Here's a reality show idea that would make "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spaces" look like tame "Gilligan's Island" reruns: A native of a remote Ugandan village moves to Virginia and enrolls his children in an Arlington school, while a veteran Arlington teacher moves to the Ugandan man's village to teach there.
This is not actually a reality show, but the characters are in many ways inhabiting each other's starkly contrasting worlds.
The Ugandan man, John Wanda, moved to Arlington nine years ago after his wife won a visa in a U.S. State Department lottery. Finding work as a bookkeeper for the American Chiropractic Association, Wanda worked his way up to become vice president of finance and administration. His three children began school at Arlington Traditional School, and Wanda marveled at the opportunities the lottery had wrought -- instead of sitting on a dirt floor with 75 other children, repeating lessons by rote, his children had school buses, computer classes and teachers who paid attention to each individual child.
Meanwhile, back in his native village of Bumwalukani, "the schools that we went to are poor and getting poorer," he said. "Hundreds of children drop out of school because they don't have money to pay for their school fees. Some of the brightest children in the village, their parents don't see the point of keeping them there, so they just take them out."
Only a few of the children who have attended the four local government-run elementary schools have ever gone on to high school, Wanda said.
In 1999, Wanda began raising money in Arlington to pay for scholarships for some of the children in Bumwalukani, which is less a village than a loose collection of mud-walled homesteads in the shadow of the 14,000-foot Mount Elgon, where peasants grow plantains and corn and children study by candlelight.
The fund, administered by the Bethel United Church of Christ, which Wanda and his wife attend, grew each year, reaching $81,000 last year. By 2003, Wanda said he realized that what the children really needed was a school that could offer some of the benefits -- books, desks, electricity and qualified teachers who show up on time -- that his own children were receiving in the United States.
So last year he opened the Arlington Academy of Hope, a $60,000 U-shaped building in Bumwalukani that enrolls 200 children between the ages of 5 and 15. The school brought in trained teachers from Kampala, Uganda's capital, 155 miles away, and pays them $200 a month, far more than government schools pay. Classes are limited to 40 children -- low for Uganda -- and students receive uniforms and a hot lunch. Instruction is in English, as it is in most Ugandan schools.
Back in Virginia, 56-year-old Cynthia Margeson was ready to retire. Having taught in Arlington public schools for 32 years, the last 25 at Arlington Traditional School, she was interested in traveling but didn't want to walk away from teaching altogether. Last summer, she accompanied Wanda to the Ugandan school's opening ceremony and spent three weeks observing the new school.
Margeson saw some things she didn't like. The method of instruction was still largely what she calls "talk and chalk" -- children repeating things and writing them on the chalkboard. "Most of them have no idea what they're writing," she said.
She suggested to the headmaster that the children break up into smaller groups in which they could receive more individual attention, and she provided instructional materials to help. And then it was time to go home -- or so she thought.
"When I was leaving on the last day of July, the children were asking, 'Are you coming back, are you coming back?' " Margeson said. "And I just had to say yes."
And so in January she returned, ostensibly to teach there. When she arrived, however, the headmaster had just resigned, so she took over as acting headmaster -- a job she says involves as much instruction for teachers as for students. Most classes are three years behind their U.S. counterparts. For the children, any book at all is a treat.
In August, Arlington Traditional School sent 500 books to the school, and during breaks between classes, the children pounce on them.