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When longtime St. Paul teacher Ian Keith mentioned an interest in working abroad in Tanzania a few years ago, the mother of a couple of his students had just the opportunity: Project Zawadi, a St. Paul-based program that raises money to send impoverished children in Tanzania to school.

Over more than a decade, the program has grown from a former Peace Corps volunteer helping four orphans get school supplies to a nonprofit annually helping hundreds of children in several villages. Keith’s involvement in the all-volunteer program over the past three years has helped it evolve even further. It now is working to improve teacher quality and training throughout Tanzania.

“We get a lot of people wanting to volunteer, and we really don’t expect much to come from it,” said Brian Singer, who founded Project Zawadi but still works full-time as director of lending for the Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul. “I never would have guessed that it would keep going.”

Said Keith: “I was interested in doing work.”

Next month, Keith will make his fourth trip to Tanzania — he raises money from friends and family — to participate in a national conference on teacher training that has attracted the Peace Corps, the World Bank, Save the Children, several universities and Tanzanian government officials. Through Tenda Teaching, the training program, Keith and his Tanzanian counterparts have worked with hundreds of teachers and school administrators over the past two years. Now, the program also is working to forge a “sister school” relationship with a dozen St. Paul schools.

Keith, who has worked in St. Paul for years on raising expectations and improving classroom discipline, has used something called “Active Teaching and Learning” to get teachers to engage children reluctant to raise their hands. In Tanzanian classrooms that often have 75 students, coaxing questions out of kids rather than just talking at them is critical.

“I love an adventure and I love immersing myself in a culture,” said Keith, onetime president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. In three previous trips, he estimates he’s worked with 250-300 teachers.

Started with a lie

Singer began this work as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching math in Tanzania in the mid-1990s. While there, he befriended and helped four orphans with school supplies, clothing and food, but “felt guilty” when he left, knowing they likely wouldn’t be able to continue their education.

So, he returned in 2000 and enrolled them in school. He told the school’s director he would send the rest of the money for their education after going back to the U.S.

“I lied to him,” Singer said. “Because I knew I didn’t have the money.”

What Singer discovered after he got home, though, was “it wasn’t that hard to get it.” He returned home to $400 in his mailbox from friends — money that eventually led to the creation of a nonprofit.

Singer, whose day job is to help small businesses get established, has built Project Zawadi into a $200,000 a year direct-aid organization that helps with tuition payments, school uniforms, textbooks and school supplies and a promise that if children earn high scores, Zawadi will help them continue their education.

He met Keith through Laura Wangsness Willemsen, a lecturer at the University of Minnesota and Project Zawadi board member, who once taught in Tanzania. Keith taught a couple of her kids in St. Paul, and mentioned interest in Tanzania.

At the time, Project Zawadi board members wanted to emphasize teacher quality, especially considering their region’s remote location and difficulty attracting teachers.

“With more bodies in classrooms, ineffective teachers ... will not help anyone,” Willemsen said. “Ian entered this with his passion and energy and time to put into practice ways to strengthen the quality of teaching.”

During the conference in Tanzania, Keith will network with other organizations that focus on teacher training. In a country where very little money is dedicated to improving teachers, such cooperative efforts can have real impact, Willemsen said, praising Keith and Singer.

“Both of them have such incredible drive and energy, when they see a problem, they are very solution-oriented,” she said. “They’ve listened, they’ve learned and they’ve found ways forward and used their skills.”

James Walsh • 651-925-5041