This Educator Started First Grade at Age 13, Now Runs Successful School

The school, located in a poor neighborhood of Mali's capital, has a dropout rate of less than 1 percent, and 100 percent of students passed national exams in 2014.
(Photo: Zanna Katlyn McKay)
Nov 28, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Zanna K. McKay is an independent, multimedia journalist who has recently reported from Mali, Vietnam, and Italy on everything from electronic waste to youth unemployment.

Though strides have been made to ensure every child around the globe has the opportunity to receive an education, Mali still struggles with some of the lowest literacy and education rates in the world. Only about half of all children in the country complete primary school, and 66 percent of adults are illiterate. What’s just as troubling is the cycle of scarce education—without a skilled workforce, qualified teachers are also few and far between.

But local educator Youchaou Traore has found a system that works.

Traore often reflects on what his life would have been like if he hadn’t gone to school. “When I see people who are really struggling to make a living,” he said, “I think that could have been me, unable to read or write.”

When Traore was five years old, his father, hoping he would get an education, sent him to live with a traveling marabout, an Islamic teacher. But the marabout forced the children to beg and rarely provided any Koranic teaching. For much of his childhood, Traore wandered from village to village, with no shoes and only one pair of shorts to wear. When a relative recognized him by chance and brought him home, Traore was finally able to start first grade—at the age of 13.

Today, at 54, after decades of a successful career as a translator for diplomats and NGOs, Traore has realized a longtime vision: He is the founder and director of Ecole Privée Youchaou, one of the most successful schools in Bamako, Mali’s capital city.

Youchaou Traore stands in front of a classroom of students. (Photo: Zanna Katlyn McKay)

A modest, three-story structure, EPY is in one of the poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of Bamako, where many families struggle to have three meals a day. The inconspicuous building belies the accomplishments of the students and teachers at EPY: They consistently place first or second in national exams, competing head-to-head with the expensive and exclusive schools in the wealthier area of the city. In 2014, 100 percent of the primary school students passed the national exams, compared with 44 percent nationally.

Traore and his staff have a three-pronged approach to getting these kids, who might not otherwise have the opportunity, to school—and keeping them there.

Most important, he says, he pays special attention to his teachers.

A 2011 study by Education International and Oxfam Novib found that half of Mali’s primary school teachers are not qualified, lacking both the subject knowledge to teach the content and the skills of effective teaching. Owing to little training and low education levels among teachers, pupils can spend years in a classroom without learning the literacy and numeracy basics needed to advance to higher levels of education. Monologue lectures and rote memorization are widespread teaching methods. Teachers are often absent or on strike for better pay, and bribery for grades and exam scores is widespread.

English class. (Photo: Zanna Katlyn McKay)

“It’s possible to reach ninth grade here and barely be able to read,” said Traore. “Parents see this as a waste of time, especially for girls.”

Teachers at EPY routinely organize catch-up classes for transfer students who are far behind in reading, writing, math, and French when they arrive. “Please do not abandon these students,” headmaster Mahamadou Konaté implored his teachers at their staff meeting. “It is not their fault, and they need your special attention.”

Since EPY was founded 10 years ago, Traore has organized intensive trainings for his teachers three times a year to learn participatory teaching techniques, effective classroom management, and the importance of involving families in a child’s education. Knowing how scarce this sort of training is, he also opened it to teachers from other schools—and they come in droves.

Consequently, EPY has a dropout rate of less than 1 percent, even though many students are from the highest-risk groups. “Parents see sending their kids to EPY as an investment, and when their children do well, they feel it’s paying off,” said Konaté.

The second innovative aspect of EPY is its sustainable business model. The most vulnerable one-third of EPY’s students, many of them orphaned by illness, accidents, or addiction, are on scholarships made possible by international fund-raising. EPY favors girls for these scholarships and has always maintained a 50–50 girl-to-boy ratio.

The other students pay fees of about $60 per year. Traore wants to keep the fees as low as possible but reasonable enough to ensure the school can stay open without relying completely on aid. He often dips into his personal savings during hard times. “It’s difficult,” he said. “My teachers are very committed, so we make it work.” When conflict erupted in northern Mali in 2012, many international organizations pulled out of the country, leaving several of his students’ parents jobless. “That year was very hard,” he said. “Many of the families could not afford the fees. But we don’t want to send kids home. We found ways to get by.”

Students in the classroom. (Photo: Zanna Katlyn McKay)

Another aspect of what works about EPY’s system: The staff is involved in the community the students come from. Traore himself lives just a 10-minute drive down the road from the school. Through parent-teacher meetings, a technique Traore learned in the education conferences he attended abroad, the staff at EPY know every family, and they have established relationships that allow parents to come forward if they are struggling to keep their child in school.

For example, when several mothers complained they could not pay the school fees, the staff pooled money and started a microcredit program. The mothers used the money to open snack stalls outside the school, where kids congregate during break, and they were able to pay the fees as well as generate some steady income.

After we visited the school, Traore invited me to stop by the homes of some of the sponsored kids. Just a few houses down from the school, we entered a courtyard with a one-room concrete building surrounded by a low cinderblock wall with chickens and goats roaming around. Inside, Penda Diakité, a ninth grader, squatted next to her two little brothers sitting in kid-size chairs, each clutching a small chalkboard with numbers on it. She was helping them with their math homework. “My father died in an accident five years ago,” she said. Often, in Mali, girls in her situation are married early, to lessen the burden on a single-parent family. But Penda got a scholarship at EPY and did so well that her mother decided to send her two younger brothers there as well. Now, as she helps her little brothers through school, her education has made a better life possible not just for her, but for her whole family.