Liberian government abruptly cancels school again

Students at J.J. Roberts United Methodist School in Liberia use one of the large hand-washing stations in this file photo from March 2015. School opened in March after being closed for months due to Ebola. File photo by Nyamah Dunbar, UMNS
Students at J.J. Roberts United Methodist School in Liberia use one of the large hand-washing stations in this file photo from March 2015. School opened in March after being closed for months due to Ebola. File photo by Nyamah Dunbar, UMNS

Barely five months after schools closed because of Ebola were reopened, the Liberian Ministry of Education announced schools would close July 31 to allow the government to overhaul the education system. However, United Methodist schools plan to stay open and offer enrichment programs.

Schools were closed seven months from July 2014 until March 2015 in an effort to curb the spread of the deadly Ebola virus during the outbreak that killed more than 4,800 people in Liberia.

George Werner, the new education minister, said the schools were closing because of issues that have plagued the Liberian educational system since the end of the civil war in 2003. Liberian education is significantly behind most other countries in the region, according to USAID.

Werner announced at his first public briefing that canceling schools would permit the government to strategize and overhaul the system that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has referred to as “a mess.”

Parents, students and school officials reacted negatively. "They just want to confuse us! How will closing schools help our children?" Ma Hawa, a single parent of three children and a street vendor, asked angrily.

Shifting messages

Government direction has been confusing. First, schools were closing June 30 and students would not be promoted. Then, the education ministry said all students, except the two grades that must pass the West Africa Examination Council exams, could be promoted. After even more criticism, the government said all students, including those in the examination classes, could be promoted as long as they had achieved an 80 percent average overall for the first semester.

The latest order was to close all schools on July 31 and reopen on Sept. 7. Students who have met the criteria for passing will be promoted based on their first semester comprehensive average. To take classes requiring the national exams, students will have to take the exam next year or through a private alternative means.

The Association of Christian Mission Schools in Liberia, of which the United Methodist schools are a member, informed the education ministry that they disagreed with closing schools and promotion of students who have not merited the promotion.

“If a student did not get the concept of a square root, for example, promoting them to the next grade without them having mastered the course material will not benefit their performance in the coming year,” said Helen Roberts, the director for General Education for the Liberia Conference.

She advocated keeping United Methodist schools open. The schools will offer an “enrichment program” that will condense the second semester course load and final testing for students and teachers.

James Gwee, vice principal of the denomination’s leading secondary school, J.J. Roberts, said the shortened school year was already presenting problems.

“Both teachers and students are under pressure as the standard teaching and testing periods of the regular school year has been compressed — making teaching and mastering of the materials a challenge.” And, he added, parents are feeling the crunch of the short time in paying the school fees.

But, he said “all sides have to compromise. Parents and students are partners with the administration in ensuring that provide a good education to students.”     

Financial implications

The school cancellations came when parents are already struggling to pay tuition.

“Now, with the cancellation of the year, many parents, particularly in the rural areas, simply pulled their students out of the school without settling their debts for the first semester,” Roberts said.

She said frustrated United Methodist principals have asked her how to respond to parents who angrily claim ‘Why should we pay if the school year is being cancelled?’

“The distinction is that only the second semester is pronounced for cancellation. However, without those fees from parents for services rendered, we have serious issues in paying the teachers and meeting our financial obligations,” she adds.

Liberia has a written policy of free and compulsory primary education for all.  However, public and private schools do charge fees to meet their administrative overhead and operation costs.  

‘From mess to best’

The new education minister’s slogan is: “From mess to best,” which borrows from the president’s earlier complaints about the educational system.

Critics, parents and students question whether Sirleaf’s administration can fix these major problems with just one year left in office.

A staff person at the Ministry of Education said no one would agree to an interview.

John Y. Gayvolor, the national head of the exam council, said exams for 2015 and 2016 will now have to be combined and facilities that can hold such large numbers of students will be hard to find.

Gayvolor said exams will still be offered privately.

Students taking private exams pay a higher fee. The private fee is $3,750 Liberian dollars, approximately $44 U.S dollars. The normal cost for a ninth-grader is $1,850 Liberian, or $22 U.S. The charge for a 12-grade exam is $2,600 Liberian, or $31 U.S.

Civil servants earn between $75 and $100 U.S. per month, according to the government’s published pay rate. The private exams will only be given in Monrovia, meaning that students from across the country who need the exams for college entrance will have to travel to take the exams.

Seniors who cannot afford to take the private exams will have to delay their entrance to college until the following year.

Dunbar, founder of Sankofa Inc. Agribusiness and former program manager in West Africa for United Methodist Committee on Relief, is based in Liberia. Francia T. Wayne, an intern at Radio ELAM in Liberia, contributed to this story. Radio ELAM is the United Methodist radio station.

News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, newsdesk@umcom.org or 615-742-5469.

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