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  • Opportunity Knocks in Third World Omaha world Herald article on OE

    On Sunday, August 28, 2011, The Omaha World Herald published a front-page news article about Opportunity Education. The article detailed the history of the foundation, described its current operations and reach, and outlined its plans for the future. Article from Omaha World Herald It started with a casual conversation on another continent. And as with many of Joe Ricketts' ventures, an idea, a dream. In 2004, Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, traveled to Africa with a group of family and friends. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, then went on safari. One afternoon Ricketts asked his guide, a man named Shange Wilson, what he did when he wasn't on safari. Wilson told him that he had started his own school. Intrigued, Ricketts and his party visited the school in Arusha, Tanzania. It had concrete block walls, long desks and benches and about two dozen students. The teacher, Ricketts said, probably had only an elementary-level education. Still, they were trying hard. And the school had electricity. So Ricketts bought a TV and DVD player for the school. He later sent the school DVDs of educational programs such as "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." When he returned a year later and saw improvements - the school now had a teacher with a bachelor's degree and twice as many students - Ricketts set up a foundation, committing $5 million a year to help foreign schools. Roughly six years old, Omaha-based Opportunity Education works with about 1,000 schools in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. All of the schools are poor, many are in remote areas, and a few are accessible to outsiders only by mule. While some charitable groups have focused on building schools to advance education in developing nations, Opportunity Education supplies lesson plans, TVs, DVDs and educational materials. The idea is to help children realize the opportunities education can bring - jobs for themselves, better lives for their families - and to build a cadre of professionals who can help move their countries forward. The organization also has connected more than 800 schools in Africa and Asia with sister schools in the United States, Canada and several other Western nations. Recently, it has begun expanding training for teachers. In June, five educators traveled from Africa to participate in an intensive teacher-training program at Louisiana College in Pineville, La. They also visited Omaha and St. Patrick School at 20500 West Maple Road. Foundation and Louisiana College officials recently traveled to Tanzania and held seminars for some 270 teachers. And the African educators will hold their own sessions for teachers in their areas this fall. Ricketts said continued support for the organization is spelled out in his will. Three of his four children serve on the board of directors. He has other charitable causes, he said, but the foundation is his main interest. "This is exciting. We know that we're changing lives for thousands and thousands of people in the Third World, and that is stunningly satisfactory," Ricketts said. "We will try to get to more schools and make it bigger and better as we get into the future." Natalie Hahn, a former United Nations official and founder of the Nebraska-based Malaika Foundation, said she was thrilled when she learned that a fellow Nebraskan shared a commitment to improving schools around the globe. The foundations' missions are complementary, she said, in that Malaika helps Nebraska teachers bring the wider world to their schools through travel and training. "We really salute all they have done," she said. Ricketts' organization produces and supplies its partner schools with a grade's worth of educational materials at a time, focusing on basic instruction in math, reading, science and creative arts. It adds social studies in fourth grade. Progress is assessed at the end of each year. Jim Ricketts, Opportunity Education's president and Joe Ricketts' brother, said the foundation hires local educators to write the curricula, basing them on national U.S. standards and cross-referencing lessons at Omaha-area schools. Lessons are in English, he said. That's the official language in the countries where the foundation works. And their national entrance exams for high school and college also typically are in English. Each subject includes a teacher's manual with about 40 lessons. About a dozen are filmed and copied onto a DVD. Other teachers are hired to present on camera, along with local students who serve as the on-camera "class." The foundation also sends the schools all the supplies - from books to globes - that go with the lessons. "These schools have nothing," said Alan Barkley, the group's executive director. He travels to visit existing partner schools and sign up new ones. Sometimes there are no roads to the schools. Sometimes he's the first white person locals have seen. The focus, Jim Ricketts said, is to deliver American-style education. But the lessons, he said, are intended to supplement rather than replace local instruction. Each country has its own national curriculum. The organization, which employs 15 people, has full-time staff members in Uganda, Tanzania and India, where the bulk of its schools are located. In others, it has affiliations with existing organizations. Barkley said the organization gets feedback from schools each year. That feedback contributed to the added emphasis on teacher training. "We don't go in and say, 'What you're doing is bad,' " Barkley said. "We say, 'How can we help you?' " The first schools signed on to the effort in 2005. The foundation now is providing the schools with materials through grade six. This summer, Jim Ricketts said, the organization has been busy finishing up materials for seventh grade, preparing to ship them this fall from its 10,000-square-foot warehouse near 102nd and L Streets. School starts in January in most of the countries where the foundation works. The videos now are filmed at St. Patrick. One day, a local scientist recorded a biology lesson in the science lab. Another day, Omahan Paul Bryant delivered lessons on leadership from his latest book, which will serve to supplement the core curriculum. Denis Kalyango, one of the five African educators who traveled to the United States, said the materials the organization provides are valuable. Teachers have learned new strategies to help students grasp concepts, said Kalyango, who oversees nearly 450 schools in Uganda's Masaka Diocese. But Don Ridder, St. Patrick principal, said he and his students have grown through the program, too. St. Patrick connected with St. Mary Primary School near Mubende, Uganda, through the sister-school program more than four years ago. More than 30 schools in the Omaha metropolitan area now participate. St. Patrick and St. Mary share a pen pal relationship, as do most sister schools. St. Patrick also raised money to help St. Mary buy a solar panel to power a TV and DVD player. And it raises money through annual T-shirt sales to provide St. Mary a vitamin-enriched porridge for lunch each day. "We're definitely a better school - our kids, our teachers - because of St. Mary," Ridder said. The foundation, meanwhile, is seeing increased enrollment, decreased absenteeism and improved test scores in its partner schools, Barkley said. And it's not just the children who are benefiting. A lot of schools also run the video programs at night for parents, many of whom are illiterate. "We're changing communities," Barkley said. The organization continues to get requests from new schools in new countries, Jim Ricketts said. It recently added 30 in Cameroon. The foundation also is exploring using inexpensive tablet computers to deliver lessons at the high school level. The technology would allow the organization to deliver more of the text-based materials appropriate for high school instruction and save on shipping costs. The organization does face a federal lawsuit that two former employees filed against Joe Ricketts in June. The suit contends that he fired them after they accused a former chief operating officer of sexual harassment. Joe Ricketts referred questions about the matter to his attorney. The attorney has said the lawsuit and its allegations are meritless. Joe Ricketts already has another idea cooking. It's a second foundation, one that could help high school graduates from the organization's partner schools go to college. He already has held a few fundraisers. "We'll try to develop it so that in five years, when the first ones graduate, we'll have some money for them to do that," he said. Jim Ricketts said the organization has had preliminary discussions with Bellevue University about a possible program. Students could study via distance learning for the first couple of years. The most promising could finish up on campus. Joe Ricketts said students would be required to return to their countries. The aim is to send back engineers, accountants and people with other skills that make a country function. "To thrive and do well," he said, "they need education." Contact the writer: 402-444-1223,