Jul 30, 2015

What makes Sierra Leoneans so tolerant of each other's religions?

Practising presentations for Exhibition Day
Practising presentations for Exhibition Day

What makes Sierra Leone the most religiously tolerant country in the world? That was the question students at Rising Academy Regent explored through The Tolerance Project, a 10 week interdisciplinary study of religion and conflict.

Sierra Leone comes near the bottom of almost every global index of health, education, governance and economic development. But according to a 2009 Gallup Survey, the country, which is 78% Muslim and 20% Christian, tops the table when it comes to religious tolerance. Learning that “was a surprise,” says student Mohamed Bah. “I thought it would have been Senegal, because you never hear of any problems there.”

With religion at the heart of so many global conflicts in recent decades, from Syria to Sri Lanka, from Northern Ireland to northern Nigeria, it’s important to understand what makes Sierra Leone special.

To explore that question, students first heard presentations from a local imam and pastor about the place of tolerance in their respective faiths. They then learned about a number of conflicts around the world where religion has been a major factor, including the struggle between the government and Boko Haram in Nigeria, Sierra Leone’s West African ‘big brother’.

The centrepiece of the project was a student-led survey. Students learned about survey design, different types of questions, and what makes for good and bad questions. They then came up with their own survey questions, and conducted their survey with members of their community. For many students, it was exciting to be given this kind of responsibility. “Doing surveys is normally something which only older ones in university do but in Rising Academy JSS1 can do it”, says student Matilda Saffa. Another student, Unisa Sesay, talks proudly about how, when he was doing his survey, one of the people in his community brought him a chair to sit on, a sign of respect that he clearly valued.

To make sure they could present the findings from their survey in a compelling way, students also had to work hard on their writing. During the project, they were introduced to the basics of writing in paragraphs.

Several students from each class were then chosen by their classmates to present their reports at Exhibition Day, in front of the rest of the school and an invited audience including imam Pa Swarrey and local chief Madam Tarawalie.

The Exhibition Day capped off a great first term at Rising Academy Regent. End of term assessments showed that our initial intake of 88 students have made rapid progress in reading, writing and maths, albeit from a very low base. Average reading scores rose from 36% to 47%, writing scores from 17% to 28% and maths scores from 21% to 35%. These are fairly large effect sizes in such a short period, particularly in the case of maths. One way to interpret these effect sizes is to look at where a student with a given score would have placed at the beginning versus the end of term: for maths, a score that would have seen a student rank in the top 20% of students at the start of the term would only have been average by the end of term.

Of course, for some of our students their journey with us began back in October. That’s when, with schools forced to remain closed because of the Ebola epidemic, we launched our Ebola Crisis Home Outreach (ECHO) program, supported by GlobalGiving and our friends and supporters. Small groups of students received a few hours of tuition each day from one of our teachers at the home of a nearby parent. For these students, the learning gains have been even more impressive. Reading scores for this group rose from 33% at baseline in August 2014 to 53% in July 2015, maths from 23% to 39%, and writing from 19% to 32%. Again these are large effects, especially considering the limited instructional time students received before schools opened.

For a full report on our students’ learning progress, click here.

Once again, we are hugely grateful to all our Scholarship Fund supporters for ensuring that more families can receive a quality education. 100% match funding is still available for all donations on GlobalGiving.org (but not GlobalGiving.co.uk) so do continue to spread the word.

Masters of Ceremonies Rosaline and Allie
Masters of Ceremonies Rosaline and Allie
Presenting findings
Presenting findings
Asking questions of presenters
Asking questions of presenters
Working as a team
Working as a team
Imam Pa Swarrey gives his reflections
Imam Pa Swarrey gives his reflections
May 28, 2015

Back to school in Sierra Leone

First student enters our school for the first time
First student enters our school for the first time

Delayed but not deterred, on April 14th 2015, children in Sierra Leone finally went back to school. For two full school terms, their classrooms lay silent and empty. But with the Ebola epidemic finally abating, they are once again filled with voices.

“I am very excited about the reopening of schools because sitting at home doing nothing is not educating,” says Alie Bangura, 12. Fellow student Joseph Turay agrees: “education is the key to success. I want to learn, and sitting at home playing is not a better thing to do.”

For Rising Academies, April 14th was a particularly significant milestone. Rising Academy Regent, the first in what (it is hoped) will one day become a chain of quality schools in Sierra Leone, was due to open in September 2014. Instead of celebrating, we found ourselves scrambling to find an alternative form of provision that would ensure our students did not miss out on the quality education they signed up for.

For 7 months, our Ebola Crisis Home Outreach programme provided much-needed access to high quality teaching and learning for students that would otherwise have been stuck at home. 193 students in 9 communities attended at least some of our home schooling lessons. Strict Ebola protocols saw our teachers carry out 7,185 Ebola screenings (taking temperatures, washing hands, and checking for signs and symptoms), helping to keep them safe while the epidemic raged around them.

And even though ECHO was very much an emergency measure in response to extraordinary circumstances, the Solon Foundation and Rising Academies have tried from its inception to gauge the impact on student learning outcomes through termly assessments. We are pleased to be able to share the latest results. When we did this exercise in December, we were able to compare students in the ECHO programme to students who had completed our baseline assessment in August but not attended our lessons. This gave us a convenient comparison group. Unfortunately, we were not able to replicate that this time: most of that comparison group ended up enrolling in ECHO from January onwards as parents saw that schools would remain closed past Christmas. That said, we are able to draw some conclusions from looking at the progress over time of students who joined the programme when it first started:

  • There was a statistically significant improvement in English reading comprehension.
  • The total number of lessons attended from September through to April predicted improvement in reading. The more lessons a student attended, the more their reading scores improved. This was true for both boys and girls.
  • English writing and Maths scores increased but differences were not statistically significant.
  • There is a lot of work to do on the quality of students’ writing and more basic penmanship, but we saw statistically significant improvements in the number of words that students wrote.

With schools reopened, and most children now back in school, our Ebola Crisis Home Outreach (ECHO) program has, as expected, wound down. But we continue to operate the program on a small scale for a few students whose parents can’t or won’t send them back to their old schools for this school year.

Our efforts have recently received a technological boost. Back in January, GlobalGiving introduced us to the team at Journey, a leading developer of smartphone apps for mobile workforces. The Journey team already had experience of developing apps for the Ebola response, and generously agreed to develop an app for tracking student and teacher attendance. We have now rolled out the app in our school and with our home study groups, leading to more reliable record-keeping and saving teachers and program managers valuable time that can be better spent on improving teaching and learning.

Finally, we’ve been making a big push on scholarships through GlobalGiving and GlobalGivingUK’s 100% match funding campaign. We’ve had an amazing response so far - thank you to everyone has donated. But with our ambitious plans for growth, we'll soon have a lot more schools and a lot more students to be serving. The good news is that if you haven’t already given there’s still time to give and get your donation 100% matched. And if you know other people that might be interested in supporting quality education in Sierra Leone, do spread the word! The campaign ends on May 31st in the UK, though It will still be possible to make donations on the US site for a little while longer.

Journey's attendance app improves efficiency
Journey's attendance app improves efficiency
Rising students excited to be back in school
Rising students excited to be back in school
Classrooms are no longer empty
Classrooms are no longer empty
Mar 27, 2015

The sound of progress

Teaching reading
Teaching reading

It’s Tuesday morning and teacher Mariatu Sesay sits with a group of junior secondary school-age students in an unfinished concrete room in the bottom of a house in Hill Station in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Having started with an hour of maths, it’s now time to move on to phonics. “Today we’re going to finish off the ‘ssss’ sound”, she says. “I’m going to read out the sounds, and you are going to blend the word for me.”

It might seem strange that this group of secondary school-age students (most are 13 or older) are having to go back to basics. But when they started attending lessons as part of our Ebola Crisis Home Outreach programme, many of them were found to be struggling readers operating four, five or even six grades below their actual level.

When they entered the programme, students were tested using the Word Reading component of the British Ability Scales (BAS). As part of this assessment, they were asked to read out a list of 90 words that increase in complexity and difficulty, and from the number and difficulty of the words which they read correctly an inference can be drawn about their reading age based on UK norms. On average, these students read just 40 correctly, implying a reading age of about a British seven-and-a-half year old. 40% had a reading age below seven. To say they had been badly let down by their primary schools would be an understatement.

Teaching reading through synthetic phonics – the 'synthetic' referring to the emphasis placed not just on the sounds but on how they are blended together to form words – has become standard practice in many countries due to its superior track record in building reading skills. But it remains relatively unusual in Sierra Leone where the emphasis is typically on whole word memorisation and recalling words by their spelling. 90% of students in the Ebola Crisis Home Outreach programme were unable to read phonetically when they first joined the programme.

Lack of access to phonics teaching is a major impediment to improving reading levels both because students cannot read sentences fluently and because they don’t recognise words that they might actually already have in their spoken vocabulary.

Mariatu’s lesson is based on a highly successful programme developed by literacy expert Debbie Hepplewhite’s Phonics International (PI). The programme introduces students to new sounds piece by piece and in a logical order, with activities, videos and worksheets to support learning. Rising Academy teachers were trained in how to deliver PI last autumn and it was then rolled out across the Ebola Crisis Home Outreach programme, which currently serves 150 out-of-school students across 18 study groups in 9 communities.

The results of the PI programme have been fairly remarkable, especially considering students are only attending lessons for two and a half hours per day and phonics is only one part of what they do in this time. Preliminary follow up assessments indicate that, after just 3 months of lessons, students' reading age as measured by the BAS increased by an average of 8 months.

Not only has the phonics programme proved effective, it has also turned out to be very popular with students. “Now, when I meet a word, no matter whether it has come from Nigeria to Sierra Leone I will be able to pronounce it”, says student Richard Dedi Narcisse. Fellow student Mary Nichol agrees: “If you see big words, no matter how big you will be able to pronounce them”, she says.

“I expected our students to think of phonics the way I think of spinach,” says Rising Academy Network CEO Paul Skidmore. “They wouldn’t enjoy it but they’d know it was good for them. It turns out I was dead wrong: they really like the phonics. The thing I underestimated is how empowering they would find it to be able to pronounce a word even if they hadn’t come across it before.”

Of course, while this early progress is encouraging, there’s a long way to go. And being able to read a word isn’t the same as knowing what it means. Instead, reading is sometimes described as a ‘two-lock box’: the ability to decode words and the background knowledge and vocabulary to make sense of them. Phonics helps with the first but not the second. That’s why, alongside phonics, ECHO students also learn about strategies for reading comprehension (such as getting the gist before looking for details) as well as starting to build up their vocabulary.

“We’re only at the beginning of this and our students still have a lot of ground to make up,” says Skidmore. “But by building their confidence, our phonics work is showing that it is possible to make rapid progress in building some of the foundations for reading and, in the process, make it something kids will enjoy and look forward to.”

The Solon Foundation and the Rising Academy Network are participating in GlobalGiving’s Ebola Match Funding Campaign. From 5am UK time (midnight US East Coast time) on April 1st until the money runs out, all donations to our programme via GlobalGiving will be 100% match funded. So put a reminder in your calendar with a link to this page and make your gift go twice as far!

Teacher Mariatu Sesay
Teacher Mariatu Sesay
 
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