By Ashoka Mukpo, journalist
When the community of Kollita Wolah built their schoolhouse in 1989, it was a proud moment. Located a few kilometers to the north of Gbarnga, a bustling hub city in central Liberia, residents of the town had long struggled to send their children to school. It was a long walk to the closest school– over thirty minutes – and for younger children the journey wasn’t safe. So town leaders pooled money they’d saved from a collectively managed rice farm, building a concrete school in the heart of Kollita Wolah.
Now, the school is under the management of Bridge International Academies, an American company that took over under the Liberian government’s pilot experiment with foreign-run charter schools. But residents of the town say they were misled about what to expect from the new system, and that the handover left many children without access to education due to Bridge’s restrictions on class sizes.
“[Last year] there were more than 75 students in each class,” says Moses Barror, the Youth Chairman of Kollita Wolah. “But when [Bridge] came in, they said they would only accept 45. So it made most of the children left out. And it was the community that built the school. So the community members, most of them got angry.”
Limiting the size of classes is a key goal of the charter school pilot program. Under the program, private companies and non-profit organizations have assumed control of 93 primary schools across the country. Described as a ‘public-private partnership,’ it’s an ambitious plan that’s attracted attention – and criticism – far beyond Liberia’s borders.
Reducing class sizes in Liberian schools is described as a key step in ensuring that teachers are able to focus on individual students, keeping the numbers manageable so that lesson plans can be more effectively delivered.
But the speed with which the charter school pilot program was implemented in the country appears to have led to some children being left on the sidelines, as companies like Bridge limit the class sizes of schools they take over without an adequate plan to support students who can no longer attend the school.
Barror explains that last summer, representatives from the Ministry of Education came to Kollita Wolah and told parents that Bridge would be taking over the local school. At first, residents of the town were excited about the prospect of additional resources being devoted to the school, but when registration closed, a large number of children from the town didn’t make the cut.
The parents of those children – whose ages Barror says ranged from nursery to high school – were told that government schools in the nearby city of Gbarnga would accept those who couldn’t attend the school in Kollita Wolah. But parents whose children were too young to safely make the 30-minute walk along the busy commercial road were faced with a difficult dilemma: either find relatives in Gbarnga who the children could stay with, pay the expensive daily transportation fees, or keep the children at home.
Many say they had no choice but to pull their children out of school.
Barror says that parents in Kollita Wolah were furious over the exclusion of children from the community school, at one point sending the ‘country devil’ – a traditional figure who wears a fearsome mask – into the town as an act of protest. According to Barror, the County Education Officer asked Bridge to accept the students who were left out in response to the community’s protests, but was told it wasn’t possible.
For Betty Flomo, the arrival of Bridge forced a painful decision. Flomo has four children of her own, along with one who she cares for. All five attended the school in Kollita Wolah prior its conversion to a charter school. This year, only one was able to register.
“They said we must pay [the children’s] way to Gbarnga, but we don’t have the money,” she says.
Flomo only had enough funds to pay for transport for two of the four children who were left out to attend school in Gbarnga. She chose her two sons, Collinus, 9, and Ama, 12. Her two daughters, Rota, 8, and Sarah, 7, have not attended classes since Bridge assumed control of the school in Kollita Wolah. Flomo’s story raises the concerning prospect that young girls may be at higher risk of losing access to education in cases where the new charter schools aren’t able to take all of the previous students.
“If it was left to me, Bridge would go,” says Flomo.
Advocates for the charter school pilot program in Liberia say that stories like Flomo’s are rare, and that there have been few instances where private school management has led to students being left out. But there have been reports of similar incidents to the one that took place in Kollita Wolah from schools in other areas.
Few observers of the Liberian education system are likely to object to efforts to reduce class sizes or extend the school day. However, the case of Kollita Wolah highlights the unintended consequences of a pilot program that the Liberian government describes in project documents as having been implemented in an “aggressive and ambitious timeframe.”
As the Liberian Ministry of Education proposes scaling up the pilot program to cover as many as 100 additional schools across the country, it’s unclear whether efforts have been made to ensure that children who are unable to attend the next wave of charter schools will be given adequate support in finding other schools to attend. An update on the pilot circulated by the government in February makes no mention of children being left out of any schools during its first year of implementation.
Commenting on the unfolding of the pilot program in Kollita Woleh, Angelo Gavrielatos, Project Director for Education International, says, “Students being denied access to their local school as a consequence of outsourcing its schools to private operators represents a serious policy failure on the part of the Liberian government, and it illustrates what can occur when private interests take charge of education.”
This reporting mission was supported by Education International