This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

Fourteen year-old Ammar Muhammed, born to nomadic parents in Northern Nigeria, is going to school. Not just any school, but a school for gifted children owing to his participation in a USAID-funded basic literacy program at his non-formal school in Nigeria’s northern Bauchi State two years ago.

Ammar in front of his school. Photo Credit: USAID

Forty-two percent of primary-age children in this country, about 10.5 million, are out of school. Less than a third of primary school children proceed to junior secondary school and even fewer go on to complete secondary school. The situation is worse in predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria where primary school attendance and academic achievement are far below national averages. A recent USAID-funded assessment of reading skills in Hausa, the local language, in the Northern States of Bauchi and Sokoto found that about 70 percent of  P3 (third grade) pupils could not read a single word of a simple narrative text. In this region many students attend non-formal religious schools where the focus is on learning the Quran and Islamic values with no training in basic reading and math skills. In some schools male children (referred to as “Almajiri”) often leave very poor families to attend school and are encouraged to beg on the streets to pay for their care and instruction.

Through its Northern Education Initiative (NEI), USAID is working in the Nigerian States of Bauchi and Sokoto to strengthen state and local governments’ capacity to deliver basic education services by addressing key management, sustainability and oversight issues. To demonstrate to state governments that basic education systems can be strengthened through improvements in teacher training and instructional delivery, the NEI developed new activity-based training manuals, trained about 3,500 teachers, and monitored the delivery of reading and math instruction. Two hundred pilot schools were selected to participate in the program, 80 of which were non-formal Amajiri schools—40 from each state.

Children outside of school in Nigeria. Photo Credit: USAID/Nigeria

Ammar’s school was selected to participate in the pilot. He diligently applied himself to his studies and was one of 200 students from NEI’s 40 demonstration schools in Bauchi State to pass exams for entry to formal schools in 2011. Once admitted to Central Primary School, Gwaram, he was reassessed and placed in Class Five. His teachers were surprised to learn he was a student from an Almajiri school.  ”He performed better than other pupils that had spent six years in school and took first position in his class examination,” said Malam Usman Khalifa, head teacher at Central Primary School.

In 2012 Ammar took the Bauchi State Special Secondary School Examination for entry into one of the state’s three schools for gifted children. He passed with flying colors and is now a student at the Special Science Secondary School in Toro. He has now set a new target: to earn university admission. “I want to be a doctor, to help my people,” said Ammar.