by Rita Apaloo, Board Member & Fundraising Team Chair
On my first visit, I had the opportunity to see the center being used as an elementary school for kids in the community. I observed them in their shared classroom spaces and during recess/lunch break. The youngest kids (Pre-K) met in the covered patio area that holds the hair braiding training and makeshift salon. Grades 1 – 4 are spread out in the multipurpose room with partitions and the sewing room. Grades 5 and 6 are upstairs in attic-type area.
If you missed Part 1 of Rita’s article, click here.
I later found that one-room schoolhouses are commonplace in Liberia. There are not enough schools to meet the demand. So, these schools are popping up everywhere to provide some relief and the kids don’t miss out on early learning skills. I’m not sure how effective these one-room schoolhouses are and if the government evaluates or supports them. There are no free government schools currently.
My mom and I got to speak to the older kids and answer a few questions from them. They were all respectful, insightful and full of hope. We really enjoyed learning about the school and the students. When asked what message they would like to send to current and potential donors, they were full of gratitude and wanted school supplies and any additional help. They promised to work hard, stay in school and always do their best.
As a board member who has been interested and passionate about the vocational training center and concerned about starting an elementary school and stretching our already limited resources, it was hard not to see the blaring needs of the kids, families and surrounding community. In addition, the kids were so excited and already seem to have formed a community through UDS.
During my visit, it certainly was easy to see the huge economic gaps among the people. I was told by an education industry professional that “schools” have become a business in Liberia. Unfortunately, student success is not always a top priority. I also learned that more and more families are looking beyond academics and are interested in extracurricular activities outside the classroom for a rounded education. As a result, some schools focus too much on these activities than the classroom learning, putting students in a deficit when it comes to learning standards. Many students are also hopping from one school to the next, chasing the latest programming or looking for an easy pass to the next class.
All of these and more are affecting the cost of learning from preschool to high school and beyond. The result is that decent education is moving beyond the reach of more and more families and there are no free government schools to fill the gap. This leaves so many children and families without options. Too many children are put to work to help their family survive or they are left to fend for themselves to survive the harsh economic climate in the country.
Another real challenge to education is access to transportation. Community schools are important to families because they are within walking distance with little or no transportation costs. I learned that some kids have to leave the safety and comfort of home and are sent to live with extended family and friends to be closer to a school, in an effort to reduce or avoid transportation fares.
UDS Academy is tuition-free but UDS requires families to buy uniforms from the center, made by the staff and tailoring students. UDS also sells water to students (an in-demand necessity in the city) to raise funds for school operations. In addition, tailoring is an in-demand skill as educational institutions and businesses alike are preferring uniforms over regular clothing. The trend in fashion clothing made with African fabrics is also a large and growing market for tailoring skills.
It was great to meet and chat with UDS faculty. They are passionate about the work and mission and they put student success at the center of everything they do.
People in Liberia are constantly looking for opportunities to improve their circumstances for the better. The leadership and staff of UDS are no different. Having the center provides multiple opportunities to do more and better. I am amazed at the ingenuity of the leadership and staff in finding ways to do more with limited resources. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot but the challenges are real and the problem-solving and entrepreneurial spirit of the staff is admirable. I see my role as a Board Member to investigate, evaluate and support the efforts of UDS leadership and staff to meet the needs of their students, the community, and business, to help build better futures.
Part 3 of Rita’s visit will be shared in our next newsletter. Please stay tuned!