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Finishing school, without leaving home

Key to GambiaRising's mission is to support Gambian students to go to school when they otherwise could not. Usually, this means scholarships - anything from buying school uniforms for a 1st grader, to paying tuition and all expenses at the University. But sometimes the reason that a student is not in school is that there is no school. 

We have written about the new Lower Basic Cycle (elementary) schools that were built with our support in Pacharr and in Njie Kunda(You can click on the links to see those reports.) Today there are more than 400 students in these schools; nearly all of whom were not going to school before the schools were built. For the higher grades, both of these schools will feed into St. Therese's Basic Cycle School in Fula Bantang, which, despite the difficulty of getting good teachers to come up country, is consistently in the top five schools in the country.

Now, I want to tell you about a development that is further transforming the educational scene in The Gambia's lower Central River Region. A new senior secondary school is being built in Fula Bantang. Because of GambiaRising donors.

In 2008, our upcountry program began in Fula Bantang when a Peace Corps Volunteer appealed for support for a local orphan who had dropped out after 9th grade. Since then, our UpCountry Program Coordinator, Kebba Sanyang (who is also Principal of St. Therese's), has worked with the School Management Committee there to promote a full-enrollment policy in the school's catchment area - visiting the compounds of families whose kids are not in school, offering financial support where appropriate, in some cases loaning bicycles to the older ones, and when the distance to Fula Bantang proved to be a barrier for the youngest children in Pacharr and Njie Kunda, collaborating to get those local feeder schools built.

But St. Therese's Basic Cycle School stopped at grade 9. That is why each year we have had so many students at Bansang, Janjanbureh, Brikamaba, and in towns near the coast - students who were formerly at St. Therese's but are had to attend senior secondary school elsewhere. Some of these girls (and boys) thrived. But too many struggled. They were often living with strangers. In many cases, they knew that many thought they should have been married when they reached puberty. And they were in very large schools, often quite far from where they are boarding.  

Kebba and I talked often about how to make things easier for these girls. Over the years, we have provided bicycles to some, mattresses to others, food allowances, solar lanterns, multi-vitamins, even recruited adult women to act as mentors. But it seemed insufficient to the task. Finally, Kebba said to me: "I know you want to focus on being only a scholarship program. But these girls don't have nearly the same stress and problems when they are at St. Therese's. Maybe we cannot fix everything in their lives. but we can make things much easier for them if they can live at home and go to school in their local community all the way to 12th grade.

And so, whlie we continue to keep our focus on scholarships, we wrote a note to our donors last year and mentioned the possibility of building such a schoolI am still moved beyond words to say that a small but very generous group of donors stepped forward to commit to provide enough to get us much of the way to doing just that.  And others said that their donations could be used for scholarshps but also contribute to the school, as we saw fit.

And here's where we are on that path:

First, attracting teachers (and housing them)

It is notoriously difficult to get good teachers to travel upcountry to teach. So we decided the first step was to build ten high-quality teachers' quarters, of which four units had two rooms, for teachers with families. Here is a photo just before they were complete. (You can take a quick look around the finished quarters HERE.)

Soon after the new teachers (and some of their families) moved in, however, a snag arose. With so many teachers using the two pit-latriine toilets, they were going to be full within six months. After seeking alternatives, it became clear that the only path was to dig new ones. And when the non-profit WomenOne offered funding through the Peace Corps Participation Program, four new toilets were built. In a first for The Gambia, these included urinals to capture the men's urine, which will be be diluted 3:1 and used as fertilizer in the school's gardens.

Toilets with health messages

The first urinals in the area!

Toilets with urine storage tank

Then the 10th grade classrooms

The plan is to build one grade per year. The 10th-grade classrooms were completed by Christmas; the desks and chairs arrived in early January so the students moved in.

But that didn't stop the school from opening in September; St. Therese's went on split schedule for three months so that students could enroll in 10th grade last fall. And more than 80 did so. 2/3 were girls.

Enrollment continues to grow. The day I visited last winter, a teacher from Pacharr and his sister brought their younger sister, who had dropped out of school in the Kombo (near the coast), so they could enroll her in the new school. When I visited last month, a 19-year-old boy who had studied 12 years in a Koranic school was asking if he could now come to St. Therese's. And enrollment is already up to 95 students.

I wouldn't be surprised if by next year, there are 100 or more students in grade 11.  And the school is being planned to accommodate 500 students in all.

Thinking long term

As the campus is built over the next several years, it will be a center of best practices for rural schools. When WaterCharity, working with Peace Corps' Let Girls Learn program, agreed to fund the basic school well, that freed up our donated funds to upgrade the water system to add a solar pump and water storage tower, to supply not only drinking water and handwashing taps throughout the school, but also irrigation lines to demonstration gardens and to an income-producing tree plantation to help support the school in the future. In my most recent visit, I found another innovation: a new poutlry house built OVER a fish pond. (You can see the water tower in the background of the photo fo this amazing project.)

While visiting last month, I found more of the kind of pleasant surprises that come from working with a motivated team and community, things that show that the community is taking the support we have given, and improving on it. For example, each student has been asked to plant and then water at least one tree on the school grounds; 95 have been planted, mostly fruit and cashews, and are protected from goats by woven tree guards. By the time they graduate, each student will have contributed at least three trees. Kebba talks about this tree-planting program HERE.

This year, the plan is to fence the school with chicken wire and plant thorned bushes along it, which over time will produce a "live fence." Then more trees and gardens can be planted, and a small orchard of gmelina (construction timber) trees. As one teacher said to me: "Let the agriculture students grow the timber for the carpentry students,"  After all, if the school is successful, many of its graduates will seek to stay in the area and become farmers or tradespeople - but if the school does its job, they will be better farmers and tradespeople than their parents.

Because that is the point: the purpose of a school is to give its students an opportunity for a better life.

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee

GambiaRising Charitable Trust
1500 Park Ave., Apt 503
Emeryville, CA  94608

Under construction: the science and technical labs

This building will also house the school's administrative office until separate buildings are built in Phase Three.

And the point of all this is: the students