POSTED BY 60milliongirls | Oct, 24, 2021 |

A Second Chance at School

This article, by Claire Wanjiru Bolton of CODE, first appeared in Diplomat & International Canada on 16 October, 2021. CODE is a long-time partner of the 60 million girls Foundation. This article highlights how our Mobile Learning Lab is helping improve literacy among adolescent girls in Liberia.

Grace hunches over her desk to write. Watching her, it seems she’s trying to hide her size and blend into the sea of much younger and smaller children around her. She’s 16 and sitting in a Grade 1 classroom in rural Liberia. If you were to flip through her notebook, you would be impressed by her penmanship. She has mastered the art of copying notes from the chipped chalkboard. Grace shows up every day, conquering her shame and determined to learn.

So, what’s holding her back? She can’t read.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 88 per cent, or 202 million children, are not meeting minimum proficiency levels in literacy. Amongst over-age students — those whose learning is truncated by late entry into the school system and early departure during adolescence — the rate is often higher. This example of Learning Poverty, as defined by the World Bank and UNESCO, is the inability to read and understand a simple text by age 10. Learning Poverty has catastrophic downstream impacts on children like Grace.

The ability to read is a foundational stepping-stone, a gateway skill that allows students to progress successfully through school and to realize their potential as literate, empowered and self-reliant citizens. Conversely, if children can’t read by age 10, or at least by the end of primary school, they are likely to never learn to read in later years.

Reading Liberia books developed by CODE in partnership with local authors and illustrators feature prominently in the Girls’ Accelerated Learning Initiative, which aims to help over-age girls master literacy and numeracy skills. Without this program, girls such as Annie and Sarah, above from left, who are too old for their grade, are at high risk of never completing primary school as they contend with many social and economic barriers. (Photo: CODE/ Jefferson Krua, 2020)

Over-age girls such as Grace have the odds stacked against them. They suffer under the weight of compounding pressures and multiple barriers to success. A late start in school finds them in over-crowded and desperately under-resourced classrooms where teachers often lack the skill to cater to their unique pedagogical needs. A lack of parental support, feelings of low self-worth, low family literacy and mounting social pressures push girls into unwanted sexual activity, teen pregnancy, early marriages and into the labour market to support their families. Unless something changes, girls such as Grace quickly drop out and are relegated to a life of poverty.

As in other post-conflict countries, in Liberia, over-age enrolment remains a civil war legacy. But there are other persistent economic and social challenges that contribute to the high prevalence of children getting a later start in school. For girls, in particular, this includes a disproportionate burden of care for younger siblings and household chores, as well as safety concerns when girls need to travel a long distance to school.

Over-age enrolment in Liberia is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, with 74 per cent of students (both girls and boys) too old for their grade. And although the incidence of over-age enrolment is nearly the same for boys and girls, girls face a greater risk of dropping out sooner for the many reasons noted above.

Over-age girls need to advance quickly if they are to have a fighting chance at completing primary school and successfully transitioning into higher levels of education. And that is precisely what the Girls’ Accelerated Learning Initiative (GALI) aims to do.

The program, established by CODE (an Ottawa-based international development organization) and its local partner, the WE-CARE Foundation in Monrovia, aims to give girls like Grace an academic lifeline.

The program presently provides 383 over-age girls at 25 primary schools in Bomi, Margibi and Montserrado counties in Liberia with daily after-school small-group tutoring to accelerate their learning and equip them with valuable life skills. Through the program and the girls’ hard work, girls are quickly and confidently advanced to more age-appropriate grades.

Each of 75 specially trained teachers receives a modest stipend to work closely with a group of five over-age girls over the course of the academic year. They focus on mastery of foundational literacy and numeracy skills and provide remedial support for learning in other subject areas as well. Given that participating girls tend to be 12 to 16 years old and in Grades 1 to 3 when they enter the program, inclusion of gender-specific topics such as menstrual hygiene management and gender equality are also a critical element of the program.

GALI was first piloted in five schools in 2017 at the behest of the WE-CARE Foundation. The high demand and exceptional potential were quickly recognized, and the following year, GALI was expanded to an additional 20 schools with support from the Montreal-based 60 million girls Foundation.

Over the past four years, the program has been refined and adapted with feedback from teachers, students and other local stakeholders. Attendance challenges have been minimized through enhanced parental engagement and the introduction of snacks and sanitary pads. Professional development for GALI teachers, introduction of more girl-centric learning materials and mobile learning labs have created environments where girls are thriving.

In CODE’s most recent GALI cohort, 77 per cent of girls were promoted two grade levels in a single year and 22 per cent were promoted one grade. The latter may not seem surprising, however many would have dropped out or been held back without the additional support. While statistics show a good measure of success, it’s the stories and voices of participating girls that show the far-reaching impacts of this modest program. So, we are delighted to introduce you to three current GALI girls.

To read the entire article, please click here.

To read about our project with CODE in Liberia, please click here.