With six school aged kids living in my compound, the scramble every morning to get them to school on time is always very loud and chaotic. The youngest three start school at 8 am, and there’s always someone running around with one shoe on before they run up the road at 7:45 am.
“ANA SUMA DALA?!?” – “Where’s my shoe?”
The kids in my village are actually pretty lucky, only having to walk up the road to go to school. We have a “full cycle” and Senior Secondary school here, which just means that the school is from “Early Childhood Development” (Kindergarten) to 12th Grade. The closest school is 11K away, so all other children in villages within about a 5K radius walk to my village everyday for school.
Due to limited classrooms, the school here has two sessions, a morning and an afternoon session. The Lower Basic School (ECD to 3rd Grade) and the Senior Secondary School (10th-12th Grade) come for the morning and the Upper Basic School (4th-8th Grade) come in the afternoon. This means that 12th graders only go to school for about 4 or 5 hours each day. A few years ago, the Ministry of Education added a Senior Secondary School here (first graduating class in 2015) because of the long distance to any other Senior Secondary School. The problem is, they didn’t add any classrooms. So double the students are supposed to fit in the same amount of classrooms with the same amount of furniture.
9th Graders and 12th Graders are encouraged to attend extra classes outside of their prescribed session, because those are the examination years. Along with other English-speaking (I’ll come back to this later) West African nations, they take part in Standardized Exams at the end of those years. The scores from the exams in 9th Grade determine where the student is qualified to attend Senior Secondary School. The scores from the exams in 12th Grade are used for decades to come when applying to any job in the country as well as Gambia College and University. Because ours is a newer Senior Secondary School, those with higher scores often prefer schools in Kombo, the metropolitan center, and those with lower scores stay in Njawara. This system often lowers the morale of both students and teachers in the Senior Secondary School, and is something we’re trying to improve.
Teachers are usually young and the majority of teachers here are male. A recent Ministry initiative has taken high scoring 12th graders and given them free tuition to the 3-year teacher college. During those years, the “Training Teachers” are stationed in villages and return to go to school on holiday breaks. After graduating from the teacher college, the Ministry assigns teachers to schools for certain amounts of time, to ensure there is proper coverage even in remote villages. Speaking of tuition free, all public education in The Gambia is free. However, students still pay for their school supplies and books.
In The Gambia, Peace Corps volunteers working in Education (one of our three areas: Health, Education, Agriculture) work less in the classroom and more with teacher development. Teaching in classrooms is important, but not really sustainable for PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) because of our short length of time here. However, we can work with teachers on classroom strategies and teaching techniques that can be used for the rest of that teacher’s career. PCVs have worked on Safe School programs, giving teachers alternative punishments to physical harm (which is actually illegal in The Gambia) as well as Gender and Development programs, as The Gambia is a Peace Corps Let Girls Learn country!
A big part of Peace Corps’ Education work is in literacy. As I said, the national language of The Gambia is English, so all written material is in English, the teachers are supposed to speak in English, and the exams and standardized tests are in English. The only problem is, kids don’t usually speak in English here. Throughout the village and at home, everyone speaks either Wolof or Puular here. Therefore, they’re only being exposed to English at school, usually only a few hours every day. For that reason, literacy is the first hurdle for the education system in The Gambia. In my compound, we read almost every night and the older kids are pretty fluent in English. The school also has a library, that’s used for a different class each day. We’re working on it, but overall it’s a big problem.
When I first went to visit the school, they were excited to tell me that they had a Computer/Resource Room! I then learned that they didn’t have a Computer teacher, and the solar panels couldn’t support the desktop computers that some foreign agency had donated a few years before. With the help of the principals and the teachers, I started co-teaching weekly Computer Literacy/Information Technology classes on a few dusty laptops. We can plug in 2 laptops at a time, and we charge a few others so we can usually have 5 working during class. We teach grades 7, 8, 10, and 11 because 9 as 12 are working toward their examinations. We usually have 5 or 6 students working on one laptop, which can be challenging at times. But we’ve been going for almost a month now, and have successfully (albeit slowly) typed essays in Microsoft Word!
Before these classes, none of the students had worked on computers. But they’re eager to learn and understand the importance of Computer Literacy in today’s job market. I’m hoping to continue incorporating English literacy and Information Technology in the classes. The teachers love the classes, and sneak in to listen during their off periods. After class, each teacher takes a laptop and we have a typing race to see who’s the fastest.