July 24, 2013 | Matt Kucinski

In 2001, following a decade-long civil war, Jo Kuyvenhoven returned to the village in Sierra Leone where her youngest child was born. Since then, the Calvin education professor has returned every year, educating herself about the country, about the circumstances in which children are learning to read and about the level of training teachers receive.

Kuyvenhoven has since become an expert in these areas and was recently asked by World Bank’s Global Partnership for Education to help head up the largest component of the $17.9 million “Revitalize Education Development Project” for Sierra Leone.

“It’s a bit terrifying to carry so much responsibility – for shaping instruction and spending money,” she said.

Leading and collaborating

Kuyvenhoven will take the lead on Component 2 of the three-part project. Her cohorts' task is two-fold: to develop a strategy for teaching reading at primary levels (grades 1-3) and to improve the quality and learning outcomes for 800,000 children in 6,000 schools nationwide.

A large part of her task is to develop the primary school curriculum to include guide books, readers and other teaching and learning materials.  She will be working closely with the Ministry of Education and a consortium of agencies, in a project developed and supported by Global Partnerships for Education.

“With my friends and colleagues, we are thrilled to realize some of our hope for Sierra Leone all along,” said Kuyvenhoven. “A large influx of money is so badly needed. Primary education outcomes are not even at a skeleton level.”

Changing pedagogy

The task is tall indeed. A first national assessment of children’s reading ability, led by Kuyvenhoven, revealed that 96 percent of children who finish three years of school have no independent reading skills.

Kuyvenhoven says some contributing factors include uncertified teachers, very small quantities of books for students and inadequate learning environments. And, while there have been a lot of “band-aid” attempts focused on fixing stuff that surrounds the educational experience, she says the endeavor she’s working on now gets at the core—“this project takes a much more comprehensive look at fixing a pedagogy that hasn’t worked while also attending to all the other parts of the literacy-learning puzzle.”

“You can make a building, but it’s not a school. You can make a classroom, but it’s not a room until a teacher enters,” she said.

Working with teachers

And providing adequate training for those teachers is an effort she’s been at for many years. In 2007, she introduced new methods for teaching reading at Kabala Christian School.  That small rural school now shows a 100 percent passing rate on the national exam in a district where the usual pass rate is about seven percent. 

Kuyvenhoven’s work in Sierra Leone runs deep—she’s done assessments, conducted research and led workshops on teacher training—and her network runs wide—she’s developed a network of language literacy educators spanning the entire country. But, she knows responsibility ultimately lies with her colleagues in Sierra Leone who will be implementing the coming changes. And, she’s committed to collaborating with them on every level and aspect.

“Sustainable change in education and the development of culturally responsive teaching depends on my colleagues’ participation in the process. Actually, it requires their leadership,” said Kuyvenhoven.

Her familiarity with education, on every level, was much facilitated by the grant she received in 2009. The $69,000 grant, given to joint researchers from Calvin College and Milton Margai College in Sierra Leone was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Higher Education for Development (HED). It was used to develop evidence-based responses for professional development of higher-level educators.  Eventually, in 2011 with UNICEF support, that study led to a syllabus for Teacher Training Colleges’ Primary School Language Arts Methodology Courses.

Putting pedagogy into practice

Kuyvenhoven is now excited to incorporate all of the research and assessments into improving literacy outcomes for Sierra Leonean children. 

“These are energetic, clever and bright children and they are eager to learn,” she said. “They have high-level linguistic skills and social interactive abilities, all incredibly rich strengths. Every child in Sierra Leone speaks two languages fluently when they enter school. It’s this vast wealth that hasn’t had an opportunity to flourish.”

Kuyvenhoven’s team is already working on putting together teaching guides, manuals for workshops and is working with the Ministry of Education on curriculum that joins standards with new practices. The team is also authoring, producing and distributing approximately 1.8 million reading books for grades 1-3, so that each student has two different books that are age appropriate.

Also planned is a national reading campaign, which will provide funds to reward students in individual districts.

Note: This fall, Sarah Kluitenberg ’13 will teach in the rural northern Christian school in Kabala.  She will work, mentored by her Sierra Leonean counterparts, teaching in a fourth grade classroom.  She will also offer reading-workshops to other district schools. Nicole Perragaux ’13 will come to Sierra Leone in December and join her and their Sierra Leonean colleagues there.  They are working with Kuyvenhoven and the Schools For Sierra Leone Project in the Teacher Sending program.

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