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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Making the Grade

Ethiopia’s Catholic schools prepare the next generation for success

In the sunbaked Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa on this lazy Sunday, the midday heat is sweltering. Even the flies hovering about Father Peter de Groot’s office at Bisrate Gabriel Catholic School seem unable to muster the energy to stay aloft. An educator with decades of experience working under Ethiopia’s scorching sun, Father de Groot, unfazed, goes about the business of helping run one of the country’s top-performing K-12 schools.

Before taking a seat at his desk, the U.S.-born priest reaches into the pocket of his long white frock and pulls out a wrinkled sheet of paper. He flattens it out on his desk and slips on his reading glasses. That morning, the priest had interviewed several high school need-based scholarship candidates and took some notes.

All of the 25 candidates are enrolled in public schools and will be starting ninth grade. All meet the high academic standards for admission to Bisrate Gabriel. And all come from poor families. Father de Groot must decide which of the students demonstrate the greatest need.

“We take the six poorest,” explains the priest.

Father de Groot reads the name of one applicant from his notes. The priest then reenacts their conversation. “I asked him, ‘Are your parents alive?’ His answer: ‘I’m all alone. I’m an orphan.’ ‘Where do you sleep and eat?’ ‘I sleep at a friend’s house and eat food I find myself. I do woodworking.’ This boy is ranked first in his class with a 96 average.”

Father de Groot slides his finger down the page.

“Here’s another,” he continues.

“He has no parents. He has one older brother who works as a day laborer. ‘What does your brother do?’ I asked him. ‘He cuts stones,’ he told me. That means he hammers stones for a living.”

“Now all of these kids are entering ninth grade, but some are definitely older, like the first one. I bet he’s 17 years old. Why? Because they miss grades,” sighs Father de Groot. “He probably didn’t get early schooling.”

The priest reads the next name on his list.

“He lives with his grandmother in a government house, which means that rent’s low, usually a one-room type of thing. She receives a pension of 110 birr [$6] per month. Remember, one kilo of meat costs 100 birr. You can see how poor these kids are. This is the story of a lot of kids, but the difference is these kids are also good students.”

With such a pool of candidates, it seems hard to believe Father de Groot could make a wrong decision. Nonetheless, he approaches the selection process with deep gravitas, knowing these scholarships simply cannot be squandered.

Ethiopia’s third-largest city, Dire Dawa struggles economically. Unemployment is at 40 percent, and many of the 342,000 residents live in poverty. For these young scholars, a scholarship to one of the best Catholic high schools in the country represents the opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to escape the poverty engulfing them and their families.

Catholics — Latin and Ge’ez combined — make up less than 1 percent of Ethiopia’s roughly 85 million people. Forty-three percent of the population is Ethiopian Orthodox; 32 percent, Muslim; and 19 percent, Protestant. The Catholic Church plays a disproportionately influential role in the lives of many Ethiopians, however, especially through its schools, clinics and other social service institutions.

More than 350 Catholic schools operate around the country, enrolling some 120,000 Ethiopian students each year.

“We’re educating the biggest number of children after the government. No denomination can claim that,” says Demisse W. Aregay, principal of the all-boys St. Joseph Catholic School in Addis Ababa, one of five schools in Ethiopia — including Bisrate Gabriel — run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers. The brothers’ five schools alone enroll 7,000 students.

“Go anywhere in the country and you’ll find Catholic schools that are flourishing,” he continues. “So that helps create a mentality that they are some of if not the best schools in the country.”

By almost every measure, Ethiopia’s Catholic schools offer a first-rate education. The most obvious of indicators, results on the national university entrance exam, offer clear evidence.

On last year’s exam, more than half of the country’s 15 Catholic high schools boasted a 100 percent passing rate. The lowest passing rate among them was a respectable 92.4 percent.

“That means almost all the students succeed to study in university,” says Argaw Fantu, head of the education unit for the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat.

Ethiopia’s Catholic schools enjoy many advantages, not least of which is the collective expertise inherited from the church’s long history of running first-rate schools around the world.

“Take our Christian Brothers,” says Mr. Aregay. “This is a congregation with 350 years of tradition working in 81 countries. Obviously, we inherit all those traditions from such a sophisticated and worldwide congregation working in the educational arena. And that holds true for other congregations — Don Bosco, Salesians, Daughters of Charity and others. That automatically gives us an advantage.”

Ethiopia’s Catholic schools generally provide the ideal learning environment. The grounds are well maintained. Books, computers and other equipment are plentiful. Class sizes are small. And the value of discipline is palpable. “Don’t underestimate the importance that in Catholic schools you have religious people around,” says Father Asfaw Feleke, director of the Lazarist School in Addis Ababa. “They’re consecrated people — men and women — who are bound by vows for a lifetime. They do the work from the bottom of the heart, not because there are rules and directives. They set a tone.

They’re full-time workers. When you’re full time, focusing on the job and facilitating everything, that also makes a difference.”

Though academic excellence ranks high on the list of priorities in Ethiopia’s Catholic schools, it is not the ultimate goal.

“For me, Catholic education is the formation that’s given to a child or student to become formed in all spiritual, intellectual, social and psychological aspects,” says Brother Getachew Alemayehu, the principal — and an alumnus — of Bisrate Gabriel. “We want to develop each individual child’s emotional fitness. The church is highly concerned not only about the academic knowledge of the human person, but the integral, holistic growth of the human person as well.”

Messay Samson, a senior at the prestigious Nativity Girls Catholic School in Addis Ababa, attests to this holistic approach to education.

“Every single day you come to the school, you’re not only learning academically. You’re learning friendship, leadership, moral values, things you don’t find easily outside the school,” she says. “I’ve had some bad experiences here. But they’ve made me who I am today. The bad things I did, I don’t regret actually, because I won’t repeat them again. I have learned from them, which means I’m learning a lesson each time I come to school.

“I wouldn’t change anything. It’s like my second home,” she adds.

As part of the core curriculum, all Catholic schools in Ethiopia instruct moral values. These lessons vary from school to school, depending on the makeup of the student body.

In schools where a majority of students are Christian, such as St. Joseph’s in Addis Ababa, the moral education leans toward catechesis.

“Our student body is 95 percent Christian — Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic,” says Mr. Aregay. “That allows us to maintain a Christian atmosphere in the school.”

Schools located in predominantly Muslim parts of the country, such as Bisrate Gabriel in Dire Dawa, tend to take a more universal approach to moral values. At Bisrate Gabriel, half of the students are Ethiopian Orthodox, a quarter, Muslim, and the remainder, mostly Protestant. Only a small number are Catholic.

“I teach moral education, but it’s the Catholic religion, really,” explains Father de Groot.

“Now, for the Orthodox, the Catholic religion is not an issue because they really believe, you can almost say, identically what we believe. There’s very little difference. But what’s important to realize is that the Muslims are very accepting about what we teach. I’ve been a teacher now for 40 years and I’ve never had a problem.”

Abdirashid Ali, a successful Muslim businessman in Dire Dawa and father of four children who attend or will attend Bisrate Gabriel or nearby Notre Dame, echoes Father de Groot’s sentiment.

“When you see the schools, they’re not religious schools actually,” reflects Mr. Abdirashid from his home office. “I have two of my kids there now. And they’re getting a regular education.

“These Catholic schools are the best in the city, better than even the more expensive private schools. I myself went to one of them: Notre Dame. There was no religious influence,” he says, and “they do have their own prayer, but you don’t have to participate.”

Mr. Abdirashid may downplay the religious character of the moral values component of the curriculum. But as a Muslim, former Catholic school student and parent of current students, he is a model spokesperson, and his view exemplifies the religious comity that Ethiopia’s Catholic schools foster in their diverse classrooms.

“Muslim, Christian, Orthodox and Catholic, it’s all the same to me,” he asserts.

“We’re not separated on the basis of religious lines. We’re all neighbors, colleagues and friends. My neighbor over there [he points to the left] is Muslim; that one [he points to the right] is Orthodox. In society today, you can’t seclude yourself from everybody. You have to embrace everything. It was not a big deal for me to send my Muslim kids to a Catholic school. If I didn’t know them, maybe I’d be afraid of them — a fear of the unknown. But I know them now. That exposure gives you the details of what’s going on there. And it works both ways. The Orthodox get to know the Muslims, too.

“Now there are more choices,” he continues. “There are Muslim schools. Orthodox schools are opening up along with some new private schools, but these Catholic schools have been around for a long, long time. They’re well organized and well funded. Most of the teachers have been there a long time. They offer quality education and strong discipline. Many other schools are not so well run, have too many kids in one class. Teachers are not well paid. Discipline is not good. So if you don’t have to, why send your kids there?”

Mr. Abdirashid sits back in his chair, pausing a moment. Another thought crystallizes.

“Growing up, most of our teachers were foreigners. Now, the majority is Ethiopian. That’s a good thing. In the old days, you thought education was for them, not for you. But this shows you that anybody can get an education.”

Mr. Abdirashid’s last point touches on one of the most important challenges today facing Catholic schools in Ethiopia: sustainability.

“Many of these Catholic schools were founded by missionaries who brought with them both knowledge and resources,” reflects Mr. Argaw of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat. “But nowadays, many are being handed over to the diocese. Because of this, plus the decline of financial support from abroad, they’re expected to find their own means of sustainability.”

Rising costs and new government regulations have intensified the pressure on Catholic schools to achieve financial sustainability. The government recently increased civilian worker salaries by 39 percent, compelling Catholic school administrators to follow suit, or otherwise risk losing staff.

“Because of this, many Catholic schools are suffering,” says Mr. Argaw.

With support from CNEWA, his education unit has mounted a vigorous campaign to strengthen Ethiopia’s Catholic schools. It now publishes an education handbook and distributes it to Catholic schools nationwide. The unit also leads awareness-raising and teachers’ workshops.

“We need to do these things in order to negotiate with the government to set up our own identity and position,” concludes Mr. Argaw. “If we don’t have the right weapon, we’ll always be victims.”

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