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The following is a guest blog from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Alison Horton. She is currently volunteering with BRAC in Bangladesh. To find an opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations©.
After a couple weeks in the field working on sanitation, microfinance, legal aid and agriculture programs, I was really looking forward to my first visit to a BRAC school. As it turns out, the students were quite excited themselves.
We had dismounted our rickshaws at the edge of the village whose school we would be visiting. We began the twenty-minute walk through lush greenery and muddy trails and worked our way past clay homes and tin shacks. The path led us to a picturesque clearing surrounded by banana and mango trees, home to the village’s BRAC school. Outside the one-room tin schoolhouse, we saw the students’ colorful sandals arranged in a perfect circle. Their teacher later explained that each morning, they lay out their sandals just so, to instill ideals of routine, order and care. We added our shoes to the display and entered the school.
As soon as we appeared in the doorway, the children enthusiastically and respectfully stood up to greet us, and quickly executed the first of many traditional song and dance performances they had prepared for us. The teacher explained that they had learned of our upcoming visit three months prior, and had since begged to practice the routines every single day. Now that the day was upon us, most of the girls had arrived to school an hour early, dressed in their family’s nicest clothes. They looked beautiful and their performances were absolutely lovely.
Throughout the day, we interviewed the teacher, played with the students and spoke with many of the parents. We learned about BRAC’s unique approach to education, and observed first hand how well it works. BRAC addresses education as a root cause of poverty, and hopes to break into the perpetual cycle by greatly improving the educational opportunities to students throughout rural Bangladesh. High dropout rates, the cultural prevalence of early marriage, and the unavailability of schools and/or transportation in rural areas have plagued the formal education sector for decades.
The BRAC education program hoped to supplement this government sector when it began in 1985 with the creation of the first 22 schools. Today, there are more than 35,000 schools nation-wide, all run sustainably without any help from the government. In its first fifteen years, the program reached more than 1.5 million students, 70 percent of whom were girls.
What’s more, BRAC schools consistently have impressive student-teacher ratios, incredible student retention rates and higher standardized test scores than their government school counterparts. Yet, a BRAC education, though free to students and their families, costs $20 per year compared to a government school’s $52 per year. It is BRAC’s unique model and innovative approaches that has created this anomaly, which seems almost too good to be true.
Before deciding to open a school in a particular village, BRAC officials (mostly women) meet with parents several times. The parents learn about their children’s educational potential and promise to send them to school each day and attend monthly parent-teacher meetings. Three mothers form a management committee with the teacher. This committee checks in with the school regularly, and if a student is absent, they go to the student’s home to check on them. A mother from the village is actually chosen and trained as the school’s teacher. BRAC usually selects an uneducated woman and provides her with complete initial training and monthly refresher courses. She receives a salary for this important job and becomes a hero in her village.
We had the chance to sit in a monthly refresher course at a BRAC regional office and were very impressed with the women’s abilities.
The school calendar and hours are set each season by the management committee and parents. If needed, the school will run two shifts each day to keep class size under BRAC’s maximum of 33. The hours are set according the families’ needs, often changing with each harvesting season. The location of the one-room school is very carefully chosen – as close to students’ homes as possible.
In this particular schoolhouse, we asked the parents what their children did before the school was built. Most children worked. The boys were often field laborers and the girls were house help. The closest government school is over 15 kilometers away, with no transportation provided. Additionally, the school requires that students purchase a uniform, which is a significant financial deterrent for most families. So, without this BRAC school, these vibrant and intelligent nine to twelve year old kids singing, dancing and practicing English with us would instead be working as day laborers, with no chance of an education.
BRAC has always exhibited a completely apolitical approach and maintains an amicable relationship with the Bangladesh government. BRAC’s vision is a future without the need for aid. Their schools, like many of their programs, are working to bridge the gap between the country’s high need and the government’s limited potential. Hopefully, in time, the government will learn from and incorporate BRAC schools into the formal sector and all students will officially have access to proper education. Perhaps when these happy, bright and talented young students eventually have children of their own, they will have multiple quality education options.
I also had the chance to visit a government school, and of course those uniform-clad students are just as vibrant and adorable.
Wow Alison! This seems like an awesome experience – Great job!