While HIV/AIDS and hunger have taken a huge toll on teachers, students, and families in Zambia, EDC is supporting a growing network of community learning centers that bring education to areas without formal schools. The 300-plus centers are run by unpaid mentors using lessons delivered via radio to groups of young people gathered in homes, backyards, churches, or cement-block classrooms.
In the Chimbwete district, for example, David Mumba has set up an outside classroom in a clearing in the bush. The day’s homework is written on a slate board hanging from a tree surrounded by a few benches. Mumba guides his students through the radio broadcasts, which feature active learning activities in mathematics, science, social studies, and English. For many children in the area, this classroom is the only one they know; the district school is several miles away—much too far to walk, particularly for children who must spend much of their day looking for food and tending to sick relatives.
“Working with the Ministry of Education, churches and communities, we’re setting up learning centers in places where there are no schools,” says EDC Vice President Michael Laflin, director of the Zambian Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) project (see sidebar on IRI). “Some of these places are 100 miles from administrative centers and conventional schools. There are no roads, just paths or trails. Reaching these kinds of remote locations has been a challenge that has defied the government for years. We’re now building an infrastructure to reach these children, including children who cannot afford to attend formal school.”
USAID, which funds the technical assistance to the project, recently signed a 21-month extension of the project, which will greatly expand the EDC field staff in Zambia—including the addition of nine regional coordinators to work with the mentors and a full-time research director responsible for documenting the impact of the project.
“We’ve seen a number of signs of success, particularly in the Chikuni/Monze area, which is one of the areas hardest hit by drought and famine,” Laflin reports. “The number of centers has grown from two to 21, and the mentors are actively recruiting and training other mentors.” Last June, children from the learning centers scored on a par with Grade Three students in traditional schools on an “It’s Academic”-style radio quiz in mathematics, science, social studies, and English.
Laflin identifies three key questions that have formed the basis of the research and evaluation they have undertaken:
- Are children coming? The project has tracked enrollments at each center—and by specific groups—males, females, different ages, orphans, etc. Nearly 50% of learners are female and most of the learners are orphans and vulnerable children. On a larger level, the number of centers continues to grow—despite the toll that hunger, disease, and poverty have taken on both mentors and learners, and despite the Minister of Education’s declaration of universal and free education in the formal school system. In many areas, the centers provide a much more feasible option than schools for most families.
- Are they staying? Early in the project, mentors were asked to keep good attendance registers, and new data show that children are staying in the centers. About 80% of the children initially registered in the first centers were still attending three months later. On average, the registered children attended at least 75% of all of the lessons. Three years later, in April 2003, we have children enrolled in Grades 1, 3 and 5. Grade 2 and 4 will be broadcast again in July. Next year, Grade 6 will be offered for the first time.
- Are children learning? The project tested a small sample of 400 children in 2001. These children took a pre-test and post-tests in Grade 1 to determine mastery of skills taught in the IRI lessons, and the results were very encouraging. Depending on the mathematics or language skill being assessed, Average gain in scores between pre- and post-tests ranged from about 20% to 60% in Grade 1, depending on the content area being assessed. The highest gains occurred where learners knew least. In the area of comprehension of language, for example, mean gains were between 21.5 percent and 46.0 percent. Mentors reported that these learning gains manifest themselves in the fact that they do not have to translate everything that the radio teacher says as they used to in the past.
Keeping children and families in the program is a sizable challenge, according to Laflin. “We know that some of the reasons for attrition are things we can’t do anything about,” he says. “For example, in many parts of the world, girls drop out of school around the fourth grade. They are pulled away by social forces: some parents believe that it’s not worth educating girls; in other cases, because of the AIDS crisis, there are 12- and 13-year-old girls who are the new heads of households.”
“But there are other things we can do something about,” Laflin continues. “For example, we can help find radios for the mentors, or perhaps help them raise funds or donations for the center. But mainly we can organize the system so that people who want to participate are able to do so.”
Reports from the Field
Recent field reports from the first group of centers documents the challenges facing the mentors, as well as their resourcefulness and dedication:
In Kamanga, a mentor named Lisa started the center in her backyard, with 100 kids in two sessions throughout the day. Initially, she borrowed a radio and used a wall of her house as a board until the local community center provided space for a classroom. In order to keep the radio running, Lisa sold fritters so that she could buy fresh batteries. In the second year, a foundation donated a wind-up radio. Lisa recruited and trained assistant mentor, Benzic, so that she could care for her ailing husband. When Lisa died suddenly in the fall of 2001, Benzic took over the center and he has carried on through many setbacks and some resistance from the community—families who had felt comfortable with Lisa. Benzic has won support from local churches and organizations, who have donated books and supplies to the center.
In Chimbwete and Nang’ombe, mentors David Mumba and Linda Ndiweni have encouraged neighboring communities to open centers for the large number of out-of-school children. They’ve recruited 10 new mentors and organized a three-day training program for them. The new mentors have opened four new centers, which Mumba and Ndiweni visit regularly, despite the long walks and the responsibilities of their own centers. When one of the mentors died last year, Ndiweni and Mumba organized contributions for the family from all of the mentors. At the burial, Ndiweni urged the community to find another mentor, which they’ve done.
In the Chikuni, Monze district—the number of centers has grown from two to 21with support from the Catholic Church and the formal school system. Each center has at least two mentors and all attend monthly training sessions and regular refresher courses. The strong test scores of the children from the Chikuni, Monze learning center in comparison to the students from the government schools provides an early indication of the project’s success. Equally promising is the unique partnership that is emerging in the district, with the government schools and the Catholic Church supporting the expansion of the learning centers.
To Laflin, the collaboration shows how the formal and informal systems can benefit one another. “We’re encouraging these kinds of alliances throughout the country,” he says. “The formal schools have resources and infrastructure that they can share with the learning centers, and the centers help to relieve overcrowding in the schools—as well as reaching children that the formal system cannot.
Originally published on April 1, 2003