Leaders From the Field: The Inspiration of a Single School

By Brett McNaught, Vice President of International Programs

Many don’t realize that buildOn’s work in remote villages around the world doesn’t end with the completion of a school. Most of our schools are built according to government guidelines so that the countries in question furnish (and support) local teachers that will educate these communities. But in order to ensure our program’s success, we continually keep track of each school’s progress. We analyze enrollment numbers to see if girls and boys are being taught in equal numbers. We also look at what grades are filling up and determine what villages need additional buildings. We know the importance of every single classroom in our mission to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education. And very often, these statistics tell remarkable stories about the impact that a single school can have on impoverished regions.

[pullquote]Immediately after our first school opened in Mali, enrollment exploded…but then, unexpectedly and without warning, it began to dip.[/pullquote]

We’ve been building schools in Mali for over a decade, but perhaps the most memorable of these was our very first. Nestled in the very remote village of Massamakana, the structure was completed in May of 1998, fulfilling a widespread desire among local residents to better themselves and their world through the power of learning. I was unsurprised that almost immediately after the school opened, enrollment exploded. And within only a few years, they would add more buildings in order to meet the demand for higher grade levels.

A decade went by with steadily increasing numbers. We were impressed every time our contacts in the region reported back — the people of Massamakana were truly dedicating to learning. But then, unexpectedly and without warning, enrollment in the tiny village began to dip.

Puzzled and worried that something had happened to make the residents of Massamakana disillusioned towards education, I made the trip out to the village myself to seek an explanation. On the way I was reminded of how truly remote the area is – we were far out in the bush where rarely-sighted chimps and monkeys roam the trees.

I finally entered Massamakana and was relieved to discover that its school buildings and programs were intact and in use. I began talking to elders who I thought might have witnessed the reason for the decline in enrollment numbers. I explained my confusion to them: Massamakana’s schools were producing the highest test results in the region, and a lot of kids were moving to other, bigger cities to go to high school. So why the shift?

After a few conversations, the answer began to take shape. buildOn built the first school in Massamakana in 1998, and it filled up immediately. Another school was constructed shortly after for grades 4-6, and it, too, was soon over-capacity. These schools were not only educating Massamakana’s children — all the villages in the region were sending their kids on very long walks to attend.

[pullquote]Eventually, surrounding villages became motivated by the changes the schools brought to Massamakana. They organized, lobbied, and got schools of their own built.[/pullquote]

Eventually, these surrounding villages became motivated by the changes the schools brought to Massamakana. They organized, lobbied, and got schools of their own built by other NGOs. And, slowly, children from miles away who’d been journeying to class in Massamakana didn’t have to walk so far. Enrollment became more evenly spread throughout the region, and the student-to-teacher ratio improved. From one single school came very many.

buildOn recognizes not only a desperate need for education worldwide but a deep desire for education to harness and convert into action. The above story illustrates how buildOn’s programs truly engage leaders who, once given the proper tools, change their situation and inspire others to do the same. We were proud to have been a part of Massamakana’s first steps out of extreme poverty — steps that that made an entire region rethink its realm of possibility.