December 23, 2013

Going the Distance

Single-teacher schools help answer Mali’s education problem

Malian girls work together to identify parts of a sentence.

In Sangala, Mali, the annual rainy season makes the Bani River the only route in and out of town. During dry season, the shade of mango trees offers relief from the harsh sun. Children hurry toward the “ting-ting-ting” of a school bell, passing women pounding millet and men mending their fishing nets. Soon, the children are writing their names and vocabulary words on hand-held chalkboards, acting out market transactions, and using cut millet stalks to add and subtract.

These scenes are new in this tiny village in the Mopti region, a 13-hour van ride north of Mali’s capital, Bamako. With only about 40 primary school-age students (out of a total of 350 inhabitants), Sangala was not eligible for its own school under the existing Malian system, which requires six teachers per school to staff the primary grades. With no local school, children were required to walk more than three kilometers to the nearest school. None did.

Now, 15 beaming faces look up at the village’s only teacher, Enoch Diarra, as he reviews their slates, freely sharing guidance and praise. School has finally arrived in Sangala thanks to an initiative of the Ministry of Education supported by EDC.

School attendance has always been a challenge in Mali. In 2005, only 72 percent of school-age children attended school, and only 43 percent completed sixth grade. To meet the goal of providing education for all of Mali’s children, EDC assisted the Ministry in developing an alternative for dealing with two major barriers to attendance: walking distance to school and low population demographics. A study supported by EDC showed the Ministry that attendance drops off drastically with every kilometer a child must travel. Girls living two to three kilometers from a school, for example, were four times less likely to attend than were girls with a school in their village.

Trying new ideas

Mali could not possibly build a school staffed by six teachers in every rural village, so EDC recommended another solution—the single-teacher school. Officials and teachers were skeptical at first.

“I asked myself, ‘How can you teach six classes at once and still be effective?’” says Diarra, the teacher in Sangala.

However, learning more about the required teaching techniques and visiting successful single-teacher schools in an Ohio Amish community convinced Mali’s education leaders to give it a try. EDC experts helped develop teaching materials and a training program specifically designed to support teachers who teach all six primary grades. They learned not only the fundamentals of how to teach literacy, but also how to use assessment techniques to move children along at their own pace and how to train older students to tutor younger ones.

Diarra, for one, was impressed. “Now, after the training, and putting what I learned into practice, I see that it can be done,” he says.

His classroom provides evidence of that, and the people of Sangala are appreciative. “You’ve given us such a gift with this teacher! All of the children in his class can read and write,” said one village chief. “We’re not going to let him . . . leave us—he’s going to stay here forever!”

Overcoming threats to progress

In 2012, national instability following a coup d’état and Al Qaeda-linked insurgency threatened the progress the program had made. But the demand—and the desire—for the schools was strong.

“We’re so happy our children are in school,” said Massaran Coulibaly, a Sangala grandmother. “Everyone in the village supports our children’s education and wants our children to benefit from it . . . We prayed to God to bring a school to our village, and now we have one!”

As the situation stabilized, villages began reopening their schools with the help of regional Ministry of Education district offices. Of the 49 single-teacher schools in operation at the time of the coup, 36 are currently open, including the one in Sangala.

The new measures that are now in place will help Mali’s schools look ahead to a more positive future. Participating regional education offices recognize the importance of the single-teacher school model for helping Mali meet its Education For All goals and continue to provide support and encouragement to the schools

As a regional officer provides such support on a visit to Sangala, Enoch Diarra circulates his partially open-air classroom and reviews children’s progress. Nono Tanapo, one of Diarra’s students, neatly sums up for the officer the effect that single-teacher schools have already had in their short history and how important their continued operation is.

“Before, I didn’t know what school was,” she grins. “Now, I can read and write!”