Bong County - It is 3p.m. in the sleepy town of Salala, Bong County, Liberia. The wind bristles the leaves.
A hawk nosedives to claw a chick from its protective mother amid chirping birds perched on a mango tree. It’s a hot day.
Under the shade of the mango tree, Mandala Kollie flips the page of his copybook, reading intently from his notes on Literature.
The wind continuously blows slightly, sending the sheets in Mandela’s copybook flying.
Mandala is a 7th grader at the Martha Tubman Elementary, Junior and Senior High School.
The elementary section of the school is supported by Bridge PSL following the start of the Government’s Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) program.
The Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) initiative is a collaborative team effort in which all partners work together to dramatically improve public education for the children of Liberia.
The PSL team includes the Government of Liberia and eight innovative education providers, of which Bridge is one.
It also includes the essential, committed efforts of dedicated Liberian teachers, school administrators, parents, and communities.
Mandala recently graduated from the elementary section that is being managed by Bridge PSL.
Already in the second period of the academic year, Kollie emerged as the top student in his class during the 1st marking period of the 2017/2018 academic year. He scored an average of 90.2.
He says that his teachers at Bridge PSL changed his life.
Prior to the start of PSL, education statistics in Liberia were frightening. Only 20% of children enrolled in primary school will complete secondary school. 42% of children are out of school.
50% of children are joining school 3 to 6 years late. 63% of girls between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate. Over 60% of primary school aged girls are out of school. The Liberian Government and the communities it serves want more for their children.
Already in year 2 of its operations in Liberia, Bridge PSL alongside other partners has started to make inroads in the education system described as “a mess” by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Bridge was invited to be part of PSL after the Liberian President and Education Minister went to visit Bridge schools in East Africa.
There, in Kenya Bridge schools have outperformed the nationwide average for three consecutive years, in 2017 scoring 10 percentage points more than the nationwide average, an inspiration for those looking to reform the Liberian system.
And it’s worked, according to an independent assessment of PSL, students have been learning 60% more in just 9 months.
The same assessment revealed that Bridge PSL students have been learning at double the speed of their peers in traditional public schools, receiving the equivalent of a full year of additional schooling.
Over a year, learning gains for students in Bridge PSL schools were equivalent to almost an extra year of schooling for English and over an extra year for Math.
Mandala says he believes that thanks to the education foundation he received in the Bridge managed elementary section his worries of difficulties of graduating to secondary school were wiped away.
“When I graduated out of the Bridge PSL run primary school to 7th grade, the first lesson we took, I came home and read the lesson and realized it was easy because of what I’d already learnt. I used to think 7th grade was hard and I told myself I will always study hard to make a pass,” he says.
“I told myself I can make a pass.”
That began a period of intense studying for Kollie, who lives with his father, a seller in the Salala Market of Bong County.
When the results were out for period one test, Kollie emerged as the top student in his class with an average of 90.2.”
Though the results are out and Mandala is number one, he misses being in the Bridge PSL junior school.
“Bridge PSL did very well for us. Our teachers gave us so much care and were so supportive. We had a lot of books and we spent many hours in the classroom learning; they also put a lot of books on the e-readers for us.”
Under the Bridge PSL system, Mandala left school at 3:30 p.m. each school day having learnt lot.
But now in the junior section, school dismisses at 12:30 p.m., much to his chagrin.
As part of the PSL program Bridge supplies all of its 68 schools with high quality learner materials.
At Martha Tubman Elementary, the social enterprise has supplied the school with 2,608 books since the 2016/2017 academic year.
Enrollment at the primary section of the school is 422 students with an average attendance of 89% while teacher attendance is 95.5%.
Nearly 100 three seater benches were added while the chalkboards were repaired and character boards brought to the classroom.
He looks around and dabbles back to his studies, continuing his dream of one day becoming a medical doctor and believing now that it is really possible.
Mandala Kollie is the top student in his class but others also did very well.
Joseph Vah, 17, is a classmate of Mandala and scored an 88 average to emerge #2 to his classmate.
Vah wants to be a construction engineer when he graduates from high school.
It seems a far cry for a 17-year-old boy in a quaint town where people’s dreams can amount to little. But a determined Joseph said giving up will not be an option and he has been to a school that means he believes in his dreams
He credits his impressive academic performance to what he calls the “Bridge system” in the primary section of his school.
“Bridge taught us how to read—to read and explain. I found the lesson to be very easy.”
Mandala and Joseph’s outstanding performance is by far an incredible feat and also a testament of what students can do if given, strong supported teachers and access to good learning learning resources.
Everyone in the community has been amazed at the achievements happening in the school that has been in the community for years.
Peter Bono, Grade 7 leader, or as they’re known in Liberia - sponsor, at Martha Tubman-Bong says the comportment of the two students in the classroom goes side by side with their academic performance.
“When it comes to the interactive part of the lesson, while other students are feeling reluctant to read, they are always willing to read,” he said.
“Sometimes what we do—we called them to stand in front of the class to explain what they understand of the notes after reading and from that, other students who are unable to understand the lesson can learn from them too.”
Furthering, Bono thinks the reports of Bridge PSL students surpassing their colleagues in traditional public schools is a testament of how carefully trained and supported their teachers are; though he believes that the PSL program needs to be assessed further to see if the green light should be given for all Liberian primary schools to be managed through PSL.
No one is prouder of Mandala and Joseph than Sampson Decee, principal of the elementary section of Martha Tubman.
“I was happy to receive the news that my students in the junior high section topped their classes. We, as administrators, planned to give them a prize for their hard studies.”
Decee recalled when his colleagues from the upper levels of the school would mock that his students would fail if they ventured out of the primary level. But results have proven otherwise.
“They thought that when our children go up there, they wouldn’t do anything. Now they are coming to thank us for the kids. It’s not only Martha Tubman alone - other schools around here, our children went there and they are doing well.”
Sampson believes the secret to his students’ success is the approach taken by Bridge which includes a strong teacher training and coaching and high quality learning resources.
“We have enough learning and instructional materials. When it comes to textbooks, we have enough textbooks in our various classrooms,” he mentioned.
“Our teachers are well trained and show up every day teaching syllabus- aligned lessons.
These lesson plans are developed from the national curriculum by Bridge’s academic team in Monrovia and teachers are able to focus on the teaching.”
Now, Bridge is moving into the south east of Liberia, to help more children get a better education in free public schools.
There will be challenges but the changes that have been seen in other parts of the country are sure to follow.