Breaking the barrier of illiteracy

Junior Secondary School 3 students (JSS3 or 9th grade in the U. S.) across Sierra Leone last week completed the BECE exam.  The Basic Education Certificate Examination is a standardized exam administered throughout West Africa by the West African Examination Council to certify students are ready to progress to senior high school.

This is a quiet milestone. But progressing to high school should be celebrated as a big deal for a country where 56% of adults over the age of 15 years in 2011 have never attended formal school. (World Bank data) This number seemed high to me.  But if you stop to think, it’s again that group of young adults whose educations were interrupted by the war and its aftermath.

JSS3 students from four Rotifunk secondary schools are glad the rigorous BECE exam is over.  Twenty two subjects are offered, and students expected to test in 10-13 subjects that take 2 to 2 ½ hours each.  That means 5-6 days of testing for each student.

To pass the BECE, students must pass at least six subjects, including English and Math.  Sierra Leone pass rates last year were only 50% of test takers in Language Arts and 57% in Math; it’s not an easy exam.  Less than half the students taking the BECE in 2012 in the Southern Province where Rotifunk sits passed the overall exam.

Four Rotifunk secondary schools are taking the exam:  Walter Schutz Memorial Secondary School (where I taught many years ago), Prosperity Girls High School, Ahmadiyya Islamic School and Rotifunk’s Christian academy.

Student debaters at Walter Schutz Secondary School and their teacher after completing a debate.

Student debaters at Walter Schutz Secondary School and their teacher after completing a debate.

Prosperity Girls High School was the stand-out in 2012, not only in Rotifunk, but in Moyamba District (one of 12 administrative districts in the country). 100% of PGHS girls taking the BECE exam passed. This is significant given the area’s first all-girls secondary school had only been open three years when students first sat for the BECE last year.  It was the first time each individual girl took the exam, and the first time the school sent students to sit for the exam.  It was also the first year JSS3 – or 9th grade – had been offered at this new school.

Prosperity Girls High School was recognized by the Ministry of Education for their exceptional results.  It was noted their results could be compared with schools in the district open for a hundred years. Their net results were seen as second in the district, given their actual scores and smaller number of students.

So, how did PGHS pull this off?  It starts with an excellent principal and excellent teachers who are capable in their respective subjects and highly committed to their students.  But their secret ingredient is holding what Principal Kaimbay calls a camp – a month long study camp.

JSS3 students hunker down at the school and live there dormitory style all week while the teachers conduct comprehensive reviews of the whole curriculum.  Principal Kaimbay sleeps at the school with them, getting them up at 5:00 AM to begin an early study period before review classes start at 8:00 AM.  They have afternoon breaks for sports and rest, and evening review classes begin again after dinner til about 10 PM.  They can go home for the weekend, and return to begin the condensed study program again on Monday – for a whole month.

This approach delivered results.  Every girl passed in 2012, allowing PGHS to open their first senior high class (10th grade) for the current 2013 academic year.  Mrs. Kaimbay attributes their success to the comprehensive review and keeping the students focused.  We make sure we review every subject and the full curriculum before the exam, she said.  We try to verify knowledge and assist each student.  We provide the  focus and discipline for studying that they would not be able to get if they were studying at home.

Twenty eight JSS3 students from PGHS sat for the BECE this year.  So, it requires not only discipline for the students, but a huge commitment by the teachers and principal. As in countries everywhere, the teachers and principal are the heroes of this story.

I asked PGHS teacher Mr. Sonnah how it was going a couple weeks ago.  Great, he said.  They did a better job preparing the study camp this second time around, so he expects to see results on par with last year. 

Sherbro Foundation knows  JSS3 students from all Rotifunk’s secondary schools have worked hard to be ready for the BECE.  We wish them all the best as they await their results.

Growing the ranks of students ready for senior high is essential for this rural community – and for the country – to continue their development journey and move beyond poverty.  There will no doubt be barriers to the students completing senior high and then joining the workforce.  But academic readiness should not be one of them.  It should be an enabler.   Fortunately, in Rotifunk students are being given a good start. 

You can help.   One barrier Sherbro Foundation is helping to remove is the burden of school fees for rural families unable to pay them.  Consider contributing to the Girls Scholarship Fund that awards school fee scholarships to girls in all four Rotifunk secondary schools.   $22 USD pays fees for one senior high girl to attend school for the year.  $18 USD covers annual school fees for one junior high girl.   You can find an on-line donation button in the right hand column of the website.

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