Girls’ Education Goes Beyond Getting Girls into School

Since we’re launching this website on International Women’s Day, I’d like to take you on a field trip to two schools for girls in two sub-Saharan nations.  I’m on leave from the University of San Diego and I’ve been assisting a few NGOs that work in low and middle-income nations. Working with these NGOs allows me the opportunity to visit many schools and those schools serving only girls intrigue me.

I’ve selected two different but compelling examples of schools offering far more that only access to an education for girls; one school was founded by a couple from the US working in Kenya (Daraja Academy) and the second (F-SHAM of Faith Girls’ Academy) was founded by five Liberian women.

First, a little background on Girls Education…

In spite of the gains made in education with the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now with the 2016-2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), millions of girls around the world are still being denied an education. According to the Global Partnership for Education (2015) an estimated 131 million girls worldwide are out of school and face multiple barriers to education. This includes 32.4 million girls of primary school age, 29.8 million girls of lower secondary school age, and 68.7 million girls of upper secondary school age.

Development economist William Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden comes to mind. Although it was written in 2007, his opening description from a BBC broadcast of a 10-year old girl named Amaretch reminds me of how things have still not changed for many children. Amaretch woke up at 3 am to spend the day collecting eucalyptus branches and leaves to use as firewood; yet she dreamed of going to school instead. Poverty remains the most important factor for determining whether a girl can access an education. Other barriers include cultural norms and practices, distance to school, school-related gender-based violence and early or forced marriage. Yet, we know that keeping girls in school and ensuring they can learn in a safe and supportive environment leads to many benefits for the girls themselves, their families, their communities and their nations.

F-SHAM of Faith Girls Academy, Monrovia Liberia 6° 16′ 60.00″ N 10° 42′ 59.99″ W

School leader Sarah Taylor welcomes families to an F-SHAM school event.

“Women have to be educated…we have to put more of our time in investing our resources in educating young girls.” Sarah Taylor, principal

 F-SHAM is an unusual name for a school. It refers to the first letter of the names of the five women who were the founders: Fannie, Sarah, Helen, Alitha, and Mildred. Towards the end of a particularly brutal fourteen-year civil war in Liberia, these five women founded the school in the Paynesville section of Monrovia. Their goal was to empower girls through skills training. This low-fee private school began with 135 girls in pre-school through fifth grade. By 2008 F-SHAM was educating girls through senior high school grades. Today the school has nearly 450 girls and 54 staff members. F-SHAM offers a high school curriculum that prepares girls for college and also offers skills training that includes information technology (they have a solar-powered lab), baking, sewing, and cosmetology. Information technology is compulsory for all students and after seventh grade the girls can choose to specialize in one of the other three areas. Parents told me they appreciate the school because it is all-girls, offers skills training which will make their daughters more employable, has strong academics and is a safe and supportive environment.

Daraja Academy,   Nanyuki Kenya 0.0074° N, 37.0722° E 

Daraja means bridge in Swahili and was founded by Jenni and Jason Dougherty. I’ll never forget the day in 2008 when this young couple from the Bay Area came into my office and said they were starting a boarding school for high school girls in Kenya. I asked ‘Why girls?’ and they had all the right answers. Daraja, now in its tenth year, is providing an amazing education for approximately 120+ young women.

This photo shows a group of Daraja girls learning life skills in their Transition Program. This is a short gap-year program between the end of high school and college or work. Students learn life and job skills, sex education, and leadership skills. “Daraja is in the business of educating leaders”

Daraja is one of the only tuition-free, and non-religious secondary schools for girls in sub-Saharan Africa. The school has many unique features, including staff traveling all over the country to conduct interviews with prospective students. As I write this post, the school is sending out 340 letters of regret since Daraja has only thirty available seats for the incoming freshman class. The school’s educational model combines a traditional Kenyan curriculum with innovative teaching practices, including project-based learning (PBL), research field trips, community partnerships and service learning. A particularly unique aspect of Daraja is a girl’s empowerment curriculum called: Women of Integrity, Strength and Hope (WISH). I wish all girls in Kenya could have a Daraja education!

A commonality among Daraja and F-SHAM is their founders’ recognition that many girls in sub-Saharan African nations are not graduating from secondary school and many are not even entering. So, these school leaders created a learning environment that has the following components:

• Girls feel safe while in school;

• They provide proper sanitation facilities and private, safe places to study;

• The curriculum encourages them to make decisions about their own lives;

• They are supported throughout their schooling so that they acquire the skills necessary to effectively compete in the labor market;

• The schools provide opportunities to learn the socio-emotional and life skills necessary to navigate and adapt to this changing world; and,

• The curriculum provides opportunities for the girls to contribute to their communities and the world.

Both schools have had amazing success. Their attendance, retention and graduation rates are high, and dozens of girls have already obtained good jobs or entered higher education. And the leadership provided by the founders of these schools and in particular by the principals—the instructional leaders–Sarah Taylor principal of F-SHAM and Victoria Gichuhi, principal at Daraja, has been key!

There has been a lot of progress in low and middle-income countries in ensuring primary education, but secondary education still remains elusive for millions of children, particularly girls. Both F-SHAM and Daraja are providing remarkable opportunities for young women who may never have attended secondary school if these two schools did not exist. There are a growing number of other schools for girls in Africa as well. I could have taken you on a field trip to Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology – a boarding school in Rwanda whose motto is: “Educate a Girl. Inspire a Community. Transform a Nation”.  Or, the low-fee private school,  College de Jeunes Filles de Loumbila, a boarding school founded in 1963 for girls in junior and senior high school in Burkina Faso.

If you’d like to learn more about the amazing women who have founded schools in sub-Saharan Africa, my colleague Corinne Brion and I recently published an article entitled  Women School Leaders: Entrepreneurs in Low Fee Private Schools in Three West African Nations 

We know that better educated women tend to marry at a later age, have fewer children, be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, and achieve higher standards of living. All these factors combined can help lift households, communities, and nations out of poverty. As Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway said:  “When you invest in a girl’s education, she feeds herself, her community and her nation.”

These two outstanding schools would not be so successful without the principals who are committed to the school’s vision and provide the instructional supports necessary so teachers can excel. Daraja and F-SHAM are very special learning environments for girls. I wish Ethiopia had had schools like this for Amaretch.

UntitledYou really should consider taking a field trip and visiting Daraja and F-SHAM sometime!

1 thought on “Girls’ Education Goes Beyond Getting Girls into School”

  1. What a wonderful article! I have travelled to Daraja Academy several times and your description of the culture, it’s Founders, and the amazing administrative staff, led by Victoria, is right on!
    Keep up this blog educating us all! Asante!

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