Rising Schools: Mother-daughter Team Uses Microenterprise Approach to Improve Education in Ghana

This issue features Irene and Liesel Pritzker’s work in schools in some of the poorest areas in Ghana. Working with experienced partners, the Pritzkers have used microenterprise to build capacity in the schools. They visit Ghana regularly to evaluate the impact of their approach and make adjustments in their work on the basis of their visits to schools and meetings with their partners. They are a model of actively engaged donors who listen and who also know that measuring impact is complicated and not always easy. Their work is also an example of how a mother and daughter can collaborate on an important philanthropic project.

The IDP Rising Schools Program, which funds privately operated small schools in impoverished areas of Ghana, is a unique product of motivation and opportunity. It’s also the work of a mother-daughter team who sought to look past obstacles to educating poor people and create a workable solution instead.

The women behind it are Irene D. Pritzker, who started and is president of the IDP Foundation (www.idpfoundation.org) in 2008, and Liesel A. Pritzker, Irene’s daughter, the foundation’s vice president and director of program development. Irene was trained as a teacher at the University of Western Australia; Liesel studied at Columbia University and developed an interest in addressing global poverty after traveling to India in 2006.

“We took a portion of the assets I inherited to put into the foundation,” says Liesel. “I wanted to be involved in philanthropy.”

The program supports small, tuition-based schools with microloans to improve or expand their facilities. It also provides the proprietors and staffs with training in management, pedagogy and catering.

Liesel says the Rising Schools program was her mother’s idea. “She is president and director and knows what she’s doing. She knew this would be a life-changing activity.”

Mother similarly gives credit to daughter. “Liesel was always interested in sustainable ways to relieve poverty,” says Irene. “She looked at lots of models, and became interested in microfinance when she was at Columbia.”

The program, begun in 2009, is a collaboration among Chicago-based IDP, the nonprofit microfinancier Opportunity International, and Sinapi Aba Trust, an NGO based in Ghana. It supports 120 private schools in four of the country’s 10 regions, with a total enrollment of about 31,000 children. They hope to be working with 1,500 schools in seven regions within four years.

Several of the program’s goals align with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals – those aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, and forming global partnerships for development.

Getting started

With the idea of using microlending to alleviate poverty in mind, Irene and Liesel Pritzker set out to fill in the details of a plan. That led them to Opportunity International – a 40-year-old nonprofit based in Oak Brook, Illinois, that has provided loans, financial support and training to some two million people throughout the developing world. At an Opportunity International conference, the Pritzkers heard a presentation by James Tooley, professor of education at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. When they heard Tooley – author of The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves and a strong advocate of supporting private schools in developing countries – the plan began to fall into place.

“He noticed that even very poor parents often choose to educate their children not in government schools, but in schools that pop up, usually socially driven and also very poor. These schools have to charge such low fees (on average between US$10-15 per term) that they yield almost no profit and thus have many growth struggles,” says Irene Pritzker. “These schools are created through social need where government isn’t reaching the population, particularly in deprived areas. Research shows that people all over the developing world create these schools.”

When the Pritzkers decided to pursue their interest in helping schools, they were invited by Opportunity International officials to Ghana to learn about a program the organization hoped to launch. The challenge in Ghana is clear – some 40% of Ghanaian children are not in school at all, and only 5% of adolescents (ages 15-19) are fully literate. Of the estimated 15,000 private schools in the nation, about 40% serve low-income students.

“The schools Opportunity International was considering were much larger than the sorts that Tooley had been describing,” Irene says. “We got interested in whether there was a way to empower existing schools. We asked, ‘Why don’t you give these small schools access to capital, to business loans?’ We were told, absolutely not. Half the time owners are illiterate and have no business skills. It would be an incredibly risky thing to do.” Nevertheless, she adds, “We decided to find out if it was possible to do it.”

That led them to a niche different from that of other philanthropies, such as Grey Ghost Ventures, that focus on larger schools and institutions. In Ghana, the Pritzkers connected with Sinapi Aba Trust, one of Opportunity International’s local partners. Sinapi had been seeking to develop a program that would embrace schools. “We partnered with them, providing seed capital to create a program composed of a bundle of services, all linked together,” says Irene. “Basically, we targeted schools at the bottom of the pyramid, C and D (according to government ratings) or unregistered. These schools had no infrastructure – untrained teachers, no sanitation, no running water. It was not hard to find them; they’re around every corner.”

Adds Liesel, “Instead of saying ‘How do we encourage government to monitor schools,’ why don’t we work with proprietors to create capacity within those who already have buy-in, and in that sense support what the government is trying to do? This is the kind of program IDP Foundation wants to embrace, the type of program we want to incubate.”

As their planning progressed, they found their efforts were welcome. “We met with the Ministry of Education and Ghana Education Services to talk about our intentions, and they were quite supportive. They saw managing these schools as a huge problem for them, and knew that they were not reaching these poor children. They told us, ‘We’ll support you and let’s see how we go forward together,’” Irene recalls.

The “Ghana Model”

The IDP Rising Schools Program is built on a strictly enforced set of expectations. The schools must be privately owned and run by the proprietors themselves. Proprietors must promise, among other things, to keep their tuition affordable for local families, complete training in a broad range of subjects (including finance, curriculum, catering and community relations), and make sincere efforts to improve and grow their schools. Their teachers and catering staff also must undergo training and the schools must be on a path to government registration.

The program offers broad support for proprietors, whose skills and experience range from a few who are not literate to some who are retired headmasters. “We formed a teacher training advisory board to talk about how to improve quality of education in schools,” says Irene. “We started with the first tranche (group of proprietors) and made them sign a pledge form – adhere to rules or you’ll get kicked out.” The first group attended weekly trainings for 12 weeks. “The sessions were all day. We took them through financial literacy and a school management training that we created ourselves, sitting around a conference table in Sinapi offices.”

Financial education and a close working relationship with lenders are critical to the success of the program. The schools can be no farther than 100 kilometers from a Sinapi Aba Trust office, and proprietors who miss mandatory training sessions are dropped. These components address one of the most serious problems in the world of microfinance – borrowers’ unfamiliarity with financial management and loan repayment with interest.

Proprietors use tuition proceeds to pay back the loans, the interest from which is used to fund the training and support services they and their staff members receive. “One reason we don’t have defaults is because loan officers have taught the financial literacy courses,” Irene says. “They are the same people who approve the loans, monitor what they’re to be used for, make sure the loans are being used correctly. They’re in the schools every week and circle around to pick up payments. They can monitor what’s happening.”

Loan proceeds can be used for a variety of purposes, including operations. One proprietor used his loan to buy a vehicle to transport students to and from school; another repaired floors and bought mats for student naps; yet another purchased a first-aid kit.

The program employs incentives to help keep proprietors on track and further its goals. “We initiated a point system – proprietors get points for attending, homework, staying the entire time, all kinds of things,” says Irene Pritzker. “When they were sufficiently financially literate to take a loan, they got points for paying back. They are able to trade the points for supplies (which are donated). They actually feel the points are money, purchasing power.”

Program organizers have built in ways to measure its effectiveness beyond monitoring finances and repayment. An Accra-based research firm was hired to analyze conditions at each school before the program began – looking at the school’s organization, building conditions, textbooks and equipment, enrollment, student mobility and teachers’ backgrounds, among other things. This information provides a basis for assessing each school’s progress and growth, with impact assessments slated at 12 months and 24 months. Also, students are tested before school begins, using second- and fourth-grade mathematics and English tests developed by Ghanaian school officials. Those scores provide a baseline for measuring student progress.

Organizers say government cooperation has greatly benefited the program. Ghanaian school officials recognize that these private schools are effectively reaching children who likely would not be part of the public school system. The program is working on teacher training at the national level with the education ministry. Locally, program staff members are building relationships and working with regional and district school officials to obtain textbooks for participating schools.

“We meet with officials often,” says Irene Pritzker. “They are looking closely at our teacher-training materials and like them very much. They’re interested in looking at whether the materials can be introduced to the public sector. In the rural areas, there are just as many untrained teachers in government schools as private schools.”

Next steps

In addition to bringing the Rising Schools Program to more schools and regions of the country, the Pritzkers want to make greater use of technology and to tie program schools more strongly to their local communities.

They plan to develop 30-minute programs of instructional content that can be delivered a number of ways – via DVD, MP3 files or over broadcast radio, for example. Says Liesel, “The content would be directed at teachers, not at students. The government is really interested in that – once a DVD is made, it’s made, and the cost of distributing it is minimal.” She adds that audio instruction to assist teachers in the classroom has been successful elsewhere in improving literacy, and they plan to bring it to their schools. “You can do it with a crank-powered radio with a solar panel,” she points out.

“We want to work those interventions into the overall incentive scheme,” Liesel says. “We can find out which lessons have been listened to, in what order. We want to reward schools that listen to the lessons more. If they do so, maybe next time the proprietor takes out a loan they get an extra month’s grace period.”

She adds that the program is working on an innovative partnership with the creators of Sesame Street. “We met them at Synergos and talked about workshops in different countries,” she says. “They are creating 10-minute modules complete with learning materials. They’ll have Muppets and Ghanaian children, and each school will get a set.”

Their other intention is for program schools to have a broader impact on their local communities. They envision the schools acting as community centers, particularly as they become equipped with communications technology. They also encourage proprietors to develop PTAs and co-curricular clubs to strengthen ties with students and their families. As part of their community-building effort, they want to work with government and non-government institutions to help distribute goods and services in hard-to-reach rural areas of the country.

Working together

The Pritzkers appreciate the opportunity to work together and share a valuable experience. “We’re building something together, learning new things together,” says Liesel. “There’s a lot of built-in travel time. It’s an adventure that we’re on, creating a legacy that I’m excited about continuing. The only issue is that we’re so passionate about the work of the foundation and this program, we have to remind ourselves that we have to sit and talk … get our nails done, go shopping.”

“We’ve had to make new rules – at the end of the working day, what hasn’t gotten accomplished before dinner will have to wait,” says Irene.

She sees a practical advantage in their collaboration. “Liesel brings a whole different dimension than I do. Facebook, Twitter – I don’t understand them,” Irene says. “She understands a huge amount about this day and age and the way people are thinking. The other thing she brings is a different academic perspective than I do. There are a lot of issues that she approaches differently than I, and sometimes we combine the two.”

Together, Irene and Liesel Pritzker saw a need that wasn’t being addressed and set out to show that it is possible to efficiently, and at a low cost, educate people living in poverty. Says Irene, “We can prove it with a public/private partnership – where government allows the private sector to do its job and empowers people in their own country to try and solve their problems.”

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