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In Congo, Helping Children Catch Up in the Classroom

This originally appeared on The IRC Blog.

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.

For Fatuma Kitete, a 40-year-old mother of seven, every day comes with a heavy burden. From dawn to dusk, she relentlessly carries plastic canisters filled with sand balanced on her head from the shores of Lake Tanganyika to the town of Kalemie. For her grueling efforts, the construction company, which hires her by the day, pays her roughly $2. That sum buys just one nutrient-poor manioc meal for her large family.

A widow for several years, Fatuma has no help raising her children. She did everything she could to care for them and tried several times to send the elder ones to school, but she could not keep up the monthly educational fee of $2.50 per child, and besides, she needed them to help her carry sand. Her eldest son, now aged 15, was registered only for a couple of semesters eight years ago; her next two daughters, Leontina and Ester, aged 12 and 11 respectively, have been out-of-school for more than four years.

“I saw them often looking at other kids go to school and crying that they could not go as well,” Fatuma recalls. “But what could I do? Luckily we have some old textbooks at home, and they kept reading through them time and again.”

Leontina and Ester during their first week of school in more than four years. Photo credit: Sinziana Demian, IRC

It was this fall and the beginning of the new school year that Fatuma was finally presented with a long-lasting solution: Her children could attend a three-year accelerated learning program, for free, in order to make up for the lost time and eventually be reintegrated in the regular school system. The program, run by the International Rescue Committee with USAID funding, is helping 1,100 boys and girls catch up on their studies at the primary level and work toward the standardized national exam that admits them to secondary school.

Fatuma didn’t think twice: Leontina and Ester would start right away. She borrowed money to buy them new blue-and-white uniforms and proudly walked them the eight kilometers to the learning center on the first morning.

“It was a like a holiday in my family,” Fatuma says. “My girls were finally going to school!”

In Congo today, an estimated 7.6 million children do not attend school. Dropout rates have reached 50%, with girls much more likely than boys to leave primary school. Most families opt to register their sons and keep the girls at home.

For Fatuma, the choice was different. Her eldest son earns a living working odd jobs. “He would have been ashamed to come back to school at his age, with much younger classmates,” she admits. Instead, Leontina and Ester, who with their matching hairstyles share a striking resemblance, now study with several dozen other “accelerated beginners,” practicing simple computations and learning French, the official language of Congo (a country with as many as 250 ethnic groups and more than 240 languages).

“We also drew the human body,” says Ester, timidly, after class. “School is so interesting.”

The center, located on the main road to downtown Kalemie, consists of several reed-walled classrooms arranged around a large, sandy courtyard. Last year, of the 550 students accepted into the program, 99 took and successfully passed the national exams in math, French and general culture. It was by far the best result of any school in the district, and one of the best in the entire Katanga province. Building on this successful experience, the center has doubled the number of students, who will study in two daily shifts.

“This program is a blessing for our children,” says Rebeca Putu, a mother who is also a member of the parents committee. “Most families in Kalemie and surrounding villages would never send their children to school otherwise.”

The IRC is supporting the accelerated learning program as part of a major education effort in three provinces in eastern Congo. In a comprehensive approach aimed at improving access to quality education for 500,000 children and youngsters people, the IRC trains primary school teachers in new methods, runs vocational trainings and literacy classes for youth, and builds, renovates and equips schools and classrooms.

Increasing Access to Education in Northern Nigeria

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.




Photo of the Week: Learning in South Sudan

Learning in South Sudan. Photo Credit: Ezra Simon

Students in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State of South Sudan in a temporary classroom set up so they can continue to learn while they wait for a permanent school to be built.  Since the Consolidated Peace Agreement (PCA), the number of classrooms in the country has increased but school infrastructure remains an overwhelming need. Despite recent investments by a few key donors 70% of learning is done under tents, in the open air, or in semi-permanent structures. New efforts by USAID seek to address this problem.

1,000 Days to Reach the Millennium Development Goals

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.

Increasing access to primary education in developing countries. Reaching the nearly 61 million still out-of-school children and getting as many of them as we can into safe learning environments. Improving the quality of education by making sure that children are not only in school, but also that they are learning. And just 1,000 days to get it done.

It’s a daunting task but just the kind of challenge I love. After 38 years as a teacher, 8 years advocating for education, literacy and libraries as Iowa’s first lady, 12 years as president of my own literacy foundation, a few years working to assure young women have access to reproductive health, and two years running for Congress, I have found the perfect capstone to my career in the USAID Education Strategy (PDF) and Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2.  Friday, April 6 started the countdown of 1,000 days to reach MDG2, by 2015:

Schoolchildren in Aqaba, Jordan, who are beneficiaries of the Jordan Schools Program and Education Reform Support Program, both funded by USAID to improve the quality of education in the country. Photo credit: Jill Meeks, Creative Associates International

“Ensure that by 2015 children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”

The best part of this challenge is that I join a committed team of experienced and passionate USAID education and foreign-service professionals who have already spent the past two years creating a focused strategy which includes access to education but also quality and accountability. We are led by a visionary, Administrator Rajiv Shah, who is determined to produce results we can measure. Thus, the big numbers. The numbers, while hard to compile in countries subject to coups, civil wars, earthquakes, drought and corruption, are important in creating a report card for Americans who want to help but who also want quantifiable results. The numbers are important because they will help us to do “good” well. Even more important, I recognize that USAID is just one organization in the global community committed to literacy and learning.  What an opportunity to join this growing collection of education champions!

Last weekend someone asked what I’d learned from two weeks of briefings that I found most valuable. First, I am convinced of the commitment of my colleagues and I learned that we are not without partners worldwide who are also resolute about literacy. More surprising and not without irony, this language arts and journalism teacher learned that reaching our millennium goals is partly about getting the numbers right.

Sixty-one million children still don’t have access to basic primary education. I talk with folks on Main Street who wonder why it matters if a child in Africa knows how to read. For every child or youth who has room to learn—a safe place to learn and a trained teacher—the world will be a safer, more productive place for all of us.

I’m going to do everything in my power to tell the USAID education story to anyone who will listen—elected officials, other public servants, business leaders, those supporting non-profits, civic organizations, and faith-based organizations, the wider education community at home and abroad, my family, my hairdresser, the person sitting next to me at dinner and on the Metro. I’m going to ask all of them and you, to help us, or at least, to support our efforts.

The children who learn to read in Afghanistan, the teachers who learn to teach reading in South Sudan, the ministers of education who have data to show results in Pakistan, Haiti and Nigeria, the parents who will learn to demand quality as well as access in the Democratic Republic of Congo, over time will help knit the fabric of an education system that underpins every strong democracy. Those children will become teachers, start businesses, engage in trade, heal the sick, build roads, write novels and make scientific discoveries.  One thousand days to reach MDG2. There’s no time to lose. Let’s get busy.

Here’s how you can help :

Video of the Week: Education in Kenya

Education is an important component of reducing poverty, promoting peace, and empowering individuals to participate in democratic institutions. Since 2003, primary school enrollment has increased more than 50 percent in Kenya. In recognition of USAID’s 50th anniversary working in partnership with Kenya, this video provides an overview of USAID’s education programs and particularly focuses on efforts to reach vulnerable, marginalized children.

Recording in Progress: Audio Boosts Volume of Education Materials in Rwanda

Billy Niyingabiye, age 11, puts on his headset, steps up to the microphone, and recites his lines. The child voice actor is recording a math lesson for use in Rwanda primary grades classrooms.

“I’m so happy. It’s something I never imagined,” says Billy of his work. He auditioned for the role at his mother’s urging and was chosen from a pool of 80 would-be voice actors. Now he’s helping other children learn math, reading, and writing skills thanks to interactive audio teaching materials produced at the recording studio.

Billy Niyingabiye, age 11, records a math lesson for primary grades classrooms in Rwanda. Photo credit: William Hirtle, EDC

The recordings are part of the USAID-funded Literacy, Language, and Learning (L3) Initiative, which is helping Rwanda’s Ministry of Education improve literacy and numeracy learning in primary grades classrooms. The program, implemented by Education Development Center (EDC), aims to improve the quality and availability of primary grades instructional materials across Rwanda.

Last summer, L3 installed state-of-the-art equipment to upgrade the Rwanda Education Board’s recording studio. There, interactive math and literacy lessons are being recorded in English and Kinyarwanda. Lessons are placed on memory cards, which teachers then play back over Nokia cell phones, some with attached speakers for larger classrooms.

“We provide the hardware, software, and technical support needed to produce world-class education materials for Rwandan children,” EDC’s Said Yasin told the Rwanda news daily The New Times. “This is a modern teaching approach [where] programs are set in a way that enables or facilitates the flow of teaching.”

Channeling interactive learning

Programs produced and edited at the newly equipped studio are examples of interactive audio instruction (IAI), which helps teachers use engaging and effective instructional practices and supports them as they master the new teaching methods.

The classroom teacher leads the lesson with the guidance of the audio recordings. The teacher and students receive directions in using supplementary materials, such as flashcards, decodable texts, and phonics charts.

Audio lessons include songs and chants to make learning more fun, and they encourage the use of manipulatives to make problem solving more tangible. A multiplication lesson might use no-cost items such as sticks, stones, and bottle caps, while a number chart may be made from a rice sack. Teachers may also attend workshops to learn how to write their own stories for literacy learning.

The audio recordings encourage interactive learning, a departure from the traditional lecture-memorization method. “This is much different from the way teachers are used to delivering their lessons,” says Francis Kihumuro, a member of the instructional materials development team.

“Children can be helped to think beyond the normal,” he says. “Usually questions are closed. But if you give them open-ended questions, it helps them think critically. It helps them find other ways to approach and solve a problem.”

Instructional programs produced in the newly outfitted studio were field tested in a local school. This year, 90 primary schools in Rwanda will receive first- and second-grade materials for English, Kinyarwanda and math. In addition to producing literacy and numeracy programs for children, the studio is also producing video modules on effective mentorship practices for training school-based mentors and on teaching and school leadership practices for teachers and head teachers.

Billy’s voice will come through loud and clear, guiding other students like himself.

“I like the subjects I’m learning and the teachers who are teaching them,” says Billy, whose school work and confidence have improved since getting involved with the program. L3 hopes to reach 30,000 teachers and 1.5 million learners in Rwanda over the course of five years.

As for Billy, while he enjoys his work as a child voice actor, he aspires to become a doctor or teacher when he grows up. “Because of the things we’re recording, we’re teaching children things they don’t know,” he says. “This will help them, because it is different from what they are used to, and they will learn more from it.”

Digitizing Education

This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields. Below is an interview with Catherine Oliver Smith, COO and Co-Founder of Urban Planet Mobile.

How would you describe the work of Urban Planet?

Urban Planet Mobile develops and distributes digital education worldwide, primarily through basic mobile phones that provide English language education. The Urban English™ program design – simple SMS with an embedded audio file – creates the potential of reaching 95% of mobile phones worldwide with life-changing educational content. An English-speaking taxi driver in a tourism-based economy, for example, has the opportunity to earn a greater income than one who can’t speak English.

Students play a mobile game in Kenya. Photo credit: Ed Owles, Worldview

We believe access to quality education is a human right so our focus is to make education readily available to people, with little or no other access, on a device they already own and use. We also ensure affordability by charging micro-payments. Free programs are hard to scale and sustain because there is always a cost to developing and deploying the content. By providing quality, in demand content, people are more inclined to make the small investment for the tangible results education brings.

Urban Planet started with the goal of reaching the most basic phones and helping bring mobile education to the world. Today we are successfully reaching hundreds of thousands of people with our scalable and affordable technology. And this is only the beginning. Through the support of USAID, Urban Planet is testing and evaluating the effectiveness of MobiLiteracy, our 90-day mobile literacy program in Uganda. The intervention is an out of school supplemental program for pre-literate children. It introduces letters, sounds, and common words, and works on developing both listening comprehension and encouraging storytelling and sharing.

Why is language learning critical for development? Is there something about this modality of education that disproportionately benefits women?

Literacy is the basis for learning, but it’s more than that. According to the UNESCO (PDF), in the developing world, the children of literate mothers have a 50% greater chance of surviving past the age of five. Literate communities are generally healthier, less violent, more civically engaged, and more economically strong.

Mobile phones are very personal devices, more so than any other technology device. MobiLiteracy lessons are sent as a basic SMS daily lesson with an audio link. Mothers can open the audio lesson at a convenient time, which could also mean a safe and private time. The lesson can be deleted from the phone, saved, and also shared privately.

While the lessons are generally meant for children, mothers with limited or no literacy can certainly benefit. Parental involvement in education is a proven precursor to success but parents with limited education feel inadequate and ashamed. This program empowers mothers to take an active role.

Where do you see this technology ultimately going over the next several decades? 

The cost for tablets and smartphones will continue to decrease as the competition increases and the capacity of the technology expands. Also, areas with limited or no connection will get connected.

Right now, simple programs that provide for supplemental education make a tremendous impact, but the future is more robust educational programs, widely accessible and available to people currently limited from such programs due to lack of technology and the requisite infrastructure. More and more formal curricula will be created for this digital world.

While censorship and repression inhibit the spread of certain ideas, information, and education, through the use of mobile technologies, marginalized members of society will have unprecedented access to education. It is through education that a more peaceful, healthier, and better world will emerge.

USAID Helps Timor-Leste Communities Keep Kids in School

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.

Students in Timor-Leste play a learning game with the SDPP team at Ramahana Elementary School. Photo credit: Milca Baptista, USAID

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.

The introduction of SDPP’s extra-curricular activities has brought perfect attendance to Bubulita Elementary School in Viqueque. Photo credit: Milca Baptista, USAID

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.

Photos of the Week: International Mother Language Day

A teacher in Kati, Mali instructs her class. Photo credit: Dana Schmidt

February 21, 2013 marks International Mother Language Day! To celebrate its 14th anniversary, USAID recognizes education and literacy programs operated by our missions around the globe. There are more than 6,000 languages in the world and 50 percent of them are dying. International Mother Language Day not only promotes linguistic and cultural diversity, it brings attention a need to preserve it.

Learning in a mother language (first language) is incredibly important to children’s development and education. It improves school outcomes, reduces repetition and reduces dropout. Children who are educated in their mother tongue are significantly more likely to be enrolled and attend school. Additionally, children learn to read faster if they speak the language of instruction, because they already have vocabulary, knowledge of the construction of the language and  the ability to pronounce the sounds of the language.

Join the conversation on Twitter (@USAIDEducation) and use hashtag #MotherLanguage Day!

In Uganda, a teacher helps a student in front of the class. Photo credit: Dana Schmidt


A Record-Breaking Year for Mobilizing Private Capital for Development

Credit guarantees are a cost-effective way to get local, private financing into the hands of creditworthy borrowers. From low-income Haitians seeking to rebuild in Port-au-Prince, to women-owned small businesses in Kabul, to solar companies in Uganda, USAID is enabling private markets in the developing world to provide financing to the people who need it most.

USAID’s Development Credit Authority (DCA) worked with 45 financial institutions in 23 countries in 2012 to unlock up to $525 million in private capital for underserved entrepreneurs in developing countries. The financing, made available through 34 partial credit guarantees, is the most USAID has mobilized in a single year.

Putting Local Wealth to Work: Development Credit Authority 2012 Portfolio. Photo Credit: USAID.

An additional 39,000 small businesses will soon be able to access local financing because of the new USAID credit guarantees, reflecting the Agency’s drive to leverage private sector resources for international development. Thanks to increased employment and other benefits for the families of these small business owners and their workers, these loans will translate into more than a million people whose lives have been improved by increased access to finance.

Learn more about DCA on our website.


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