“In Liberia, a woman’s place is in the market, the church, the kitchen, or the bed. But not for one little girl,” Helene Cooper writes.
Cooper writes this as her first sentence in her biography of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was born in 1938. She writes this to help readers outside the country understand how extraordinary it is that a Liberian woman became part of the governing inner circle. She had a successful career in the world of international finance, and then was sworn in as president of a country emerging from a civil war.
So much has changed in almost 80 years, and yet so much has remained the same. “Today,” teacher Boakai Kamara shared with me, “many children have to stay home to help their parents to farm, prepare for market, and things like that. They need help in the house so the children have to be there to help them. This makes me sad.” Mr. Kamara has a vision for what will change the lives of Liberian children, and the future of his country. It is simple and complex. So fundamental and yet elusive. It is education. “It is the best thing for Mama Liberia. Without education, we are nothing. It will build this country back if everybody got it.”
How then to ensure that everybody in Liberia does have access to a free public school that enlightens and empowers?
As a teacher in one of Liberia’s public schools, Mr Kamara knows first-hand the scale of the problem Mama Liberia is facing. More than 50% of children start school 3-6 years late. The Minister of Education has estimated that teacher absenteeism is more than 60%. Even if you are one of the very few who complete secondary school – only 20% of children enrolled in primary complete secondary – there is little you will have learned. It is not just that you might not have mastered biology or algebra. Only 35% of adult women who attended secondary school can read a single sentence. The problem is staggering. It is such a large challenge it might be easy to just give up. To think of a solution that quickly gets everybody the education they need appears to be impossible.
Thankfully, President Sirleaf is a woman who has never given up and knows how to find pragmatic solutions and bring partners together. In January 2016, President Sirleaf announced a new education programme which would see school management organizations brought into partnership with the government to turn-around failing public schools. In the US, these are called turn-around charter schools. In the UK, these are called academies. In Liberia, they are called partnership schools.
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With just nine months until the next school year was due to start, there was little time, but a lot of excitement. Partnership Schools for Liberia was born, and eight organizations with experience from across Africa stepped up to the challenge to help Liberia achieve its mission and create powerful public schools.
Bridge International Academies, the social enterprise I co-founded with my husband in Kenya, was the first organization to be asked to partner with the government. Bridge now supports more than 230 school staff across 25 public schools in Liberia, serving nearly 9,000 children. We’ve raised donations to cover all the costs of our programming, bringing almost $4m in new philanthropy to benefit children to date. Almost 30,000 textbooks have been distributed and 16,000 teacher computers put into daily use. Teacher attendance has gone from an estimated 40% to more than 90% in less than one school year. “Because of Bridge,” Alfred Massaquoi, Vice Principal of the Bridge PSL public school in Julijuah said, “students are walking for two hours plus just to attend school.”
As we built a new team of changemakers and school leaders in Liberia, all of us at Bridge knew we were part of something very special and very difficult. We knew we’d need a lot of courage, and persistence. As would the government we are serving. Partnership Schools for Liberia is part of a wider, extensive national education revolution led by Minister George Werner. In addition to the partnership schools’ work in eight counties in 2016-2017, Minister Werner has led work across all 15 counties to remove those chronically absent “ghost” teachers from the payroll, and to ensure that teachers themselves can read.
Fighting the status quo
Unfortunately, there are always people and organizations who find systemic change hard, since their interests are aligned with preserving the status quo – even when that status quo is a failed education system that is crippling a nation.
The National Teachers’ Association of Liberia (NTAL) called for Minister Werner’s resignation in September, and called for a strike which was widely covered in the international media, even though only a handful of teachers left their classrooms to picket the Ministry. The head of NTAL was not happy when the Ministry of Education announced his name as one of the thousands of “ghost” teachers who had been collecting salaries and abandoning classrooms. County Education officials have received death threats from people wanting to stop the cleaning up of payroll and testing if a teacher is literate. Partnership Schools for Liberia, which from the work of all eight partners has brought at least $5m in new philanthropy to benefit public schools and made Early Childhood Education free for the first time in Liberia, has suffered from an international misinformation campaign by those that are advocates of the status quo. It seeks to equate exactly the type of partnership the Sustainable Development Goals call for between government and the private sector, to ensure that every child has access to quality education, as an initiative that violates Liberia’s obligations, ethically, morally and legally.
Thankfully, within Liberia, teachers, parents, and most importantly children, are seeing the benefits of partnership, and are celebrating renewed and strengthened public schools. Christina Kollie, who attends the Bridge PSL public school in Upper Careysburg, told me, “If I was not in school, I would be home cooking to help mama. When I in school, it make me feel proud and I know if I stay I can be a big person in the community.” The time has come for not just one or a few girls to have access to a transformational school that enables them to imagine and build new worlds. It is time that every girl and boy in Liberia can read with true comprehension when leaving primary school, can use mathematics to solve problems, and can speak up with confidence.
With Partnership Schools for Liberia supporting Christina’s teachers and encouraging her dreams, I know that Christina will be able to learn in a powerful public school and become a ‘big person’ in her community. Perhaps just as big a person as the little girl born in 1938 who launched the programme that has seeded the education revolution of this generation.