Ten years ago, imagine1day opened its doors with a bold mission to develop national leaders to elevate the world. Sounds ambitious, right? It is, but this educational non-profit organization has created a global movement around Ethiopia’s aspiration to transform its education system into one that is accessible to each and every child. At the UNESCO World Education Forum in May 2015, education was prioritized as the fourth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal seeking to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030.
As a key enabler, imagine1day partners with the Ministry of Education and the regional education bureaus of Tigray and Oromia to bring about systemic and lasting change in Ethiopia’s public education system. The organization aligns its projects with the country’s current and long-term education priorities to overcome some of the biggest obstacles – Ethiopia currently has one of the world’s highest number of out-of-school children at 1.2 million, and with a significant dropout rate, it means that only 39.8% of children make it to high school.
Country Director Seid Aman highlights the business-minded approach imagine1day takes to achieve results: “Rather than simply responding to a need, our strategy helps the community to set ambitious goals and apply long-term thinking when it comes to education. We want the resources to go to the root of the issues facing Ethiopia to ensure sustainable change.” Ultimately, imagine1day aims to create an environment where foreign assistance for education is no longer needed. “We want to prove that the transformation of a nation is possible through the actions of the people of Ethiopia.”
Holistic approach with leadership at the core
By empowering Ethiopians to make a positive difference in their country and the world, imagine1day knows that meaningful and sustainable change can be created when it comes to education. Today, their focus is on the following key elements: primary school construction and building proper infrastructure; teacher training; early childhood development; girls’ education and, most importantly, leadership development.
“Our leadership workshops create bold leaders who are committed to something bigger than themselves, who are authentic, and operate with integrity,” alefom Gezaei, Regional Program Coordinator in Tigray, says. Imagine1day arranges such leadership development programs at a grassroots level and mobilizes the senior-most leaders in Ethiopia to participate, specifically principals, parent teacher associations, religious and political leaders, women’s associations and others so that they have the resources and the ability to make breakthrough achievements in what matters most to them.
Later this month in Awassa, Adama and Bale, imagine1day will advance its leadership training agenda. 350 senior Ethiopian leaders from the government, academic and corporate sectors will participate in a three-day, self-leadership program emphasizing personal legacy, vision and goal setting, and integrated leadership. “This training gives participants tangible and meaningful tools to work together, unleash their creativity and influence others, especially when they go back to their communities,” Halefom notes. “It is a transformative training – these leaders recognize that they alone are responsible for their future, and they have the power to make it great.”
Beyond leadership training, imagine1day’s early childhood education strategy encourages parents to send their children to school at a young age [typically 5-6 years old]. By prioritizing education as a household value in the rural areas, more students are attending primary school at the appropriate age.
Additionally, extensive teacher development programs and improvements in the quality of school learning environments promote greater achievement and attitude changes, and help reduce dropouts. The teacher training comprises methodologies to encourage active learning, life skills, and subject-specific techniques for teaching science, math, reading and writing effectively. The formats vary from classroom settings, written manuals to train-the-trainer programs.
Daniel Ataklti, responsible for monitoring, evaluation and operations at imagine1day, explains their approach to partnering with the regional education systems in Tigray and Oromia: “We get our hands dirty. To date, we have partnered with 487 schools in Ethiopia, ensuring that more than 250,000 children have access to quality education. Our team travels to the most remote corners of the country to collaborate with local communities and implement the projects that the districts have identified as most critical.”
Imagine1day spends a minimum of three years partnering with a primary school to ensure the impact is sustainable. Daniel continues, “We’ve learned that the key decisions and bottlenecks impacting schools and children occur at a district level. That’s why we implement our projects across districts to ensure our closest partnerships are with committed administrators, communities, and educators who are truly moving the dial.”
Creating a foundation to thrive
High in the arid mountains of Tigray, the dramatic landscape envelopes remote farming communities in the Endamehoni district. Last October, a crowd of local farmers, their children, regional officials and international donors gathered at the Dum Primary School to celebrate the opening of new school buildings. It was another milestone to applaud – this was the 42nd school to have been constructed with the support and leadership of imagine1day.
To mark the occasion that day, the older students held up banners and welcome signs. Drums banged. Horns honked. The crowd danced, chanted and laughed together. It is a raw and visceral display of joy and commemoration for the 538 children that benefit immediately from these new buildings – four new classrooms, a library, latrines, and an early childhood development center designed for children before they attend first grade.
When imagine1day begins any partnership with a new community like Dum, they don’t simply provide the funding outrightly. Rather, their approach garners the community’s commitment, whereby the locals generate a cash contribution of 10-20% to put toward the school construction. Imagine1day wants to empower the community, create a sense of ownership for the locals and avoid any sort of dependency.
This is just the beginning for the Dum Primary School; imagine1day will continue to work with the community for at least another two-and-a-half years. Country Director Seid Aman reiterates, “Our priority is to build strong relationships with key influencers, and develop their ability to inspire community ownership and a culture of education.” The local people drive the success of every project; imagine1day actively monitors the progress. Daniel highlights the process: “We are in the field almost every day, engaging with the districts and the schools. We conduct bi-annual monitoring and evaluation with our partners to identify challenges and build upon successes.”
Progress in the remote areas also means sharing best practices and experiences. Through effective monitoring, imagine1day knows what works well and what doesn’t, and works with the regional education bureaus to disseminate the learnings more broadly. This month in Tigray, imagine1day will conduct a regional experience-sharing event for all 53 districts. Strong participation from schools is expected (including from those school that haven’t worked with imagine1day) and the emphasis will be on the latest insights around early childhood education.
Their passion is personal
Imagine1day has grown tremendously in the past decade, as the organization has reached more students and communities. Today, there are 32 employees in Ethiopia and all of them radiate a passion for change. When talking with the team, they have many reasons why education is so important to them personally but also for the future of Ethiopia.
Country Director Seid Aman has been with imagine1day from the very beginning. “I’ve seen firsthand that education lifts people out of poverty.” He is the first in his family to graduate from high school and university, and to live outside of the Bale region. As the second oldest of seven children, Seid remembers seeing his older sister being removed from school as a fifth grader to be married. [NB: Early childhood marriage remains a significant challenge for educators in certain areas of Ethiopia.]
Seid was fortunate, though; his family had access to education (and transportation for schooling). Now, with much thanks to Seid’s success, all of his five younger siblings have earned at least their high school certificates. “Working for imagine1day is my way to pay back what education has afforded me – it is my personal legacy,” he says with a smile.
Halefom Gezaei, Program Coordinator in Tigray, reflects on his early childhood as a young shepherd who desperately wanted to go to school. Growing up in the mountains of Tigray on a farm with eight siblings, Halefom’s greatest challenge was that his parents considered modern education to be the devil; the Bible was all the education one needed. When he asked to be enrolled in school, he was punished. But after much persistence and many boyhood antics, Halefom’s parents reluctantly registered him for school.
“Education unlocks an individual’s potential. It changed my life.” Halefom excelled in school, ultimately graduating from Teachers College in Mekele. In his professional career before joining imagine1day, Halefom was recognized as the Model Teacher in Tigray in 2009, as well as in all of Ethiopia, for his innovative approach to teaching. He went on to earn the honor of Model Principal in Tigray a year later. “My father joined me when I was first honored as a teacher. It was the first time he acknowledged just how proud he was of me and what education had done for me,” recalls Halefom.
Bridging gaps and finding innovative solutions
Imagine1day is constantly evolving and learning from its monitoring and evaluation. A recent finding triggered the launch of a new pilot project earlier this year in Tigray, which is designed to enable better reading skills in early readers. In a country like Ethiopia where there are more than 80 languages spoken, having access to native language children’s stories is particularly important. However, in reality, there are only a few local language children’s books available in Tigrigna.
Halefom highlights the significance of this project, which is being run in partnership with African Storybook: “By focusing on books in the local language and sharing stories that are indigenous to the region and country, children pick up the skill of reading faster and comprehend more.” The initial goal was to compile unique Ethiopian stories, written by 50 teachers selected from Tigray, and create one 60-page book featuring a collection of those stories. But that plan was quickly revised once it became clear just how many stories were being written.
So by the end of this year, imagine1day and African Storybook will have created a total of 13 new books, each comprised of many unique Ethiopian tales. A local artist will illustrate the books using brightly colored images and pictures, critical elements to aid a child’s reading development and comprehension. All of the stories will be accessible on African Storybook’s Web site, and five of the 13 books will be printed (1,000 copies of each book will be distributed in Tigray). The plan also includes translating all of the stories into English.
Innovative thinking and unique teaching methodologies run deep at imagine1day. The organization was recognized as one of the top ten innovative charities at the Annual NGO Good Practice Day in 2015, an event organized by Consortium of Christian Relief & Development Associations, an indigenous non-profit umbrella organization in Ethiopia. The President of Ethiopia, Mulatu Teshome (PhD), presented the award to imagine1day for its forward-thinking approach to significantly improve early grade reading. In Ethiopia, 34 percent of children completing Grade Two are nonreaders; equally startling, the national standard for reading and comprehension is just 60 words per minute. Compare that to the improvements seen by children completing Grade Two with an imagine1day program – students are reading and comprehending more than 150 words per minute. A remarkable achievement!
Ten years of transformation and sustainability
Earlier this week, imagine1day, together with its founders Chip and Shannon Wilson, celebrated its tenth anniversary. Part of the festivities included a visit to Tigray, where the regional president, Abay Woldu, and members of the regional education bureau also marked this important milestone by visiting one of the first schools that imagine1day partnered with – Atsemba Community Primary School in the Hintalowejert district. Completely transformed, this school no longer looks like the das it once was under a shady tree. The children now have the proper buildings for learning and the school is thriving with more than 500 students in grades 1-8.
Regarded as a model Ethiopian school, Atsemba has been operating independently of imagine1day’s support for nearly five years. Once the community leaders, parents and the principal Teka Hadgu demonstrated the school’s sustainability, imagine1day handed over full ownership of the school to the parent teacher association and to the district education offices. But a close partnership still remains – imagine1day maintains regular contact and gives continued guidance and support as needed.
Stories like this demonstrate that the narrative is changing in Ethiopia from one of poverty, drought and aid dependence, to a story of a country emerging as a confident, global leader. The outlook is bright with potential. As the economy continues to grow, it’s easy to imagine a future when other nations look to Ethiopia as a symbol of possibility and hope. Thanks to the leadership and expertise from imagine1day, Ethiopia is harnessing the power of education as a driving force for sustainable change today and tomorrow.
Ed.’s Note: The writer is a volunteer at The Reporter.
By Katie Kurz