Monrovia - A Presidential endorsement may help a childhood literacy program continue to grow.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf visited a learning center on July 23 operated by the Kids Educational Engagement Project (KEEP) in Paynesville.
The visit provided a positive photo-op for a President who oversees a troubled education system. While her visit to KEEP was short, it could still make a big difference for KEEP, which has struggled recently with funding but has big ambitions to transform education nationwide.
Founder Brenda Moore, 37, said in an interview that the visit provided a needed boost as the project continues to expand. She also sent a bigger message when she read from a book called “I Love Liberia” and quizzed students about whether they understood the meaning behind the words, according to Moore.
“She did something very encouraging because she tried to get comprehension out of them,” said Moore. “It shows that she understands the culture of reading.”
Moore wants to court new donors so that KEEP can open two learning centers in Gbarpolu and Montserrado counties. A building at one site remains empty while the other has yet to be built.
A March trip to a UN conference in New York City failed to secure new funding, but Moore remains determined to find a way for a project that emerged during a time of national crisis.
KEEP after all has always been about keeping learning alive.
The project began two years ago after schools nationwide shutdown during the Ebola crisis. At first Moore and others distributed reading and math work sheets so that children could learn from home. They funded this effort through personal resources and the local community. Social media later became indispensible as the project expanded to thousands of children throughout Montserrado County, said Moore.
People from inside and outside the country contributed money and school supplies. College students tutored children. Moore even found herself with an unexpected problem.
“I actually had to tell people: ‘No, we have too many volunteers,’” said the mother of two.
Once the crisis subsided and schools reopened, the time had also come to create a formal organization. Three thousand dollars raised during the crisis funded the construction of the learning center in Paynesville, which includes a library teeming with books and a computer lab. The Kids Educational Engagement Project became the official name.
It focuses on primary school children but helps students as old as their early 20s learn. Reading remains the focus and illiteracy the enemy.
“A lot of Liberians don’t make time to really encourage the children to read so the reading proficiency of many of the students is actually really low,” said Moore. “We realize a lot of children are going through school, but not actually learning.”
Only some Liberian children even have the opportunity to go to school. About 40 percent of boys and girls attend primary school and only two-thirds of them complete it, according to UNICEF. About 60 percent of male youth ages 15-25 years old can read, but only 37 percent of females.
KEEP aims to improve those statistics by engaging parents as well as children. The project encourages families to become more involved in their children’s schooling. They can do this by encouraging their kids to read and allowing them to participate in after school programs rather going home to hours of chores after school, said Moore.
Some parents involve themselves more directly in the KEEP mission.
Benjamin Solanke, 49, came on July 23 to read to the children before the Sirleaf visit. He led about 15 children through a book called “Time to Bathe,” which promotes the value of listening to one’s parents — especially in stinky situations.
The end of the civil war has brought more than a decade of peace, but not enough progress on education. Solanke. Rather than wait for the government to solve this problem by itself, community members must step up to help educate a generation that can take Liberia further away from a tragic past, according to Solanke
Like the Kids Educational Engagement Project, the government needs all the help it can get.
“The country needs to invest we ourselves have to be part of this investment,” he said. “If people like us who have children begin to show interest in their children, take time off to more enjoy their progress in school, pay attention to their studies, talk to their teachers, things will get better.”