Every September, the United Nations observes International Literacy Day. An opportunity to assess our accomplishments and reaffirm our collective commitment to literacy, it recognizes the ability to read and access to education as a fundamental human right that impacts all facets of our society. As students in the US and Europe return to the classroom, we reflect on the way dZi’s Quality Education Program has improved learning spaces in our partner communities and what more needs to be done.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, local and national governments explored ways for students to continue their academic progress while protecting their health. In most of Nepal, schools were closed indefinitely. The Nepali Government proposed a remote education model to weather the unprecedented times and administrators worked hard to create remote learning opportunities for students. However, many children in dZi’s mountainous partner communities lacked digital devices and access to the internet or cellphone service. Their educational curriculum might have been available online, but without access to internet, this was too great a barrier for students to overcome. In communities that already struggled to receive enough support for their rural schools, the challenges of inclusivity and equity were made much more pressing by the digital transformation of national education.
The abrupt and widespread transition to online learning presents both an opportunity for innovation and the risk of widening the existing gaps in access. With all of this in mind, dZi’s Quality Education Program (QEP) looked at the new educational landscape in our partner communities and how the program could be delivered more equitably and effectively. Staff began by creating the Ideas Fund –an initiative that invited teachers to propose creative solutions that would help students stay academically engaged during the COVID-19 lockdown. As detailed in a previous blog, teacher Binod Dahal developed a program in our partner community of Rakha to engage students in small group learning. But as successful as the Ideas Fund was, it could only serve a limited number of students. It was crucial to take a more holistic approach to rural education and work with local leaders to make their existing learning spaces more effective, engaging, and equitable.
QEP staff began by investing in the student’s early education, where children develop their foundation for learning. Madhu Rai, a teacher at Shishu Secondary School in Maheswori, recently participated in an early childhood development training organized by dZi. From learning how to help students stay engaged during the school day to receiving child-friendly furniture for her classroom, Madhu has seen an increase in student attendance and engagement. Her students are having more fun in class, are more interested in her curriculum, and she feels more confident in her teaching techniques. While an engaging primary school teacher won’t ensure an educated adult, it can help students create a healthier relationship with learning and the self-confidence needed to pursue their personal growth. This is a small but significant step toward a more prosperous community.
Just as disengaged students can be reluctant to invest in their education, a lack of adequate infrastructure is a barrier to school attendance. In the Shree Jyoti Basic School of Maheswori, Khotang District, toilets were filthy and lacked running water. Bathroom doors often did not lock and provided limited privacy. Students had little choice but to go back to their home or the nearby house of an acquaintance to use the bathroom. Kosh Kumar Rai, the school's headmaster, realized their inadequate bathroom facilities were having a serious impact on student attendance – especially for young women who didn’t have a hygienic space to use while on their periods. Kosh Kumar worked with dZi to build bathrooms that students felt safe using. Since dZi completed the new facilities, attendance levels have risen and school staff feel that it has helped create gender-responsive spaces that cater to the specific needs of previously disadvantaged girls.
While safe and adequate spaces to learn are fundamental to academic growth, a community’s engagement in the learning process is essential to student success. To help communities stay involved in local education, Nepal requires a School Management Committee (SMC) for each state-supported school. Made up of parents, administrators, and dedicated community members, an SMC is a place for stakeholders to take a holistic view of the educational process. It allows parents to learn about proposed curriculum changes, provides a space for teachers to learn about their student’s life at home, and results in local children receiving a more complete education. However, a lack of training, support, and investment has meant that many schools have not formed (or properly utilized) their SMC.
To help kickstart community involvement in Shree Mayur Primary School, Khotang District, dZi and our local NGO partner held a capacity-building training for Shree Mayur’s SMC. The training helped members learn the importance of their roles, understand how to advocate for student success more effectively, and develop achievable goals that would improve their school’s learning environment. Surabir Rai, the school’s principal, says, “We need these types of training more frequently as it will positively contribute towards school’s development and motivate parents and community members toward greater ownership and accountability.” After the SMC training, Surabir Rai observed parents and teachers participating in the school’s sanitation program, planting trees around the grounds, and taking on other projects they had identified during their SMC training. A dedicated community can make all the difference in the lives of young students.
From Kathmandu to rural Nepal, education is unique to each community. Although every student’s needs may be different, a love of learning is a path to opportunity and understanding in a rapidly changing world. As Nepal straddles the divide between traditional and digital teaching methods, dZi’s Quality Education Program is working hard to ensure students in our partner communities don’t suffer from a widening gap in access. By improving students’ experience, investing in more equitable infrastructure, and mobilizing parents and community members to support the educational process, dZi hopes to foster a generation of engaged, dedicated, and empowered students.