Promotion of Community Schools through Teacher Training
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
The Worldwide Bahá’í Community’s Approach to Social and Economic Development
Prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development
A pressing concern of the Bahá’í community over the decades has been the extension of pre- and primary school level academic instruction in regions of the world where the reach of the national education system is significantly limited. In the 1970s and early 1980s, simultaneous to the introduction by the Bahá’í community of large academic schools throughout the world, a global campaign was launched to promote tutorial schools—schools with modest facilities, typically in rural settings, and usually managed by local Bahá’í institutions. Numerous Bahá’í communities around the world were successful in establishing such schools. However, in the absence of institutional capacity at the regional or national levels to support their continued progress, it proved impossible to sustain them.
Over time, two Bahá’í development organizations emerged in Africa, one in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the other in Mali, to promote community schools through the provision of a coherent teacher-training program. The evolution of the efforts of Fondation Nahid et Hushang Ahdieh in CAR is described in more detail on page 20. Informed by the experience accumulated by these two agencies, as well as previous insights gained over the decades, in 2007 OSED outlined elements of a strategy to assist, in a systematic way, the establishment of community schools in countries where the institutional and human resources exist to embark on such an effort.
Since that time, a growing number of Bahá’í-inspired agencies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific have been working toward the multiplication of community schools in villages and towns. As their number has grown, arrangements have gradually been put in place to facilitate the sharing of learning among these agencies. For instance, a few organizations with significant experience have begun to act as training centers for emerging agencies—assisting them in their efforts to develop and refine their teacher-training program. In Africa, a secretariat for the network of agencies in the continent promoting community schools has been in operation to help develop the institutional capacity of these organizations and to systematize the knowledge being gained across the region.
At this time, there are 26 organizations promoting the establishment of community schools in 20 countries. Collectively, these organizations support approximately 1,400 teachers in 420 schools with 28,000 students.
Elements of an Emerging Approach
Drawing primarily on locally available resources, community schools often begin with a single class at the preschool level. They expand organically according to circumstances in the locality, gradually adding more teachers and grade levels up until the last year of primary school. Some have advanced beyond the primary level. While there is as yet no comprehensive curriculum being used across all community schools, all seek to integrate academic and spiritual curricular elements and aim to raise up individuals of refined character and keen intellect who, in time, can contribute to the material, social, and spiritual progress of their society.
At the heart of the work of the organizations is the development of a teacher-training program that helps build the capacity of youth and adults to offer pre-primary and primary academic instruction to children in their communities. These organizations are animated by a vision of raising up teachers who are “distinguished for their high standards of conduct and general excellence” and are “scholars and educators with a thorough knowledge of sciences and arts.” The approach to teacher training seeks to integrate theory and practice by creating regular opportunities for the teachers to study relevant content and to reflect with others on the experience they are gaining in the classroom.
A basic conviction held by these organizations is that local communities can be protagonists in providing for the education of their children. In this regard, experience has underscored the importance of communities having a sense of ownership of the process of education and supporting the establishment of a school, both in principle and in practical terms. Thus, much of the effort of the organizations is focused on helping communities explore their aspirations for the education of their children and on assisting them to consider how they can take charge of meeting this imperative. An initial step that communities take in response to this rise in consciousness is that of identifying individuals from within their localities to whom they can entrust the education of the younger generations. Once schools are established, community members often demonstrate their commitment to sustaining them in a variety of ways beyond the payment of school fees. For instance, they provide food for the students and teachers, contribute land, assist with the construction of classrooms, and maintain school agricultural plots.
Experience gained in various parts of the world, including the examples cited in this section, offer a glimpse as to the potential that exists when a spirit of reciprocity and mutual support is established among various actors concerned with the education of children—the school, the teachers, the parents, and the community at large. Rather than being seen as a passive deliverer of content, a teacher can be an essential protagonist, along with other collaborators, in the spiritual and intellectual development of children and in the overall progress of a community. In addition to assisting children to acquire knowledge in various branches of learning, teachers can help to nurture a culture of learning in a community, cultivate a spirit of service to others, and promote the application of principles such as love and unity. As an integral component of the life of a population, a community school can contribute to learning for the entire community as it gains in strength. Often in simple ways and as an organic extension of the service it is carrying out, a community school can aid the advancement of various aspects of community well-being such as agriculture and health and can provide access to wider knowledge through means such as the establishment of a library.
Glimpses from around the World
Papua New Guinea
The Sunrise Community School in Papua New Guinea is among a growing number of community schools that is being supported by an organization in the country named the Rays of Light Foundation. The school was established in 2009 in Milne Bay Province as a preschool, and it celebrated the graduation of students from grade 6 for the first time in December 2015. Over the years, the community assisted it to build classroom facilities, establish an agricultural field to run experiments, and create a library. The school has a parent-teacher association which oversees its management. Together with the help of the community, the association has ventured into such projects as vanilla production and constructing a school canteen. The students continue their education in public schools upon graduation and are distinguished in their further studies by their intellectual capacity and upright character.
The population in the Monduli district in the Arusha region of Tanzania is mainly nomadic and the majority of its members have never received a primary school education. Although reluctant to send their young children to distant schools in the district, parents supported the concept of community schools. Since these schools provide children with access to academic education while they remain under the care of their parents, the children could continue to learn about values and qualities relevant to the life of the population. In natural ways, the influence of the school extended beyond the student body. For instance, in one village, mothers of students observed that since they did not know how to read and write, they could not assist their children with the work that they were doing in the school. When they raised this concern with the teacher, he sought the assistance of the Foundation to develop a simple literacy class and started to offer it in the afternoons, open to all the mothers in the village. “We first built the school for the children; now this school is for the entire community as well,” they said.
In Swaziland, some community schools have begun to be viewed as social spaces that belong to all and that can help strengthen certain facets of community life. The Asibemunye Community School, which has been offering preschool education since 2010, placed emphasis on educating its students about the importance of hygiene and sanitation. Students would take these lessons home, encouraging their families to improve certain practices, such as the regular washing of linen. This process of raising awareness was reinforced by visits from the teacher and gradually helped bring about noticeable improvements in the health of the community. For example, scabies—a highly contagious skin disease that would break out annually in the community—was eliminated over time. Recognizing the important role that the community-school teacher played in this process, the Ministry of Health has started collaborating with teachers in order to assist with raising consciousness about how to improve the health of communities.
Central African Republic
In the Central African Republic, years of conflict have led to suffering and regular interruptions to patterns of community life. In the capital city of Bangui, nearly all of the schools were shut down during the most recent war, which began in 2013. However, several of the community schools were able to remain open and even provide education to children from other schools that had been forced to close. At the same time, in many rural areas, entire communities were forced to flee and resettle in forest areas when subject to potential attacks. While teachers from urban centers returned to the cities, teachers of community schools relocated with their respective communities. This allowed them to re-establish a pattern of providing education in their temporary locations and helped bring a degree of stability to their communities in the midst of uncertainty. In some localities, the qualities demonstrated by these teachers put them in a unique position to assist the local population in other ways during the conflict. In one village, for instance, a leader of one of the groups involved in the battle requested to speak with the members of the community. The community agreed, on condition that the discussions were held at the school and were led by its teachers. In the same locality, when government and nongovernmental agencies started to deliver material assistance, the inhabitants of the village gave the teachers the responsibility for distributing resources, trusting that they would discharge the duty with fairness and justice.