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The Lalibela High School for Science and Technology

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The Motivation

am deeply passionate about education, both teaching and learning.   In fact, we can all agree that every interaction is both an opportunity to teach and an opportunity to learn.

Growing up in Dessie, Ethiopia, I had a privileged upbringing.  I was an upper middle class kid with a Physics teacher mom and a father who drove trucks for a foreign company (Save the Children.)  We were easily one of the most affluent families in our neighborhood.

For some context, when I was a kid I remember being the only family in a one-mile radius with color TV.   In fact, much to the dismay of my mom and dad, during World Cups, the entire neighborhood came to our house to follow the sporting event past midnight.  But, I digress.

Fast forward to 7th grade.  I moved to America at the age of 11, in the middle of my 8th grade year at a Catholic Private K-12 school in Dessie

The wealthiest families sent their kids to this one and only private school in a small crowded city of about 500K people (Dessie.)  My family sent 3 kids to this school.  And later four when my youngest sister was born.

There were these Jeopardy style Academic contests that took place in every one of the fifteen K-12 schools in the city.  They were 12 questions, 2 from the six core academic subjects including Math, English and History.  Two students from each class in a given age group (starting with 6th graders) competed in 3 rounds of school wide contests intended to choose the top 2 students to represent the school in a citywide contest of the same mold.

The citywide contest first pitted five local schools against each other.  Then the top 2 finishers went on to the city final consisting of six students (basic arithmetic.) 

Born a winner, I finished first in the city and in every round both in my 6th and 7th grade years.   In the former of the two citywide contests, my very close friend Melaku Tekola finished second.  He too attended the private Catholic school.  Don’t worry, this is not about me.

During my 7th grade year, the kid who finished second was a kid who visibly had very little.  He went to a public school near us and you can immediately tell that his parents struggled financially.  He didn’t have proper clothing or shoes.  But, of course, as academic talents, not only were we equal (the kid and I) but we also respected each other tremendously.

We exchanged smiles and congratulations right before the award ceremony.  The award was always lame, one Math book, one binder, and one notebook.  The binder was one of those brown leather binders with a zipper.  It was very specific looking.

Remember, my dad was a semi truck driver for Save the Children.   So, he frequently went on “field trips.”  One day on his return from a field trip, he stopped by a store on one entry to the city (Dessie), near a roundabout that was popular (buambuha they called the roundabout.) 

There, he met a kid who was a shoeshine looking to clean my dad’s shoes but at the same time, the kid was trying to sell a brown leather binder with a zipper.

 So, unsurprisingly, my dad was like, “kid, where did you get that binder?”

You follow?

 Yes, it was the kid who finished second in the city in the 7th grade academic contest. And of course, as soon as he got home, my dad told me about this story and this left a deep impression on me that has lasted to this day.  Something that inspired this dreams since I was in college.

Even at that young age, I knew I was not the only talented student.  But, this fact was permanently etched into my memory because of this kid.

Speaking more to the abundance of academically talented kids in Ethiopia, just go to Facebook and search the name “Gebremariam.”  It is my middle name and a very popular name in northern Ethiopia.  Now, after you have searched and found a lot of people with this name, look at the colleges/universities attended.

Ethiopians, Eritreans, Ghanaians, and Nigerians are over represented in the black populations of the most elite Universities in America.

 In fact, in my HS (Wakefield) in Arlington, Virginia, I was close to two Ethiopians.  One of them, a girl (Luwam “Lulu” Berhane) went on to study at Princeton and then Harvard Law.  The other, a close friend Binyam Tafesse went on to study Engineering at Duke.

When we parted ways on route to college, Binyam gave me a book to read written by a Harvard valedictorian Ethiopian.  It is called: Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard

Ok, I am beating a dead horse at this point right?  I mean, it might actually be more than one dead horse here. 

To be honest, at this old age in my life, I feel like I have already lived 3 lifetimes and so I at times feel too exhausted to even tie my shoelaces.  But, since I have to keep living, I might as well try to do something very impactful and significant right?

The School’s Vision

At full capacity, LHSST will serve students from 7th-12th grade.  The model for the school will be a combination of a traditional US rigorous Science, Math and Technology based education coupled with a “free thinking” approach where a lot of responsibility is placed on students, not just teachers.   To this end, a concrete example is seeing LHSST as a marriage between TJHSST (the best high school in America) and the St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn (where I spent four years teaching math.)

 See: https://tjhsst.fcps.edu/sites/default/files/media/inline-files/TJSchoolProfile19-20.pdf and https://saintannsny.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/SAS_SchoolProfile_18-19-PRINT.pdf

 Clearly, the fact that TJHSST places roughly 15 students at MIT every year shows that both the approach and model of TJ is phenomenally effective.  However, TJ’s traditional structure might be a bit restrictive where the solution is found in the St. Ann’s model.  The big difference between TJ and St. Ann’s is the fact that TJ gives grades like most schools in America and St. Ann’s is a school without grades.

In justifying why no grades, St. Ann’s writes on its website:

“The vast majority of educational institutions in this country and abroad employ grades as a means of evaluation and assessment, and each can mount a cogent argument for why they do so. We choose a different path, creating a place where intelligent and passionate teachers engage and instruct children who participate actively and take intellectual risks unencumbered by letter or number grades.

We do this for many reasons. We believe that grades distract from the joy of learning. They reduce what should be complex responses to challenging intellectual problems to rightwrong, or perhaps half-right or half-wrong. Grades are reductive symbols and a shortcut around the hard work of responding individually to the work of our students, celebrating what they have achieved, and explaining to each student how his or her work can continue to progress and develop.      

Grades introduce an ethic of competitiveness into an activity that has nothing to do with winning or losing.” 

Frankly, you have to admit this is a fantastic response by St Ann’s.

More importantly, I have seen it (the St. Ann’s model) work.  For example, in my Advanced Pre-Calculus class, an interesting student asked a very curious question.

“What is i to the power i?” where “i” is the imaginary unit.

In a traditional school model bound by grades and curriculum, awesome questions like this have no place.  Even if they do, neither teacher nor student is afforded the luxury of entertaining or engaging.

With all of this said, I have also seen holes in this “no grades” model where a handful of students were allowed to fall through the cracks (do little to nothing and still progress to the next grade level.)  And hence why I feel a combination of TJ and St. Ann’s is the way to go for our school, LHSST.

Some highlights of LHSST vision/model:

  • No grades except for 10th and 11th grade and no attendance requirement.
  • Students are allowed to retake end of year final 3 times.
  • Students MUST test into the school.
  • Financial aid is available.
  • All religions welcome.
  • No homosexual students are allowed (naturally transgendered students are allowed.)
  • Maximum of 200 students from 7th – 12th
  • Maximum of 10 students in any given class with rare exceptions.
  • May adopt IB after a few years (IB is fantastic education but very expensive to integrate into a school.)
  • US colleges type scheduling of classes with huge gaps for outside of class work time.
  • Project based learning and Final Project requirement for graduation.
  • The graduation Final Project requirement will be something like, “in groups of 3 build a successful business from the ground up in the 11th grade year.” Or, build a plane that flies (or similar contraption) a la Junk Yard Wars TV Show of the early 2000s in the US.

The People Involved

Semere Baraki (me)

  • University of Chicago (B.A. Mathematics)
  • NYU – Courant (M.S. work in Mathematics)
  • Teacher at the Hackley School, Uncommon Charter, the St. Ann’s school, and French American School of NY (IB math teacher.)
  • Math Youtube channel (Polar Pi) with close to 1 million views. If you choose to check out Polar Pi on Youtube, please do not use my real name in reference to me on Youtube.  I go by the name Reus.

Abduselam Ali

  • Addis Ababa University – Arat Kilo (B.A. Mathematics)
  • My childhood friend since the age of 4
  • Current math teacher at a private school in Addis Ababa (Andinet)
    See: http://www.andinet.edu.et
  • Former math teacher at Gibson HS in Addis Ababa

Salahadin Mohammed

  • Addis Ababa University –  Arat Kilo (B.S. in Science)
  • My 6th-8th grade Science teacher at the Catholic School in Dessie.
  • Won teacher of the year award at a refugee camp in Kenya (multiple years)
  • University of Toronto (Canada) + Conestoga College (Canada)
    (B.A. Administrative Support and Economics)

Solomon Mekonen

  • Freie Universitat Berlin (Master of Arts in Visual and Media Anthropology)
  • University of West London (Film Making)
  • Assumption University (New Media Communication)
  • Childhood best friend (of mine) and classmate at the Catholic School in Dessie

The Execution

From September 23 to November 7, 2019 I was in Ethiopia using my savings to buy my mom a house (and I succeeded, I know what a wonderful son.)  My mom was tired of doing the same dead-end job in America for 21 years (security) and Africa was calling.

Both on this recent trip and on a different trip to Addis Ababa in the summer of 2017, I got to learn a lot about real estate in Ethiopia.  In particular I learned that land is very expensive in Addis Ababa nowadays.  The house I ended up buying for my mom cost 1.2 million birr (approx. 40,000 USD) for 200 square meters and it was not even in Addis Ababa city limits.

This is all to say, to make this school even a possibility, we need to raise a minimum of $150,000.  And therefore, this is the goal we are going to set.  This is where you come in (as entertainers on NYC subways say, the best Nation is DONation.)

Now, in the past, I would never have had the courage to ask folks for help.  I am too prideful and everything I have ever gotten in life, I have earned myself.  Every penny.  In fact, I don’t remember ever asking anyone for a favor.  Not even once.  I just do it like Nike.

But a girl I know of helped many people by first asking for donations.  And so, I realized that I should not let my pride get in the way of building something beneficial to many folks with a possible multiplier.

I say multiplier because, only the lord Jesus Christ knows what alums of LHSST might do.   But, as we will selectively teach the best and brightest (with need blind admission), they (LHSST alums) are bound to do even bigger and better things than us (the teachers/administrators) of LHSST.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no way I can on my own save up the sum required to build this school anytime soon.   I don’t know if you’ve heard the news recently but teaching doesn’t pay a lot.

Obviously, we have to do a lot of advertising and grassroots work in the execution.  But, this is all detail that is perhaps too early to plan.  Regular progress updates on this project will be posted on this website every 4 months.

The Entrance Exam

While working at BEAM 6 (Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics, an Art of Problem Solving company) in the summer of 2016, I saw a great assessment for selecting talented students.  You see, talented students (geniuses) are not just students who do Algebra and Arithmetic well.  They maybe artists, athletes, and in general, they maybe people who are terrible at Algebra.

As such, to cast a wide-net that captures “interesting thinkers” we are going to combine arithmetic and algebra with IQ type questions and Bongard Puzzles.

Sample IQ Question

https://www.123test.com/iq-test/

Sample Bongard Puzzles

Finally, it goes without saying but LHSST will begin its first year of operation with the first 7th grade cohort as soon as we finish building our school.

Final Thoughts

When I thought to myself, before I die, what would I like to give to this world or my country, first thing that came to me was, “copies of me.”  No, I am kidding, I am kidding, honestly, I am kidding.  Jesus has forcibly humbled me many times, don’t worry!

But speaking of honesty, I have said this before and will still be behind it.  Which is, I think that I am the most honest person since Jesus. 

Why am I telling you this?

Well, because if you choose to help (donate) I want you to be sure that every penny of your support will go to this project.  To this end, we will on this site post receipts of all expenses towards this project in the amount of $100 or more.  That way, you can come to check that your every penny is in fact going to where you intended it to go.

If for some reason this project ends up not materializing after you donate (will never be the case but just in case), we will return all identified donations of $100 or more back to the donor.  All unidentified donations and smaller amounts will be donated to a church or a charity and we will let you know what charity or church so that you can verify.

In recent years (2016 on), while teaching in the classroom, I created a Youtube math channel that has so far served thousands of students for free.  The channel will continue to grow.  But as I thought hard about how to best use my talents and potential moving forward, while I will continue to relentlessly work hard on my Youtube channel, I thought building this school is the most impactful thing I could do in the next few years (2-5.)

Specifically, building this school will have at least the following impacts:

  • Educate many talented (the most talented) students in Ethiopia and later in Africa (we intend to make this opportunity available to all African and even European students who reside in Africa and have a love for Africa.)
  • It will create good employment opportunity for a number of folks (beyond the four people here who are all currently employed but all committed to move to Ethiopia.
  • It is the best use of my time as well as the others (three incredibly talented people and amazing humans) who will be involved in this project.
  • As already mentioned, alumi are bound to go on to do similarly impactful work or even more meaningful work in the future.

In addition, now is the right time.  As they say, you have to strike while the iron is hot.  If this project is started in five years, we will be priced out of building this school in Addis Ababa.  And I probably will not have the energy to do this at an older age anyway.

Last but not least, like Zeke Vanderhoek of The Equity Project, while I will be involved in leadership and administration, I will be the least paid teacher/administrator of LHSST.  Moreover, I will not assume the role of principal.  There is no top down or bottom up structure at LHSST.  All teachers and all involved in this project have equal say and equal vote on all matters.  In this manner, all teachers and administrators and possible investors will act as board of trustees do in the traditional model of a school. 

Therefore, when we get there, we envision LHSST to be the most democratic institution of any institution in the word.

In conclusion, all of our dreams cannot come true.  So, let us help here to make at least one of our dreams come true.

Love,

Semere Baraki