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This past summer I had the opportunity to travel with a fellow Emory University student and his family to Liberia to learn about the United Methodist school system. What we discovered about the schools was many times puzzling and not often encouraging for the future of the United Methodist education system in Liberia.
With each school we visited, one thing is constant: There is no money. No money to buy new supplies, no money to fix and update facilities, and no money to pay the teachers.
Not having enough money to adequately pay the teaching staff is perhaps the most worrisome issue. With no reliable salary, teachers have less incentive to come to school each morning. With no teachers, there can be no formal education, and with no formal education, it's difficult to see how this healing country can continue on its path to revival.
Before the country's civil wars, which lasted from 1989 to 2003, students were required to pay tuition to attend both public and private schools. This, in a way, leveled the playing field between public and private schooling. In fact, the majority of schools at this time were private, often mission-founded institutions.
Since the passing of the new Education Reform Act in 2011, public school is now required but free for all Liberian youth. Currently, only about one-third of the children of Liberia are attending school as they should be, according to Helen Roberts-Evans, director of the Department of General Education and Ministry for the United Methodist Church in Liberia.
Not only are government schools now free to all, but teachers at public schools are receiving the equivalent of at least $100 U.S. per month from the government for their work.
Roberts-Evans said the difference in tuition among United Methodist schools across the country is incredibly wide-ranging. "It goes from paying in palm oil and plantains to J.J. Roberts, where for high school it's over $200 USD for a semester."
With such an inconsistency - and variety - of tuition methods, teachers are left constantly in limbo, wondering if they'll be paid for their work or left simply as volunteers. Not surprisingly, without the guarantee of a monthly paycheck, many teachers are beginning to leave to teach at government schools.
'The teachers here really care'
Despite so many factors working against the Liberian United Methodist school system, parents continue to put forth the effort to keep their children in these schools.
In some villages, the only established schools are United Methodist schools. This is most prevalent in extremely rural areas, where the only formal education that has reached that part of society has come by way of missionaries. In many of these villages, there is no government school available, and, therefore, if children want to go to school, their parents must find a way to send them to the local United Methodist school.
In an extremely poor village, hardly anyone is actually going to be able to come up with the full tuition amount. If schools were strict on tuition, they would have no students - because of their inability to pay - and would be shut down anyway. So the school continues to run, using whatever income it can generate to pay the teaching staff, and praying in the meantime that the teachers will stay faithful to the education of the schoolchildren.
In many towns we visited, there was both a United Methodist school and a public school. We asked parents why they pay to send a child to this school, when they could go for free at the public school that is in the same village.
Most cited the importance of the child learning Christian morals or getting better discipline or more individual attention than at the government school. Several said they believe many public schoolteachers are only concerned about the guaranteed pay and that "the teachers here really care about their students."
Lacking in high schools
Of all of the United Methodist schools that we visited while in Liberia, only two had high schools for students to continue after the ninth grade. Many school leaders voiced their desire to add a United Methodist high school for students to attend but acknowledged their inability to fund these projects. Some students at United Methodist schools are able to transfer to government schools after the ninth grade so that they can continue on with their high school education, but others are not so lucky.
Students who attend the John Kofi Asmah United Methodist School in Monrovia seldom get the chance to attend high school. The school is in West Point, Monrovia's most impoverished and highly populated slum. It serves as the only junior high school in the area, which has a population of more than 70,000 people. The school provides education for 427 students from kindergarten through ninth grade.
After students reach the ninth grade, their only chance of attending high school is to travel outside of West Point to attend government-run high schools in downtown Monrovia. Because these children live in the most impoverished township in Monrovia, the necessary transportation is seldom readily available to them, leaving thousands of children without a high school education.
More about United Methodists in Liberia
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A light at the end of the tunnel
The situation seems disheartening, but there is encouragement thanks to an organization known as Operation Classroom. Through donated supplies and scholarships, Operation Classroom is a constant presence in helping United Methodist schools throughout the country.
Operation Classroom is a nonprofit organization founded by United Methodist lay leaders in Indiana in partnership with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the Sierra Leone and Liberia Annual Conferences.
Operation Classroom provided schooling for Liberians who fled their country during the bloody civil wars, setting up refugee schools in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. Clothing and basic supplies were provided to war-ravaged towns all over Liberia and Sierra Leone during this period, along with other forms of war relief. Today, Operation Classroom is in partnership with more than 20 schools, two hospitals and several clinics.
As the United Methodist schools of Liberia continue to push forward to educate the youth of West Africa, Operation Classroom's presence will be as necessary as ever.
*Kline is a junior psychology major at United Methodist-related Emory University in Atlanta.
News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].