Like many young women in Liberia, Mamie Cooper made a modest living selling wares in the marketplace. But she didn’t know how to read or write, or do basic math. She couldn’t seem to save any money, and she didn’t see a better future for herself or her family.
Then Mamie enrolled in night classes offered by the Advancing Youth Project, which is directed by EDC and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The project’s Alternative Basic Education (ABE) program helps youth and young adults learn basic literacy and numeracy skills they can put to work. For Mamie, this means learning how to manage the cash flowing in and out of her business.
The immediate benefits can be seen in her profits and outlook.
“My family is always complaining that I’m working in the market, and there is no benefit,” she says. “Since I joined the program, I learned how to read and write. I learned how to save.” Now she puts a little money aside every week and hopes to save enough to get a degree in nursing. “My family said, ‘You never used to keep money—now you’re the one saving.’”
So far, the ABE program has enrolled about 9,000 Liberian youth. Evening classes are held in Liberia Ministry of Education schools for three and half hours, three nights a week, for 10 months, offering working students like Mamie a second chance at education—and a better future.
The Advancing Youth Project works with the Ministry of Education and local organizations to increase access to alternative basic education services, social opportunities, leadership development, and livelihood training for out-of-school youth and adults ages 13 to 35, who have low or no literacy and numeracy skills. Liberia’s children often start school later and dropout rates are high, and the consequences are devastating: Approximately 50 percent of youth are considered illiterate, and the country has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world.
The curriculum has four parts: Literacy, Numeracy, Life Skills, and Work Readiness. Students learn reading, writing, and math skills that directly apply to work and life. Each learner gets a workbook and is encouraged to write and to work out math problems. Work readiness is the focus, including preparing for a job, gaining employment, advancing at work, and starting a business. The curriculum also covers such topics as health (including reproductive health), communication (resolving conflicts, managing relationships), and personal growth (setting goals).
Literacy and numeracy lessons work hand in hand to help learners develop social skills and business savvy. Learners gain basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division skills, as well as an appreciation of how math operations have real-world applications in many lines of work.
The nuts and bolts of adult learning
For participants, learning how to read, write, speak, and do math broadens many horizons.
“When we ask people why they’ve joined the classes, they tell us they were ashamed they couldn’t read or write,” says EDC’s Lisa Hartenberger Toby. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I am the leader of my church, and I can’t sign my name.’ Or ‘I can’t go to the bank.’ It’s a real barrier for them to advance socially and in their work. They want to be proud of themselves and participate in their communities.”
Peter is another ABE program participant. Even though he had vocational training as a mechanic, he couldn’t get ahead in his work without an education. “In every aspect of the trade, you have to know how to read and write.”
Peter received schooling under the previous USAID Core Education Skills for Liberian Youth (CESLY) program, which was also directed by EDC. He’s now enrolled in the ABE evening classes, and his commitment to his studies has already paid off.
Due to his higher level of education, Peter has been put in charge of other mechanics. As he gains reading, writing, and math skills, he’ll be able to move into higher management, inventory, sales, and other aspects of the business.
“We get them thinking about their own businesses and goals right away,” Hartenberger Toby says. “Otherwise they are just learning numbers for numbers’ sake.”
The first group of ABE students graduates in June 2013. Peer support is a big part of the program, which encourages youth to join social networking and community service groups.
“It takes a long time to go from first grade to adult literacy,” Hartenberger Toby says. “If it’s just you, it’s easier to give up. The social network is very important. Our learners need somebody cheering them on and making them feel like they are part of something bigger. Once they feel more confident and integrated into their communities, they want to reach higher and higher.”
Originally published on May 10, 2013