It took all day – we left at 7:00 a.m. and got back to Baboua at 6:00 p.m. The furthest school we saw was 80 km. (50 miles) away, including 30 km. (about 20 miles) of road that got increasingly worse as we left the paved main road. All of the other schools we visited were along the newly paved road. Imagine how long this trip would have taken last year before the road was paved! We hope to go to see some other schools this week, but the trip will involve taking more unpaved roads. Getting to all 20 schools takes time!
In this blog entry, I want to focus on two villages (I’ll call them 1 and 2) because they remind me of issues that I saw in Pittsburgh – different, but the same.
First, a little background. Each village had to form a committee of parents as they decided that they wanted to become a part of this program. It is called the Association of Parents of Students – like our PTO or PTA although here they have more direct responsibilities for the school. Parents must each pay a share of the cost of educating the students and then our program pays part, too. This money goes to pay the teachers (one of whom is the director, or principal, of the school. Parents must also find a place and build “hangars” where classes can be held. These hangars are rectangular structures that have small logs that hold up a straw roof. Most schools have at least two to house classes. Sometimes there are two classes in each hangar and occasionally teachers work with one class in the morning and a different level in the same structure in the afternoon. This depends on space and availability of teachers. Then, sometimes parents build desks and sometimes our program helps with money to have some made. These are tables to seat 4-5 students each with an accompanying bench. Parents are then responsible for the maintenance of the hangars. In time, they are also asked to collect sand, stones, and to make bricks (more on that later). These materials will be used to build a more permanent school building –with financial support of our program. The Village School Program also provides black boards (made from board that are framed and painted black), texts (not always enough for all students right now, unfortunately, because many classes are very large), and some other basics. Students buy their own notebooks, pens (they don’t seem to use pencils), individual slates, chalk, and other materials.
As we arrived at School A, we saw two hangars. They have a principal, who also teaches, and one other teacher. In one structure a kindergarten class sat on one side and the 1st grade on the other. In the other, there was one class. Both teachers teach other levels in the afternoon. We saw evidence that there is little parental support for this school. The straw roofs had holes – and not little ones! (See picture.) Fortunately, this is the dry season, so it doesn’t rain in now, but the sun does shine in – distracting those sitting in its intensity, I am sure. The parents are not giving their share toward the teachers’ salaries and no work has been done to begin to collect sand, stones, and bricks although the parents have asked the Village School Program to build them a permanent building. Those who work for our program have met with the parents several times to talk about what needs to be done, but to no avail. They have also involved the traditional chief. Still, nothing has happened.
Does this sound familiar, especially to those of you who have worked with schools?? It reminds me of schools in some neighborhoods of Pittsburgh where there is little support. Granted, the kind of support we ask for is different – we want parents to help or at least monitor that homework is done, come for parent conferences, maybe help with fund-raisers… But the end result is the same. When parents are not willing, or able, to support the school, it doesn’t function as well.
Consider, next, School B. As we drove up, students saw the new blackboards the director of the Village School Program had made. (Making boards is not usually the job of the program director in the States, is it?!?) They stated to call out, “Tableau!” (Blackboard!) They were obviously very excited. We were also met by the President of the Parents’ Association and about 5 other members of the committee. This school also had two hangars, but they were in very good condition. And, parents have already collected a lot of sand. The day we arrived, some of the older students had had oral exams. With the remaining time in the school day, all students were helping to make mud bricks. This school still has problems; what school doesn’t? But, the support of the parents has made an incredible difference. I bet we can all think of schools in the States that work more smoothly or have definite advantages because the PTO/PTA and parental support are strong. It works the same way here. So, things are really different at the schools I saw, but, then, there are similarities, too.
Finally, I want to talk a little about making bricks. It is not something we do ourselves in the US. Of course, bricks or cinder blocks are much more readily available and easier to buy. Here, house and many other buildings are made from mud bricks. (Some buildings are built from cinder blocks that are bought. These are more durable and long-lasting.) People dig up dirt – that has a lot of clay in it, I think – and add water. I know that in the Old Testament, straw was added, but I don’t know if they add anything else. The mixture is then put into frames to shape the brick. This is then left to dry in the sun. The dry season is a good time to make bricks since there is lots of sun to dry them. Also, the rain doesn't come and destroy those that are already made. On the other hand, water is harder to come by. Making bricks takes a lot of time! We saw schools where parents were making bricks to be used for teacher housing and for more permanent classroom buildings. The pictures included here are: the frame for making bricks, some bricks drying in the sun, and a pile of bricks that was unprotected and ruined by the rain a couple of months ago. Parents at that school weren’t discouraged; they just started making more bricks! They want a permanent building for their school!
The culture in CAR works against us in that education is not a priority. Many (even most, in some areas) adults are not literate. If they have been to school, it may have only been for a couple of years. Some recognize the importance of educating their children, but don’t know how to help and support the children or the schools. In the US, we have some functionally illiterate parents, but many fewer than here. Schools in the US also face many parents who didn’t do well in school, don’t value education, or don’t know the best ways to support their children in their education. So there, as here, we have much work to do. In the Village School Program in the future, we will continue to work with all the Parents’ Associations to help them better understand their role and to encourage them to do their part in making these schools work well. We will be looking for new ideas and ways to do this so that they can understand and participate. Educators, doesn’t this sound familiar???