Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Aida’s story: “I like to learn. I want to know more for my future”

Aida Mesquita, 14, leaves for school. Aida is in the fifth grade
at Sarlala Basic Education Filial (satellite) School,
a UNICEF-supported Child Friendly School in Aileu Municipality.
 Timor-Leste. @UNICEF Timor-Leste/2015/klynch
When she was just five years old, Aida Mesquita followed her older siblings to their local school and started the first grade. “It was really noisy,” she remembers, “there were two grades in a single classroom and it was crowded, so it was hard to concentrate.” The teacher stood in front of the rows of desks and talked. “If we didn’t pay attention, the teachers would punish us. It made me scared to be at school.”

At the end of the year, Aida dropped out. Like more than 70 per cent of students in Timor-Leste who complete grade one, she could not read a single word.

Two years later, with a push from the teachers and her parents, Aida, then eight years old, returned to school to repeat the first grade. She found that things had changed. UNICEF had supported the Ministry of Education to train her teachers in the ‘Eskola Foun’, or Child Friendly Schools approach.

“The method of teaching was different,” she says, “and every grade had its own classroom so it was easier to learn. There were also more activities and the teachers explained things to us in a way that I could understand.”

Born in 2002, the same year her country was officially recognized as Asia’s newest nation, Aida’s story is all too common. Even today, only 54 per cent of students in Timor-Leste enter grade one at the correct age—some enter too young, and some too old. A few, like Aida, do both. And while drop out rates have decreased significantly, repetition rates, especially in the early grades, are still very high: almost 30 per cent of students in grade one do repeat the first year of school.

Aida Mesquita, 14, and the other members of her group work together
on a project in their fifth grade class. @UNICEF Timor-Leste/2015/klynch
It is a story that is closely linked to her country’s difficult birth, during which most of the country’s schools were destroyed and almost all of its teachers left, leaving Timor-Leste to rebuild its entire education system from the ground up.

UNICEF has partnered with the government since 1999, adapting its response to the changing needs of this growing system. Initially this meant constructing classrooms, but since 2009 it has meant turning its focus to the quality of education children are receiving in those classrooms. 

UNICEF’s Child Friendly School principles—which make teaching child-centered, and inclusive and place a premium on interactive teaching and learning—were first introduced in Timor-Leste in 2009. Adopted by the government in 2014, they are now officially included in teacher training packages and form the basis for the country’s revised curriculum, which was developed by the Ministry of Education with UNICEF support in 2014.

There is still much to do. Today almost 34,000 of the country’s 316,074 children in basic education are enrolled in 121 UNICEF-supported child friendly schools throughout Timor-Leste. And to date, just 600 of the country’s 8,557 basic education teachers and facilitators have been trained in the child friendly school approach. These numbers should grow rapidly, however, as the Ministry of Education, with UNICEF’s support, rolls out the approach nationwide, thereby ensuring that in the not too distant future all children in Timor-Leste receive the kind of quality education Aida now enjoys.
Teacher Aleixo Dias helps Aida Mesquita, 14, at the chalkboard;
Sarlala Basic Education Filial (satellite) School, Aileu Municipality.
Timor-Leste. @UNICEF Timor-Leste/2015/klynch
Today Aida is in the fifth grade. She has remained in school and is doing well. “I like school,” she says. “I like the way they teach us. We sit in groups and learn with our friends. And if we talk, the teachers do not get angry at us, so we talk freely.” Asked what she likes best about school Aida says, “I like to learn. I want to know more for my future.”

Like this new nation, Aida has big hopes for her future: she wants to learn the Korean language so that she can work overseas to help her parents and ten siblings. Her ultimate dream is to become a doctor. With a quality education, she may have a chance.

By Kelley Lynch

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