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A King Asks, An Educator Fulfills

The Nigerian School Project

Alexander Rose, a 17th century scholar, minister, and bishop once said, “Build something that outlives you.” Well, Dena Grushkin, a 30-year special education teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck, N.J., did more than just “build.” She helped to reverse the plight of a community some 6,000 miles away. 

Grushkin first visited Lagos, Nigeria, in 2004 to understand how the country managed its special education programs. She learned that some schools lacked even the most basic resources. “The disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished is vast and obvious,” Grushkin explains. “Classrooms typically overflowed with 60 or 70 students and contained zero books.” 

Students shared pencils, and Grushkin even saw 10 boys sharing a classroom seat built for three. 

The experiences inspired her to provide ongoing support to Ireti Senior Secondary School, where Grushkin helped to build a library, purchase textbooks, and provide university scholarships. 

A 2007 visit to the West African country, however, led to a project of a lifetime.

A Kings Request

The veteran educator was invited to the fishing village of Tomaro-Onisiwo Island off the coastal line of Lagos State. The riverine community of 350,000 people lacked basic resources. Electrical grids and plumbing were absent. Clean water was scarce.

Primary grades offered the only learning environment for young people, as middle and high schools were nonexistent. Families who could afford to send their children to middle or high school sent them by boat to the mainland, an often-perilous journey. Otherwise, students finished primary school at the age of 10 or 11 and “would have nowhere to go,” says Grushkin.

Word spread of Grushkin’s presence on the island, prompting the local Baale (tribal king) to meet with her.

“He took me to a piece of land, and asked me to build a school,” Gushkin recalls. Recognizing how education can transform a community, “I got back on the plane, went home, and figured out how to build a school.”

With the help of a financial benefactor and a local pastor, the Nigerian School Project opened its doors in 2009, serving as a middle school that would operate five days a week, 10 months out of the year. From the start, educators were on the job. Initially disconnected from government funding, teacher salaries were paid by the parent-teacher organization that was established in advance of the 2009 opening.

A secondary school followed in 2014. Today, the schools have a combined enrollment of more than 350 students. They’ve earned national recognition and rank among the top three performing schools out of 500 in Nigeria. In 2018, the secondary school will graduate its first class, and many of the students will go on to university.

“This whole community has been transformed,” says Grushkin. “They can no longer be ignored.”

Since the school’s opening, the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Education has taken over much of the operations. A few teachers are still paid by the parent-teacher organization, but the “government has stepped in,” explains Grushkin.

A new, government-approved adult literacy program is now underway. Fifty people from Tomaro-Onisiwo signed up immediately when the program was offered in August. It is anticipated that they will earn certificates of completion by next year. 

Grushkin says she’ll have her hands in the Nigerian School Project for a long time. Her goal is to continue to connect her work in Nigeria with her students in New Jersey.

“I want my own students to experience a life beyond their own backyard,” says the New Jersey middle school teacher. “The world is so accessible now. With that, it brings a lot of opportunity to learn about one another and be sensitive to the challenges of other people—we need to think globally.”

– Brenda Álvarez

Life Changer

Teacher Uses School Clubs to Improve Students’ Lives

Whether it’s changing the life of an entire community or the life of a few, educators are constantly outperforming their day-to-day job descriptions. Pam Bethke is one of those educators. A high school English teacher from Austin, Texas, Bethke was nominated this summer for the 2016 – 2017 national Life Changer of the Year award, sponsored by the National Life Group Foundation.

The program recognizes K–12 educators (teachers, administrators, or any member of a school’s staff) who have made a significant difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence, and leadership. 

The educator of nearly 20 years sponsors an environmental awareness club at Stony Point High School in Round Rock, Texas. The group recently worked to help increase the diminishing numbers of the monarch butterfly, which soon may be on the threatened or endangered species list.

With the help of a grant, students designed and built a monarch waystation, a garden that grows milkweed—the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat, and the only one where monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. 

Students earn community service hours for their work in the garden, too. That’s a benefit that helped Harold Brown, a student who fell into trouble and was compelled to complete community service ordered by the court. 

“The reason I started working was because I got into a little trouble,” Brown said in a school district newsletter. “The reason I kept working in the garden was because I fell in love with it.” 

The teenager works on all facets of the garden, from building irrigation ditches to expanding it to other parts of the campus. His love for gardening also led him to build one for his mother in front of their home. 

The best part? Brown was also getting in less trouble and his grades improved, Bethke says.

According to the newsletter, Brown credits Bethke for helping him make positive changes. “Mrs. Bethke is always there for me no matter what,” he said. “She’s my go to adult … Words cannot describe how much passion this lady has. She wants to see us succeed and graduate and we can feel that.”

Bethke also leads a care closet, which provides hygiene products, clothes, shoes, school supplies, and some donated food items. 

The closet is open to the public twice a month, and “has helped many students with their attendance and well-being,” says Bethke. 

Stony Point High School principal, Anthony Watson, nominated Bethke for the Life Changer award. He told the Austin American-Statesmen how the educator provided footwear for a new student who showed up to school with holes in his shoes and was too embarrassed to attend class. 

“After experiencing the teaching and encouragement of Pam Bethke, I see students become more concerned with their well-being, peers, environment, and school,” Watson told the daily paper. “That truly is life changing to them.” 

Life Changer of the Year recognizes 16 educators yearly. There is one Grand Prize winner, four finalists, 10 Life Changers, and an award is given to the nominee with the most spirited community. Life Changer winners and their schools are awarded with cash prizes, including a top cash prize of $10,000, which is split between the winner and his or her school.

Colleagues, students, friends, and families are encouraged to visit the profiles of a Life Changer and leave a positive comment. For Bethke, go to

—Brenda Álvarez

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