Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Going to Public School

Going to Public School

I think about my grandchildren going to school today. They get on a bus that picks them up at their home and delivers them to their school every single day. Their classrooms are a bright mixture of stimulating colors and shapes. Their teacher greets them warmly and they slide into their seats for the beginning of a varied and useful set of daily lessons. Interspersed in their week are music, art, physical education, trips to the library, and more. After about seven hours they climb back on the bus that takes them safely to their home. Hopefully, they will have books at home and what is left of the afternoon and evening may be spent playing, reading, finishing homework, or helping with chores. Maybe they will participate in some extra curricular activity planned for them by their school, church, or community.

A school day for a child in Zambia is very different from the world of my grandchildren. If they attend public school (most do), they will be assigned to one of three sessions for the day. If they are in elementary school their schedule may be from 7 a.m. – 10:30 or from 10:30-1; if they are in grades 7-9 they may be assigned from 1:30-5 p.m. No bus picks them up; they walk—and sometimes from punishing distances that can take 1-2 hours. Especially for the little children, the rainy season with its mud and downpouring rain can be extremely hard, aggravated also by darkness. The children emerge from paths in the long grass or along the road, coming from local farms or villages scattered throughout the area.

Their classroom will have no electricity but be lit by only that light available through the windows. They will share the space of their table or bench with many other students; their classroom will be full. The teacher-student ratio varied in the schools I visited from a high of 80:1 to a low of 35:1. It looked like an average of about 60-70:1. The classrooms, however, were orderly and quiet, even with this many students. In each room that we visited with the Headmaster (Principal), the class would stand and say “Good Morning, Mr. __” as we entered, and “Good Bye, Mr. __” when we left. Absent from the walls were colorful collages or bulletin boards or anything else of color; I imagine that paper is not available for such displays, nor would it hold up well in the elements. The front of each classroom had a full-width chalkboard and the teacher would generally have it covered with lessons that students were dutifully copying into their little lesson books. Curiously absent at every level were books of just about any kind.

Neither school I visited had water available except for one outdoor pump. The Baluba School had 1,130 students in three shifts, averaging 50+ students per classroom in its 8 rooms. There was one outdoor pit toilet with a side for the girls and a side for the boys. Hopelessly inadequate for these numbers, another pit latrine was being constructed and at least a third needed.

On the day I visited, a nurse was at the schools from the Ministry of Health to take donated blood. Evidently they draw not only from the teachers, but also from students. Frankly, none looked like they had much to spare; Lord knows I hope they have very tough screening standards. I also noted other health programs in place for the children, including instruction in hygiene, regular de-worming, and provision of a tiny amount of food to be taken home twice a week (consisting of an egg and small fish).

Education is “compulsory” through the 9th grade. At that point an exam is given and only those students who have the highest grades will go on to high school. If everyone achieved high grades there would simply not be enough room for them in existing high schools. And so a perverse sort of system is enforced that does not expect too many to advance to higher grades. Actually making it to 9th grade would be an achievement for many; making it with any sort of quality of education would be huge. Many children do not even go to school for many reasons: they live with an old grandmother who cannot afford even the dollar it might take; the very long walk becomes impossible; they are hungry; they must help the family in securing food; they see no reason to go. Absenteeism is endemic. It is hard to experience the hope that comes with education when one is simply too sick, too hungry, and too tired to put forth the effort.

Teacher training consists of a two-year post high school certificate to teach primary grades. This consists of one year of intensive training and one year of student teaching in a school. Those teachers who teach in the upper grades specialize in a two-year diploma. Evidently there is now a move to have primary grade teachers also work toward a two-year diploma, do-able through distance learning from the University of Zambia. To boost their teacher’s capacity, the Department of Education broadcasts varied lessons by radio into classrooms—a good use of simple technology and standardized lessons. English is the official language of Zambia and is introduced in the second grade. However, it is not taught or practiced in a manner that creates fluency. Most public school students do not speak English well enough for basic conversation, even after years of instruction. I am reminded of the Hispanic students entering our schools back in Indiana and the fluency that they develop after only months of immersion in English-speaking classrooms. There is simply no comparison between these two cultures in terms of language acquisition, nor of the promising future that English fluency brings.

One principal, Mr. Buyungwe, lamented his inability to teach “life skills” to those students who would not be progressing from grade 9. His dream would be to provide practical instruction in marketable trades for the many who would need them. However, this system does not provide for vocational training, as it does not provide adequately for academic training. In a continuing cycle of grinding poverty and inadequate public education, Zambia has little hope of moving up in the ranks of developing nations. Pity, because the people are good and the country is beautiful and filled with plentiful and valuable natural resources.

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