known to many in South Boston as she  stayed with us at the Paraclete while doing graduate studies.

For those of you fortunate to hear her at the Segal Foundation Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, you will note there are additional points left out of her original speech because of time constraints.


Based on a speech given at the Segal Foundation Conference, April 6, 2015 in Nairobi, Kenya by Sr. Marie. Juvenal Mukanurama, Head of the Maranyundo Girls School in Nyamata, Rwanda.


Thank you for the opportunity to speak to all of you. Today, I would like to share with you the story of how we educate the poor and the rich students together at the Maranyundo Girls School in Rwanda.

The very first thing we must do is to show the poor girls from the rural areas that we know they can do as well as the girls from the city. We show them that they will not be treated any different from others and that we expect the same from all girls, no matter what their background.

There are many customs or practices in schools administered by the Benebikira sisters that we have found to be effective in helping to create a school community where there are no divisions due to background.

For Instance, when the girls first arrive we inspect each piece of luggage. For some girls we add what is missing, such as soap or toothpaste; for other girls we give back to their families items that are not needed, such as jewelry. We believe uniforms are important because no one will be able to tell from their appearance who comes from a family of wealth or from poverty. Each girl receives her set of clothes, puts on her uniform and enters the school campus where she is greeted by her “mother.” Let me explain.

The night before the arrival of new students, we have a bowl with slips of paper with each of the new student’s names. Girls from the class above pick a name from the bowl and that student becomes her daughter.   As mother she takes responsibility for orientation of her daughter on every aspect of school life. A girl from the rural area may need to be shown how to use a shower; a girl from the city might have to learn how to wash her clothes in a bucket. They are assigned to the same bunk bed and of course there is a grandmother who also has a bed near them. They become family.

Another thing we do is keep information on who receives financial help private. Only the head of school and the buser know this information.

In our culture, meal time is when we socialize and share.   We assign students to tables of ten and change the assignments at least once during the year so that the girls have an opportunity to get to know their classmates. For us, an important characteristic of an educated person is the ability to make friends and socialize with people from all types of background. Our meal time provides this opportunity.

On our monthly visiting day, some families come by car, some by foot. We do not allow them to bring special treats for their daughters.  They share snacks and tonics provided by the school. For those who have the means and want to contribute, they may leave money in a special basket. At the end of the visiting day, the girls count what is there and decide what kind of treat they will buy for all the students.

I would like to close my remarks by telling you that although when our poor girls from rural schools first come they do have a difficult time with school work, but by the end of the first year they are competent, and by the time of graduation they are among our very best performing students.

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This Old House – Tracing the Steps from Convent to Paraclete

In 2004 when we faced the possibility that our wonderful old St. Augustine’s convent would be sold for condominiums, we realized how important buildings are in the life of children and a community.  Originally the building housed over 30 Notre Dame Nuns who taught the 1,000 students who attended school next door.  As the numbers diminished in both the school and the convent, the Nuns decided in 1996 to give the building back to the parish with the hope it would continue the education mission for which it was constructed.  Read more

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Paraclete Cited in Boston Globe Editorial

The Paraclete Academy is featured in a recent editorial by Lawrence Harmon in the Boston Globe about “what it takes to close the achievement gap between low-income urban students and their suburban counterparts.”

Harmon believes successful turnaround efforts “often require adding two, three, or even more hours of academic and enrichment programs to the school day.”  His solution is not to extend the hours teachers are in school but to hand off the next shift to young dedicated college graduates.  He  cites two such programs that do just that: Citizen Schools and the Paraclete Academy.

 This is what Harmon  has to  say about the Paraclete Academy:

“Some high-quality after-school programs operate without any taxpayer funding. The Paraclete Academy in South Boston is a calling for its co-founder, Sister Ann Fox. It’s also a godsend for low-income, elementary, and middle-school students who arrive at the former St. Augustine convent on E Street shortly after school and stay as late as 8 p.m. Paraclete takes considerable care to balance the ethnic and economic mix of its roughly 50 students.

Read more

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The Paraclete Library Dedicated to Boston’s First Lady

We were delighted to welcome Mrs. Angela Menino,First Lady of Boston, to the Paraclete October 6 and surprise her with the announcement that we were dedicating our library in her honor. South Bostons Paraclete Academy honors Angela Menino  (via South Boston’s Paraclete Academy honors Angela Menino She thought she was coming to read to a group of our student¸which of course she did. Later, Mrs. Menino confided that she loves reading to children; it was obvious that our children loved being read to by her. Another planned “coincidence” was the presence of many of our board and event committee members who were having a meeting about our November 9 Reception and were able to take part in the festivities. Check out our facebook for pictures.

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Learning from Rwanda

There is a nice article by Bella English in the Boston Globe about our friend Sister Augusta, a member of the Benebikira Congregation of Rwanda. Sister was interviewed while in Boston attending summer classes at Babson College. She explains why she wants to start a bakery, and why her congregation has created for-profit businesses. An equally interesting response to the article appears in a social impact blog on the website of FSG, This is the well known consulting firm founded by Michael Porter, and is in the fore front of promoting socially responsible business practices, what is often referred to as “creating shared values.” Both articles are worth the read.
We were glad to welcome Sister Augusta back for the summer. She stayed with us when she first came to Boston to learn English and obtain her associate degree in business on a full scholarship from Bay State College. Sister came to study in America because she wanted to learn from us and what a nice turn of events to read that American economists discovered that there was something they could learn from her and her Rwandan sisters.

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Profound Decisions at a Young Age

As adults we tend to think that we are the only ones capable of making profound decisions. In reality, decisions are being made by children as young as ten, eleven and twelve that profoundly influence their adult lives. Let me introduce you to Louis and Darwin.

When he came to the Paraclete in the fifth grade, Louis prided himself on being street-wise. He soon befriended a group of less sophisticated boys who lived on the same block in their housing development – but never knew each other because they went to different schools. Everything was going smoothly until Louis began not showing up at the Academy. His mother was worried that she was losing him to the streets. He was hanging out with a group of older boys who thought basketball much more important than school work.

Read more

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Why Begin with the 4th Grade?

Research indicates the fourth grade is a critical transitional time for reading and social development. Our experience at the Paraclete Academy mirrors this finding. Beginning later this fall, we will expand our existing core instruction of fifth and sixth grade classes to include this crucial grade.

During the first three years of school, children learn the mechanics of reading with vocabulary words that focus on the familiar – the terminology of family and home. Almost every child feels comfortable with the words they read. Beginning in the fourth grade, reading moves into the wider world and with this transition comes less familiar vocabulary. At this age, children themselves are moving into the world and becoming increasingly influenced by what their peers think over the thoughts and opinions of the adults in their lives. The creation of a positive learning community that provides peer support for working hard in school is an important part of our program.

Read more

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Two Questions

There are two questions that often come up when talking about the Paraclete Foundation:  What does the word “paraclete” mean and how did you end up in Rwanda?   The two are actually related.

The  answer to the first question is that the word paraclete comes from the Greek word, paracletos, which means literally “to be called along side of one in need.” In Christian scriptures it was used by John as a name for the Holy Spirit.

As to the second question, our involvement in Rwanda begain in  2000, when we invited delegates from an international Harvard colloquiem, Women Waging Peace, to dine with us at the Paraclete. A respected woman leader from Rwanda saw what we were doing in education and asked for our help with education in her country. So, true to our name, we ended up in Rwanda because we were “called along side of one in need”  


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Sr. Juvenal returned to Rwanda

Sr. Juvenal has returned to Rwanda and is head of school at Maranyundo, replacing Sr. Felicite who was responsible for its start-up and saw her first class take national exams and rank number 1 in the country for girls’ schools and number 3 nationally.  Sr. Felicite is now at St. Joseph’s in Nanza where she will be expanding this private primary school to include a middle school.

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How we go to school in South Boston – 170 Different Ways

Growing up in rural Michigan, I had two choices for school:  the one room school house that taught all children in grades 1 through 8, or paying tuition to attend public school in Ann Arbor.  My mother chose the latter, driving my sisters, two boys from a nearby farm, and me back and forth every day.  The trip was ten minutes each way, considered a long commute at that time.  I was exposed to the most advanced teaching theories, and was one of the first to learn to read without phonics.

So it is particularly interesting for me to reflect on my experience in South Boston for the last 22 years, and particularly on how its children go to school.  There are almost 3,000 school age children living in South Boston, (zip code 02127) and they attend 170 different K -12 schools, not including charter schools.  170 is not a typographical error.  Included in this number are Boston Public, private, parochial, and METCO schools.  South Boston kids attend an astoundingly large number of institutions, only eight of which are in South Boston.

Are all of these schools ones that parents have chosen so their child might have a more imaginative and innovative education, as in my case?  Or in reality is parental choice more limited than one could imagine?  As a recent Globe article on how families navigate the Boston Public School system points out, many families choose their top three schools (usually ones with good reputations) but have their child denied admission simply because there were too many requests for too few seats.  And waiting for the results of the charter school application lottery is met with as much anticipation as the Irish Sweepstakes.  There is the oft-repeated story of the mother who could not get her child in the school that was literally across the street from her house.  Though there are certain “non-negotiables” such as having one child in a school guarantees that the rest of your children can attend, it can be an incredibly stressful and complex process.

In South Boston there is an added complexity.  A federal ruling limited to 20% (later raised to 50%) the number of seats available to South Boston students at the five local public schools.  The rationale of course was that white students were needed to integrate the schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods.  The irony is that now South Boston is the most integrated neighborhood in the city.  Over 50% of its school age children are non-white, primarily from immigrant families where English is not spoken at home.  As they ride the buses leaving South Boston they pass buses entering South Boston with children who look very much like themselves.

As South Boston children transition into high school there is a spectacular array of special focus schools, but the prize is to gain entrance to one of the three exam schools which are rated top in the country.   At these schools, admission does not depend upon lottery or quotas. It is based on how well your child can read, do math, and think critically – as measured by the ISSE test.  More South Boston children attend these schools than South Boston High.

When it comes to private schools there is choice, to a degree.  South Boston children attend 71 private, parochial, and suburban schools. The independent schools offer scholarships and look for city children, but there are limited number of spots and a limited number of scholarships.   South Boston’s two Catholic schools are no longer entirely neighborhood based as they recruit and accept students from other parts of the city.   Presently they enroll only 335 South Boston children, whereas just ten years ago there were five schools enrolling 1,500 students. Tuition and other fees are edging close to $5,000 which makes this option impossible for many local families.

Each year when I look at the statistics provided by the Boston Public Schools, I expect that the number of students leaving South Boston to attend school will decrease.  It never does.  It is as if our children are living in a “bedroom community” commuting to their school every day and returning home just to sleep.  Sometimes that commute is for a very good reason and to a very good school; sometimes it is not.

These statistics also ask a question about the role of our schools in our local communities.  What does it do to the fabric of a community when half its children do not attend school within its borders – by choice or not by choice?  Historically, schools were the locus of community in a neighborhood.  Parents met other parents through their children’s school.  Childhood friendships extended beyond school hours and involved learning how to manage relationships with other children, friend and foe alike, in the informal setting of a city block.

Should we ask ourselves what is the substitute for local schools as a focus for building a social network of concerned parents informally looking out for each other and the children of the neighborhood?  Extended families living in close proximity are not as common as they once were.   More typically families have grandparents on the Cape, a sister in California, a brother in New York and a best friend in Newton.  What happens for such a family when a child becomes critically sick in the night if one parent on a business trip and the other doesn’t know the parents down the street because their children go to different schools?

Having benefited from school choice myself, I obviously think there is a place for different schools and different opportunities.  But does it have to be 170?   And should we not be looking at how all of this affects the quality of life in our neighborhoods for families?

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