How do we best meet the needs of adolescents, recognizing that the world they are entering is rapidly changing?
Youth programming should focus on the successful transition from adolescence to adulthood, rather than on the reduction of behavioral problems, a past trend. Such programming ensures adolescents’ mental and physical health, as well as provides opportunities to develop positive social values, human and social capital, a sense of well-being and an ability to make sound choices.
Unfortunately, donor-funded discourse on secondary education reform is still dominated by a dialogue on expanding access and improving quality in education. Youth development and large-scale secondary school reform usually operate on parallel tracks, with youth development approached through afterschool, extracurricular or nonformal programming.
If our goal is positive youth development at scale, we must work in — and with — schools, where youth spend the majority of their time.
Promoting adolescent development in Senegal’s middle schools
There are only a few good models for promoting youth development in middle schools in resource-constrained countries. FHI 360’s Education de Base (EDB) project, which improved the quality and governance of the middle school system in Senegal from 2008 to 2013, is one of them.
In September 2014, I traveled to two rural regions in Senegal to examine what innovations from EDB had been sustained a full year after the project’s closure, and ultimately, what the EDB model offers for sustainable adolescent development within the formal school setting.
Prior to the EDB project, many schools in Senegal lacked some of the most basic necessities. Students would often come to school hungry or would leave the school grounds because they lacked drinking water. Many latrines were unusable because principals did not have the funds to pay janitors. Moreover, the school day was frequently interrupted by student union strikes during which students would refuse to show up if they were upset about school conditions or teacher absences.
Given the dire situation at some schools, it is not surprising that less than one in two young people of middle school age in Senegal today is expected to graduate. These numbers are even lower in rural regions where EDB focused.
As part of the EDB project, select schools started a model student government as a component of their reformed civics curriculum. The Senegalese government served as the archetype for the student governments, which had elected positions such as student body president and head of the Ministry of Culture.
The student governments yielded quick, impressive results by generating student-driven solutions to the root causes of drop-out — from tardiness to the lack of latrines — and creating structures in which students can be proactive problem-solvers.
In one school, the student government found that students were often coming to school hungry or were late because they had to stop to buy bread. They solved the problem by inviting a local woman to sell bread on the school grounds. Some of her profits contributed to improving the school.
In another school that lacked the funds to hire a janitor, the student government organized the student body to clean the school toilets. Every Wednesday and Saturday, one class is charged with this task.
Other schools have created gardens or painted murals to improve the learning environment, while others provide on-site water for students to drink.
The student governments have improved the relationship between students and administrators. One middle school principal explained that instead of striking, “Now the students come to the administration and pose problems and solutions.”
Recognizing this success, the Ministry of Education adopted the student government model in all middle schools nationwide in 2012.
New ideas needed to support youth development
Student governments are just one idea for promoting youth success. We know that education in the 21st century requires students to be active participants in their own learning and engaged in their communities as problem-solvers. By examining what has worked in the past, such as the EDB project in Senegal, we are generating powerful models for how middle schools can support students along the full spectrum of youth development.