My country, Timor-Leste, is extremely young—only 10 years old. Our Timorese population is young, too. Almost 40 percent of our one million people are school-age—that is, between 5 and 19 years old. But school attendance rates are still low and many kids drop out of school.
One of the worst times for students to drop out is between 6th and 7th grades: about 20 percent of 6th grade students do not go on to start 7th grade, the first year of secondary school. USAID is focusing on this particular problem through the School Dropout Prevention Pilot (SDPP) project, which works with more than 10,000 kids in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades—the final grades in elementary school—along with their teachers, parents and the communities in which they live. The goals are to discover which kids might be in danger of dropping out and then to keep them in school with a range of fun activities that boost their skills and confidence.
A few weeks after the launch of the project’s in-school activities in October, I had the opportunity to visit three SDPP schools in remote areas of Timor-Leste, along with colleagues from our Mission in Dili and USAID headquarters in Washington. The schools we visited were in Viqueque District, far from where I live in the capital, Dili, so the trip also gave me an opportunity to understand people’s lives in parts of the country I had never visited before as well as to see the project teams in action.
The first school we visited was Bubulita Elementary School, near Timor-Leste’s south coast, about eight hours’ drive from Dili. We had to walk for two and a half hours from the nearest road to reach the school. In Bubulita, SDPP has had substantial success with an early warning system to identify kids at risk of dropping out—a system that means, for the first time in Timor-Leste, school administrators and teachers can track attendance, performance, and behavior to identify at-risk students. A key component of this system involves having a trained volunteer community team visit the parents of at-risk kids to convince them to keep their children in school.
“I appreciate the fact that this project is involving local community members, so they feel that they are also responsible, not just teachers and parents,” said Bubulita principal Mario da Cruz.
Since SDPP facilitators arrived at Bubulita, there has been perfect attendance. Before the activities started, three students were considered at-risk. One was older than the maximum school age, so had to quit. But the other two have come back to school. And now, local community volunteers visit the school twice a week to find out if any students are missing or late for class.
Not far from the district capital we visited the Kraras Elementary School. Because it is near the town, the school is in far better condition than others we saw. I talked with the principal and deputy principal who told me that the project is well-supported by the teachers, the students and the local community, who are all excited about the extracurricular activities that are run by SDPP project facilitators. These activities aim to keep at-risk students interested in school by boosting their confidence and their ability to participate with their peers. Activities include cooperative learning exercises and games to build basic literacy and numeracy skills. In most schools, SDPP extracurricular activities are the first they have ever had.
“This is the first time we have had extracurricular activities at our school. Although some of the children have to walk two hours to and from school, they stay to take part until the end of the activities,” said Kraras principal Claudino Ruas. He added that no students have missed class more than once since the project started.
On my trip to these remote areas of my own country, I found that even though the lives of people are extremely difficult, they all want their kids to receive a good education. In one remote village I learned that the people of the community had even built a school themselves to ensure that their children would have access to a school near their homes. As a Timorese, I admire their courage and determination to move my country forward even in that isolated place, and I am happy that USAID is helping these communities ensure that all kids receive the support they need to stay in school and build a better future for our young country.