Of Stones & Schools

Ethiopia may solve the world's most pressing educational challenge, if the world will be its student.

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Beyond the stone there is more stone, then, after a 2-hour drive on dirt roads in a 20-year-old Land Cruiser, a school. Of stone.

"I was just a little boy during the 83-85' famine, but I remember losing much of my family," said Desta Hadera, Director of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). He then took a sip of his coffee not to build suspense but to gather his emotions.

"Of course there was a drought, droughts are part of the cycle of this region, but the government was also covering everything up. They feared losing power if either people throughout Ethiopia or the international community saw the terrible truth of what was happening. They blocked journalists and aid workers from coming in, and I remember great stretches of land lined with bodies... either people who were trying to sleep their way into death or those who already had."

This was my introduction to the reality of life in Ethiopia's Tigray Region.

Bordered by Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the west, Tigray Region is the northernmost of nine ethnic regions in Ethiopia. About 96% of the nearly 4.5 million people inhabiting these arid lands are Tigrayan and speak Tigrinya. And 96% also identify themselves--many through the scar in the shape of a cross between their eyes--as Orthodox Christians. But such numbered demographics miss the root of what one feels here: tension. Not the oft-mentioned perennial and complicated tension between Ethiopians and Eritreans, but the unspoken, pulsating tension to survive.

Tourism brochures notwithstanding, Ethiopia is most often portrayed through the prism of its historic bouts of drought-related famine. The mainstream media has painted these bouts with a broad brush--as though the famines were uniformly spread throughout the entire country--but the worst of them occurred up north and most often cut through the heart of Wollo (in Amhara Region) and Tigray. Though stories on famine's impact likely date back to when humans first inhabited these areas, one of the first documented accounts comes through a vignette in Paul Lester Stenhouse's translation of Futuh al-Habasa (The Conquest of Abyssinia) about a difficult time in 1535:

"When they entered Tigray each Muslim had fifty mules; some of them even one-hundred. When they left, each one of them had only one or two mules."

And more recently, the 1958 Tigray famine that took the lives of an estimated 100,000.

And then the 1966 and 1973 Wollo famines that claimed 250,000.

And then the 1983-1985 famine that took an estimated one million.

Then the question on TIME's December 1987 cover:

Now, however, as exemplified in David Smith's piece for The Guardian, the country is referred to as the "darling of the global development community." It is at once praised for being an "economic miracle" and scorned as yet another example of how unchecked development too often serves only to hide and even exacerbate a country's existing problems.

"Here in our country's capital, Addis Ababa, for example, fluorescent hotel lights and high-rise office buildings hide the slums behind them," began Dr. Henok Ghebrehiwot, Director of Bethsaida Restoration Ministry in Ethiopia, a nonprofit founded in 2007 that supports orphans and rescues girls from sex trafficking.

"Out-of-school girls from all over the country, some as young as 8-years-old, are trafficked here for sex. Many are actually sold at Addis Merkato, a sprawling open-air market considered to be the largest in all of Africa. These types of horrors used to happen right in front of us, and they still do. We just have to walk behind the row of hotels to see them."

The U.S. Department of State's 2014 Trafficking-in-Persons report refers to Addis Merkato as "the largest collection of brothels in Africa."

Out-of-school boys in Tigray Region, when unable to find construction work, become at-risk and often take risks by going to the Red Sea where they are lured with promises of good work in the Middle East before being exploited upon their arrival.

Out-of-school children in the Oromia Region's Ginde Beret district, according to Dr. Ghebrehiwot, are literally given a price tag: they can be rented for 400 Ethiopian Birr, equivalent to about $20 USD, to work for one year as agricultural slaves.

Herein lies the world's greatest challenge when it comes to education: providing opportunities for out-of-school children.

According to 2012 data from UNESCO's Institute for Statistics, there were 58 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 and another 63 million children between the ages of 12 and 15 who were out of school. This amounts to 121 million children, half of which live in what the study (pdf here) refers to as "conflict-affected countries" and are therefore at increased risk for all forms of exploitation.

Through the Development and Social Services wing of EECMY, Hadera works with a company named Geneva Global. And Geneva Global--a philanthropic consulting firm based in Wayne, Pennsylvania that specializes in international development--is why I have flown from Philadelphia to Mekelle, Tigray Region's capital, in the first place. They'd developed this "Speed School" model that I'd been hearing about, and since I'd already planned on attending the AWP writing conference in April (and subsequently told my students to block off that week in our syllabus), I chanced that a trip of equal cost to Ethiopia to learn about this education initiative would prove far more inspiring.

The choice proved worthwhile when I met a full-time cattleman in the Kilte Awulaelo district of Tigray named Asefa Tadese. Though a life of grueling labor under the sun had made his skin as cragged and textured as the ground we stood on, there was fire in his eyes and a brightness in his smile. Asefa told me of how his days were based on the sun: rise when it rises, have a few bites of food until its light fills the sky, roam the scorched earth alongside the cattle until it begins to set, have a few more bites of food to stave off hunger pangs before bed. So his life went for the past seven years, "since I was six," he told me.

Yes, Asefa is 13-years-old. Here's a shot of him (and me being a goofball for a smile):

When I entered the school to ask his teacher, Harreya Hagos, which student she'd like me to speak with, she selected him without hesitation from among twenty-four others. When I asked her why, she said, "His personality and work ethic have taken him to the top of the class." Hagos returned back to her classroom so Asefa and I could continue talking outside.

"I often challenged my parents to send me to school," he said. "But each time I asked they told me there was no reason and I think over the years I believed and accepted that."

As I'm taking this all into my notebook it registers that I didn't yet get the spelling of his name. "Asefa Tadese," I say to him. "Can you spell that for me?"

"Can I write it for you instead?" he asks. With that I hand over my pen and notebook and he presses the notebook firmly against the stone school. He's shaking with nerves, but his courage prevails. There it was. I felt like the fan that had just received their favorite rockstar's autograph.

He hands the notebook back to me, says, "This is my first time in school and I will not go back to that life." Then he stares into the dirt floor as if he is watching images of those days dance across it. When he looks up there's a fierce squint in his eyes that shows he realizes how the life behind him nearly dried his potential to match the dusted lands on which he labored. "Never again," he declares.

As Asefa heads back into class there's a swirl within me of inspiration, sadness and a burning question. The inspiration came from feeling the tenacity of his spirit, and knowing that the Speed School has given over 80,000 other at-risk and desperate children a second chance. The sadness came from imagining the tough journey he'd been on up until this point, knowing Ethiopia was named by Global Campaign for Education in 2010 as one of the six "worst places in the world to be a child," that this country contains an estimated three million out-of-school primary-aged children who may have similar (or worse) stories.

The question:

Was this Ethiopia Speed School initiative just another feel-good global development story that will disintegrate in a few years?

To answer this I first needed to understand the roots of where the Speed School idea came from, and I wanted to hear it from someone currently involved in the day-to-day implementation of its present incarnation. This led me to Louise Makau Barasa in Wayne. She serves as Program Director at Geneva Global and her primary focus since 2007 has been on overseeing this Speed School initiative.

"Education plays an integral role in eliminating poverty. To improve a community, you need to provide people with opportunities for education, access to healthcare and ways to improve their economic situation," Barasa began.

"As we are finding and creating initiatives that deliver real social impact for our clients, we often look for innovative educational interventions. The root question of the original Speed School idea was this: Is it possible to create a radically efficient way to provide a quality education and a second chance to millions of out-of-school children? While the program in Ethiopia launched in September 2011, the Speed School's origin comes from a similar program we implemented in 2007 throughout parts of West Africa."

The program, called the West Africa Children's Education Strategic Initiative, was co-funded by Legatum Foundation, the development arm of Legatum Group, a Dubai-based global private investment firm. It was a $4.2 million three-year project in which Geneva Global served as grant manager and the Strømme Foundation, a Norwegian international development organization, served as program creator. The essential component was the accelerated learning program, a 9-month "Speed School" that helped kids get caught up so they could pass public school entrance exams and enter (some for the first time) the formal education system.

In many ways, Legatum and Strømme had taken the risk of entering into uncharted waters. The result was a whole host of successes and challenges. The primary success was that over 34,000 children were enrolled across 1,210 Speed Schools, and 25,000 of those children went on to pass the government qualification exams and could therefore join the formal school system. The challenges had to do with attendance, sensitizing West African communities to the importance of educating girls, migration (Speed School exams were at first administered at the beginning of rainy season, the time when many children and their families leave their homes in search of work) and the lack of measuring impact post-transition.

"Once we had enough data to know this was an effective program we wanted to test whether the model could be replicated in an entirely different context," said Doug Balfour, CEO of Geneva Global.

"Our method is to pilot small, creative approaches then, for our programs that show promise, scale them up while improving them as we learn more. It's one way we help our clients fund more effective, innovative programs that deliver truly meaningful outcomes in the lives of the people they are trying to help."

The Speed School initiative in Ethiopia was also funded by Legatum Foundation; this was a chance to expand upon past successes and shore up past challenges all the while keeping in mind that even a perfect plan on paper will still need to be tweaked based on the distinctive characteristics, context and culture of Ethiopia. So, based on what they learned in West Africa, Geneva Global improved upon the model by incorporating early childhood education and teacher training, and better integrating self-help savings groups for the mothers of the students.

This is where Madurendrum Jeyachandran (Jeya), Geneva Global's Country Director and Program Manager for Ethiopia, proved invaluable. For three consecutive days we met at Yordanos Hotel in Mekelle. I'd researched Legatum, learned much about the program from Louise and been given some historical context by Hadera, but this was my chance to see who was fueling the inner workings on the ground.

Jeya was born in Chennai, India, and he graduated 40 years ago from Chennai's Madras University. Upon graduation he completed teacher training, and this was when the Ethiopian government came to India in order to recruit teachers. He accepted a position and, though he has spent significant time in other parts of Africa, Ethiopia has been home ever since. Jeya's lifetime of work has always involved program implementation as it relates to education and/or at-risk populations.

From previous roles, Jeya knew that the government education system, what with its crumbling architecture and often 60-1 student-to-teacher ratio, wasn't working and wouldn't work unless a disruptive education model could prove otherwise. So he jumped at the opportunity when Geneva Global offered him the chance to join their team to help them implement an effective education program in Ethiopia.

"On the surface, the Ethiopia Speed School model looks similar to the West Africa model. It's now a 10-month accelerated program that allows students to jump three grade levels and then be transitioned into the government school. But although I liked what I saw after traveling throughout Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to study the accelerated learning methodologies, I realized there were three primary reasons why these countries still ranked low in education: they weren't adequately measuring impact, effectively empowering mothers, or engaging students through a curriculum based on children's natural desire to play."

To address measurement, Geneva Global has equipped each district with a community mobilizer whose job is to record accurate statistics regarding Speed School dropout rates and the rate at which students make the transition back into formal government school after graduating Speed School (which averages 95%). They also partnered with the University of Sussex, a world leader in accelerated learning, to independently assess the Speed School's success and to examine where challenges remain.

"From our research, the improvements in reading and math among the children enrolled in Speed Schools were impressive and we know that they had overwhelmingly positive school experiences. When they enter back into the school system, they outperform their peers. It is hard to see how the children would have made such progress without the accelerated learning program of the Speed School," said Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education and Development at the University of Sussex.

To empower mothers, Geneva Global revamped the self-help savings groups (SHSGs), a complimentary component that runs alongside Speed Schools whereby mothers of Speed School students join together for mutual support, to learn about the importance of education and savings, to create microenterprises and to participate in adult learning on topics ranging from English and malaria prevention to irrigation and social entrepreneurship.

"We thought education was a luxury; we didn't realize its worth," a mother in the Samre District of Tigray told me.

"It's more than about future opportunities to make money, or even about reading and writing, it's about thinking better on important issues and life situations."

In the first year 2,289 mothers participated in the SHSGs, representing about 85% of the mothers who were eligible to participate, which was a lower percentage target than Geneva Global had sought. But after word got around about the improvements in their household savings and the benefits mothers gained, the percentage of mothers enrolling in subsequent years increased all the way up to 100%. By the end of 2014 there were 45,732 mothers participating in these groups.

"Empowering even one mother, making her feel the potential of the positive difference she's capable of making, creates a ripple effect that spreads throughout the entire community," says Abebaw Abetei, Geneva Global's Speed School program assistant. "I've watched mothers who once felt helpless go on to start businesses and I've watched mothers who never had an education go on to become education activists in their village."

To address unengaged students, Geneva Global gathered feedback from a variety of education professionals and tapped into Jeya's 40 years of experience as an educator and program manager for at-risk populations throughout Africa. The result was a customized curriculum for the Ethiopian context that uses activity-based learning (ABL) as the model to teach students.

"Speed School would not be successful without ABL. Students learn better through play and after 10 months of this play-based learning they are caught up and equipped to join their age mates in their rightful grade level rather than suffer the shame of having to enter a class where they are older than everyone else," says government official Yohannes Kidanemariam, the Head Education Officer in Kilte Awulaelo, a district of 85,000 people in Tigray Region.

Still, the program isn't without challenges. Despite the success of their students, the program must rely on its links to the existing infrastructure of Ethiopia's formal education system. This is especially troubling because, as the University of Sussex study led by Dr. Akyeampong found, only 57% of students indicated that their teachers always attended lessons.

"We know we need to do more work to figure out how to get the children that have re-enrolled back into the local schools to stay in school and complete their education. From the small data set we have, we've found that the children leave school at similar rates to their peers that haven't been through the Speed School program. We've been experimenting with various approaches and continue to work with the local schools to ensure that children stay in school until graduation--which is the entire motivation for this program," says Balfour.

The Speed School initiative in Ethiopia is tackling the most complex and pressing problem in all of education, and it's doing it in arguably the most geographically challenging area to do it.

"If it can work here in the barren lands of northern Ethiopia," says Jeya, "it certainly has immense application anywhere else. There are out-of-school children in Philadelphia, in DC, in Yangon, in Rio de Janeiro... all over the world. We believe we're on the edge of an answer that has infinite scalability and application."

Alan McCormick, Managing Director at Legatum, agrees with Jeya and believes the program is just getting started. "It's ready for scale up and later this year we'll announce details of a new $250 million venture fund that will seek out innovative educational approaches for scale up such as Speed Schools. Education is the ultimate development accelerator that changes the destinies of children and their communities."

The weakness of the Ethiopia Speed School model is that it ultimately relies upon the government system to deliver as it should. But this is precisely the kind of influence and pressure educational institutions all over the world--Philadelphia, DC, Yangon, Rio de Janeiro--need to feel if they are to adapt and eventually work to combat the global scourge of out-of-school children. There are 121 million reasons why this model could be successful.

In other countries an education may mean the difference between an undesirable job and something better; in Ethiopia it could mean the difference between life and death. These drought-ridden lands of dust here in Tigray may not hold much water, but through the Speed School students who inhabit them they now hold infinite potential. And so could the world, if it's willing to see Ethiopia through a new prism and be its student.

-Part of this story was first told in the Stanford Social Innovation Review

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