Damiefa School: affordable private education in one of the world’s poorest countries

Damiefa School is a private kindergarten & primary school in Liberia. It was founded by my parents – Dabwe Wiah (Liberian) and Mineke Muilerman (Dutch) – in 1982. It’s also where I completed my primary education.

In the seven years between 1982 and 1989 (start of the civil war where my mother went missing), it became one of premier kindergarten & primary schools in the Greater Monrovia area.

My parents ran the school as a business with a strong social component. They used part of the proceeds to develop the community that was eventually named Dabwe Town to honour their efforts. This meant bringing in piped water, electricity, did basic road development, and building several wooden bridges. These investments were possible because the school was immensely successful due to its reputation for quality education.

During the war, the school was badly damaged. It eventually shut down in 2012. Mineke Foundation – the NGO that I founded in 2009 – started renovation in 2021 and reopened the school later that same year.

Primary education in Liberia

In Liberia, over 70% of the population lives below the poverty line (3.55 million out of a population of about 5 million). 40% of the population is younger than 15.

Education is a big challenge. Quality education is an every bigger challenge. UNICEF says that Liberia lags behind most other African countries in nearly all education statistics.

  • Only about 54% of Liberian children complete primary school.
  • At any given time, about 20% of primary-school-aged children are out of school. This is one of the lowest rates in the world!
  • When children do attend primary school, the World Bank says that nearly 40% of them are three or more years older than they should be for their grade (overage students). This leads to dropouts.
  • Then there’s the fact that there are way too few teachers for even these limited numbers of students. Plus the fact that only about 65% of these teachers are qualified to teach the grade they teach.

All together, this makes for a challenging work environment.

I have the same vision for the school that my parents had: a commercially successful venture that offers affordable education and invests part of its proceeds in the community. But today’s Liberia isn’t the same as yesteryear’s relatively stable Liberia.

So, how do we build a commercially successful school that offers affordable education to all children in one of the poorest countries of the world? Our approach consists of seven building blocks.

The seven building blocks

1. High-quality education

Damiefa School is a private school. This means that, in addition to the compulsory national curriculum, our educational programme can incorporate best practices from the Netherlands and the United States. We also work to create synergy between all subjects in the curriculum and introduce modern pedagogy.

Example: reading

Reading is (obviously) an important subject in the national curriculum. We expanded on this by:

  • Adding a created-for-Liberia reading comprehension curriculum that improves reading skills. This has a positive impact on kids’ comprehension of all other subjects. Liberia Reads! created this method, trains our teachers and provided pedagogical materials.
  • Supporting the reading comprehension curriculum with a designed-for-Damiefa-School Art Education programme that integrates topics from the national curriculum, elements from the reading comprehension curriculum and various children’s books. Our Art Education programme also builds kids’ motor, creative and social skills. It was designed by Dutch and American educators.
  • This whole thing is complemented by a mini library with children’s books that build on all the subjects in our curriculum. In fact, you could say that kids simply can’t get away from any subject at Damiefa! 🙂

Just over two years in, our teachers are already seeing a marked difference between kids who completed a full year (or more) of education at Damiefa School and new students. Our existing students have (significantly) higher skill and comprehension levels than new kids.

(This caused a new problem, by the way: how to help the new kids catch up?  We created a tailored programme for them with additional lessons and extra attention from the teacher.)

As is our way, we’re adjusting as we go and learning through trial and error, always with a clear focus on offering the best possible education that we can.

2. Affordable education

Students at Damiefa School

Liberia is one of the poorest countries of the world and Damiefa School is located in an area with few wealthy families. There are families who can afford to pay school fees, but there are also many families who are really struggling to make ends meet. This means that many children start and stop school depending on whether their parents can afford to pay the fees.

We want Damiefa School to be affordable, including for children from the poorest families.

We could tackle this by charging very low school fees. This would make the school affordable for poor families, but effectively subsidise wealthier families. It would also make it difficult for the school to break even financially. Plus, if we build our teachers’ capacity but can’t raise salaries, they won’t stay very long. That would have a negative impact on our educational quality.

What to do?

First of all, we charge school fees. We also designed a growth strategy to become financially independent in a number of years. This means that the school must generate (at least) enough income to cover operational expenses. Until then, a funder covers the shortfall. We monitor progress tightly.

We also introduced a scholarship fund. It offers two types of scholarships to ensure that the poorest parents can afford to send their children to Damiefa School and to incentivise all parents to let children focus on their lessons.

So far, this is working well and the school is growing, with a good representation from the poorest families. We will likely continue tweaking this in the years ahead.

3. Strong parent engagement

children and parents at Damiefa School

We engage parents through Parent Teacher Association meetings, through events at school and by visiting their homes. This helps to show them what we’re doing, why we do what we do and how this impacts their child’s education.

We also put a lot of effort into identifying children that are not in school and work with their parents to get these kids into Damiefa School. This usually means coming up with a tailored plan for individual families.

Parent engagement also happens through a chat group where we – among other things – share important announcements and updates about the school and their kids. Most of our parents are members and engagement is high and positive.

4. Teacher capacity building

Damiefa School teachers

If we want Damiefa School to stand out for its quality education, we’ll need qualified teachers. We build teacher capacity in three ways: in house, through our local partner Liberia Reads! and with support from our international volunteers.

  • In house: we organise workshops to build teachers’ capacity in multiple areas. This could be structuring their work week, creating lesson plans, including them in strategy sessions, or teaching them how to type and use a computer. We’ve also introduced ‘positive discipline’ at our school. Simply put: no physical punishments and no hurtful verbal discipline. Our teachers find this challenging, but are eagerly trying out the tools and strategies that we’ve provided.
  • Through Liberia Reads!: Liberia Reads! (LR!) is a local NGO founded by two Americans: Lyn Gray and Geri Melosh. LR! trains our teachers in basic pedagogical skills so that they can deliver high quality reading comprehension lessons to students. A great byproduct is seeing our teachers head into our mini library on their breaks to check out books – either to prepare lessons or for leisure as they too (re)discover the joy of reading.
  • Through our international volunteers: two volunteers – both teachers – lead the development of our Art Education programme in close collaboration with the school leadership team. Sometimes, this looks like a call to talk about teachers’ experiences working with the Art Education curriculum. Other times, this might be trying out a new Art Education assignment together (a recent one was origami folding, with much hilarity ensuing). We also have an international volunteer in Liberia working directly with the team.

6. Giving back

We’re always looking for ways to give back to the community.

Example: sponsoring community events

In 2024, Damiefa School will sponsor two community events in Dabwe Town: the Blocks League and the Spelling Bee & Quizzing Competition.

The Blocks League is a sports competition between the four neighbourhoods – blocks – of the community. It has high engagement and there is stiff competition between the blocks.

The Spelling Bee & Quizzing Competition is a competition that is open to all school-aged children in Dabwe Town. Winners receive a highly coveted award & gift bag containing school supplies as well as a (partial) scholarship to Damiefa School.

These activities were selected because they align with our goals. We believe that sports are a good way to build social skills and keep people healthy. And as a school, well, we care a lot about all things educational.

It’s also a way for us to build on our good relationship with the Dabwe Town leadership – including its youth leaders – and build our reputation.

Another way in which we give back is by creating economic opportunities for community members, especially those who are involved in our programmes. For example, Damiefa School needed a Teacher’s Aid to help with the youngest children (bathroom breaks etc). We also needed someone to help prepare lunch for the kids. Both – paid – positions have been filled by parents.

7. Synergy with Mineke Foundation (MF)

The school is a separate legal entity, but Mineke Foundation’s leadership team provides oversight. For the past few years, our focus has been on renovating the school, with help from a Dutch family trust. With renovation work well underway, we’re shifting our focus to boosting synergy between our programmes.

Damiefa School focuses on kids aged 4 – 16 years. MF focuses on youth (15+) and women.

  • Participants in MF’s projects often have kids who could attend Damiefa School.
  • MF runs the Resource Center that houses our mini library, computer lab and Art Education center, plus lots of toys and educational games. It’s currently used by Damiefa School and MF and will also open to kids from surrounding communities in 2024.
  • Women in MF’s Women’s Club have asked us to offer adult literacy and numeracy classes. This could be an add-on for Damiefa School.
  • MF and Damiefa School offer jobs, work placements and volunteer opportunities to youth and women through our programmes.
  • Kids at Damiefa School often have older siblings who could participate in MF’s youth programmes.
  • Youth graduating from Damiefa School can participate in MF’s employability and entrepreneurship programmes and get micro loans + coaching to start a business.

Etc., etc.

Interested to see how this turns out?

Two young boys at Damiefa School

These are the key strategies that we’re using to grow the school into a financially successful venture that will play a key role in affordable, high-quality education and local development in Liberia. And just like at Mineke Foundation, we’re pursuing an organic growth strategy where we adjust and change tack as needed.

Interested to see how things turn out?

Follow Damiefa School’s progress on Facebook.  For more information about Mineke Foundation’s work, check out our website where you can also sign up for our newsletter.

© All images copyright Mineke Foundation

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