Arlington, VA

Arlington Tech students are raising money to send supplies to a Liberian school founded by their math teacher.

Earlier this month, a GoFundMe page was created by students in the Arlington Career Center’s National Honor Society to help their peers at Giddings Polytechnic Academy in Kakata, Liberia.

The school was founded by Arlington Tech math teacher Isaac Zawolo and just opened this past year.

The goal is to raise $10,000 which will go towards resources like laptops, iPads, textbooks, toiletries, and basic school supplies. As of today (Friday), they’ve raised $1,559.

“Stuff like eyeglasses, instructional materials, books, and even clothing and menstrual products,” says 17-year-old Arlington Tech junior Abigail Herrada, one of the students leading the effort. “A lot of times when women meet the menstrual age, they just drop out of school because they don’t have access to those things.”

The idea came to the students upon hearing about Zawolo’s work building the schools in his home country.

Zawolo immigrated to the United States from the western African country of Liberia in 1998 and spent several years teaching in Prince George’s County before coming to Arlington. He’s been a teacher in the county since 2004 and with Arlington Tech from the high school program’s 2016 inception.

Five years ago, while celebrating his 30th teaching anniversary, he had an epiphany about needing to help his native land. He started assisting schools in Liberia with resources, uniforms, and tuition, but wanted to do more.

“I just thought about the idea of doing my own thing and actually creating the school to provide quality education,” Zawolo says. “It could provide a general high school education but also some technical classes.”

His first school opened last year in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia and, this past January, he opened a second school in his hometown of Kakata, located about 40 miles east of Monrovia.

The focus is to help students prepare for college and gain career-oriented skills through classes focused on electrical engineering, computer science, medicine, journalism, agriculture, and other disciplines.

His efforts in Liberia were brought to Arlington Public Schools’ attention by Zawolo’s colleagues, who saw a post about it on Facebook. He says he never intended it to become the subject of a student-led fundraiser.

Zawolo would sometimes mention his experiences in Liberia in class, Herrada says, and it really inspired her.

“I could see his real focus and his commitment to these schools and how having a passion for education can really [lead] to so many great things,” says Herrada.

Herrada herself is keenly interested in education — particularly, women’s education — noting that she has had the privilege of traveling overseas and seeing schools in other parts of the world.

“I’ve seen how underprivileged some of these schools are. In Arlington, everyone has a MacBook or iPad. There’s a drastic difference,” says Herrada.

Being a student at Arlington Tech, which is in the midst of an expansion, has taught her about project-based and hands-on learning, something that students are gaining through the fundraiser. For instance, students produced a video to promote the fundraiser.

Zawolo says when Herrada and the other students approached him about using their project to help his schools, he was incredibly grateful. Their acts, he says, also inspired him.

“I’m more than touched by it,” he says. “It shows appreciation and identification. They are establishing a connection with the world that will last forever… It just amazes me. I don’t know how I can thank them.”

The plan is to continue the fundraiser through at least mid-May and then to use the funds to buy supplies.

Some supplies will be shipped there from the U.S., but due to the high cost of shipping Zawolo is planning to bring some with him when he hopefully visits Liberia later this year.

Even items we may take for granted here in Arlington, like whiteboards and markers, are greatly valued and appreciated in Liberia, he noted.

“When I brought a few to the schools in Liberia, students would come from other schools to touch them,” Zawolo says.

Herrada says she hopes to stay connected with the students of Giddings Polytechnic Academy beyond this project.

Zawolo is constantly amazed by all of his students. In Liberia, his students do more with fewer resources and, in Arlington, he says his students are so worldly, generous, and kind.

“I’m very fortunate to be teaching some of the brightest students you could ever have,” he says. “My students at Arlington Tech are very informed. These kids are just so special. They’re a different group of teenagers, you know? I’m blessed to have ever stumbled upon such an opportunity to be affiliated with them.”

Photo courtesy of Isaac Zawolo

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