Brenda is positioning Liberia to collectively invest in literacy by enabling communities to create school libraries and take responsibility for improving the learning outcomes of students.
The New Idea
In a country recovering from over a decade of civil war, during which children were often not in school and education indicators became some of the worst in the world, Brenda is using a simple, cost-effective model to foster a culture of reading as the basis for improving learning outcomes for children. She is enabling under-resourced communities to invest in creating their own public school libraries and to hold their schools accountable to better outcomes.
Public libraries do not exist in Liberia, and school libraries are rare. Where they do exist, they are generally run-down rooms that hold only a handful of state sponsored textbooks. Through partnership with Brenda’s organization, Kid’s Educational Engagement Project (KEEP), communities provide land and labour to create attractive reading spaces, which KEEP helps stock with donated storybooks for children of all ages. Through a two year program of collaboration with the schools, KEEP hosts activities and programs to encourage and support children to read and to sustainably build an institutional wherewithal to enable schools to instil this culture of reading beyond the two year program limit.
Once the community has created a library, Brenda leverages the feeling of ownership to engage parents in developing accountability mechanisms through which they can evaluate the ongoing effectiveness of the public schools. Teams of mothers hold regular meetings with teachers and school officials, using a collaborative approach to ensure that the schools are performing to their full potential, providing value and instilling confidence in the children as well as being responsive to the community they are meant to be serving.
In addition to the work in communities, Brenda runs a national literacy awareness effort to foster support and demand for the grassroots work. For instance, she brings national figures to host reading sessions at the school libraries to highlight the libraries and signal the importance of reading. She also generates support through a fundraising strategy that focuses on raising money not from foreign NGOs but rather from Liberians, both in Liberia and the diaspora, thus further fostering local ownership of the vision.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest school enrolment levels in the world, and Liberia’s education indicators are some of the most lacking on the continent. Less than half the Liberian population of 15- to 24-year-olds are literate, primary school enrolment is also less than half, and about a third of children who start primary school do not finish. In 2013, not a single person passed the entrance exam for the University of Liberia, of 25,000 people who took it.
The Liberian education system is still recovering from a prolonged and brutally destructive period of civil unrest from 1989 to 2003, during which 80% of schools were destroyed or damaged. Long standing effects of these 14 years of civil war, compounded by the 2015 Ebola Viral Disease (EVD) outbreak that again shuttered schools, continue to take a toll on the fragile education system. The civil war also ravaged much of the country’s trained workforce, with many people having fled the country. The education system thus suffers from poor teacher performance; a recent World Bank-funded survey, the Early Grade Reading Assessment, shows that many Liberian primary school teachers lack adequate skills to teach reading, the fundamental tool for learning. Insufficient resources and inadequate infrastructure are also making learning difficult in the country. Of those teachers who are currently employed, most do not show up; teacher presence in government schools, measured by random spot-checking, is only 40%. In the classroom, this results in poor student achievement and a lack of effective classroom management. To put this into perspective, a recent check found that 34% of Liberian students could not read a single word.
Public libraries are non-existent, and the role of libraries is undefined and unfamiliar to most. Some public schools have what they call libraries, but they are mainly storage rooms for government text books that may also be used as teacher break rooms. There is virtually no publishing industry in the country, so the cost of books is high, and there is no widespread reading culture. Reading is not something people generally do for pleasure, and children read only when required in school.
To remedy the severe education failures, The Ministry for Education recently launched a pilot initiative designed to change low-performing public schools into high-performing schools by outsourcing management to private education providers, several of them foreign. The initiative is intended to redesign the framework Liberia uses to deliver primary education. It has had mixed results in its first year, with some gains achieved in the pilot schools but in several cases only after much greater per pupil investment, which likely makes it unscalable. Additionally, there has been criticism of some of the approaches, which in at least one case involves teachers being given inflexible, scripted lessons to read from tablets. Political uncertainties have also made the program’s future highly uncertain.
Recognizing that better education outcomes will ultimately depend on the engagement and investment of the immediate stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, community members—Brenda is creating a community-owned process for fostering reading and improving school outcomes. She enables communities to create spaces that attract children to reading, positions parents to hold schools accountable, and cultivates national awareness around literacy and the importance of reading.
Brenda identifies under resourced public schools by working with the Ministry of Education. The schools are selected based on population, accessibility and community interest. She then goes ahead to foster partnership between the school, family and the community. Through dialogue with the town leader, the chairperson of the local women’s group, the parent teacher association and members of the community she promotes a school environment that is conducive to learning and supports strong family and community partnerships. Brenda develops a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the community, stating the roles that the community, her organization KEEP, and the parent teacher association (PTA) will play in creating a library for the school. At the heart of each agreement is community buy in and agreement to provide the land or space and the labour for the construction or renovation of a library; she ensures that the land or building to be used is owned by the community and not rented or personal property to ensure the school library belongs to the community and cannot be taken away in the future. The PTA is usually responsible for the library construction and integration of its use into the school. KEEP is responsible for the design and oversight of the project, providing children’s books associated with a weekly reading program and teacher training for up to two years.
She supports teachers in teaching children how to read by engaging specialists to train the teachers twice a year. Part of this training includes strategies to promote reading in children and classroom management. She organizes book donations and book drives through the Liberian diaspora and partners with Books for Africa where she gets donations of non-academic books designed to help children develop interest in reading. So far, she has received up to 20,000 books and distributed 8,000 books to six reading rooms in Liberia, each reading room takes about 1000-1500 books. To receive these donated books, she partners with a shipping company to deliver shipments of books twice a year. After a period of two years Brenda exits and allows the school and the community to take full ownership of the library.
Along with embedding the library into the communities, she also organizes weekly reading programs for children. In doing so, the children are encouraged to read, and this helps them to develop interest in reading. For these specific programs, her focus is on children from 1st-6th grade. Brenda has also developed a teacher’s guide on how to promote reading within the schools.
Important in her strategy is that she is involving community members in supporting their young people. Brenda gets volunteers and PTA members to participate in weekly reading sessions with the children. During these sessions students are made to learn one new word every week and take turns reading to each other. This interaction with the students and community members also enables kids to explore other things such as storytelling, drawing and colouring. In addition, after each session, she tests the child's the children’s comprehension growth.
As a result of the involvement of communities in building school libraries, the mothers of children in schools are now involved in holding schools accountable for the way they operate. The mothers who were initially excluded from community development are empowered putting them in charge of monitoring how things are run in the schools where their children are educated. They ensure that schools in the communities are held accountable for the way they teach children, they monitor teachers teaching methods and ensure that schools deliver on their responsibilities. Mother’s in the community monitor the schools on a bi-monthly basis. Brenda trains them on what to ask and how they learn to take collaborative rather than a combative approach to holding the schools accountable to their deliverables.
Along with her work in the schools, Brenda is also creating a national awareness about literacy and reading in Liberia. To gain buy-in she partners with high level individuals to promote reading; The former President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf, the wife of the current President and a lot of other well-meaning Liberians have all joined efforts with Brenda to raise awareness. She also uses her radio programs to stir up conversations about the reading rooms and get people to start understanding the need for children to develop a reading culture to help improve learning outcomes.
So far Brenda has set up 6 reading rooms and 2 community centres in Liberia and reached 5000 students, there is now a national awareness about the reading deficiency among children in Liberia and there is also a national awakening on the need for libraries. Furthermore, more communities are advocating for construction of Libraries in their communities.
As a result of her program teachers are showing up more often to teach children, there is increased reading of both recreational books as well as academic books. Students are making use of the reading rooms and taking turns during school periods to read for one hour. Brenda intends to conduct an impact assessment within the next year to develop data around her work.
She has been able to change the mindset of Liberians from that of dependency to donors, Liberians in Liberia and the diaspora invest a lot towards building the schools libraries, she is also getting companies to sponsor the reading rooms and working with local groups like the rotary clubs and Masons. In the next 5 years Brenda intends to have 1 reading room in each county in Liberia.
Brenda was a teenager when the civil war broke out in Liberia, her family had to flee to the rural part of Liberia where she was restricted to the house because her parents felt she would be an easy target since she was a young girl at the time. In the house where her family stayed there was a library filled with books. She kept herself busy by reading the books in the library and this opened her up to discover the power of books and how they can help to transform the life of an individual.
As a result of the war Brenda’s family moved around and this made her change schools often, in one of the communities they found refuge Brenda started a garden. When she harvested her farm produce she would take them to the market to sell and used the profit she made to take care of her needs and assist her mother financially. Her step father played an active role in the rebel faction during the war and this had an impact on her life. It gave her the confidence in her ability to lead and as a result she ran for Class President in her secondary school and came out successful.
Brenda started a career in human resources after her University Education and rose in her career to become one of the most popular HR experts in Liberia. She was a reference for US embassies for the whole of Liberia. She started a HR blog to relate how the law affected HR practice in Liberia, sharing insights and best practices to help people in that field.
The government of Liberia closed all schools in the country as an effort to help curb the spread of the Ebola virus disease. This prompted Brenda B Moore to start home-schooling her two young children. She printed out free worksheets from online that matched the Liberian national curriculum and did daily exercises with her children. While doing this, she realized that other children in her community were idle during the period and decided to also reach out to them.
Along with her husband and children, Brenda prepared 150 educative packets that contained math and English worksheets, colouring pages, included learning supplies like crayons, pencils, sharpeners, erasers, etc. and each week, would take a new set of lessons to the children in her immediate community. If the families worked with the children and they completed the lessons, she would give a new set. All at no cost to the parents. Members of her community thought it was a good idea and joined the weekly outreach activities and it grew to about 25 volunteers. The volunteers were all from diverse backgrounds. Ultimately, the initiative reached over 7000 children in 7 months in more than 70 communities in Liberia.
This grassroots interactive experience helped Brenda realize that despite the numerous benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play had been markedly reduced for school children in Liberia. The children had their free play reduced in their schedules to make room for more academics, the education system had failed immensely, many of the teachers were in dire need of training and this prompted her to strengthen the educational system to increase children’s reading abilities.