Given the choice between the classroom and field experience, Brian Wood of Sterling decided he could learn more in Ghana, West Africa, than a classroom at George Mason University. After spending three months in the West African country last spring, Wood returned home to Loudoun County determined to make a difference for the Ghanaian people and one girl in particular.
In Ghana, Wood worked at the Ayi-Owen International School in Techiman. It was there he met Angela Saab, a girl who earned perfect scores on the Ghanaian equivalent of a standardized test. She is also a girl who recently lost her father, a medical doctor, when he was hit and killed by a car. The accident tore apart her family and jeopardized her chances of continuing her education. Her perfect score was one in three million in Ghana. Wood says Angela is full of potential, adding "she is the future of Ghana." The staff of her school agrees.
"She is exceptional. We look for her to apply to the top schools in the country," Will Owen, Ayi-Owen International School director, said.
In Ghana, school is compulsory until ninth grade. Secondary school is not funded by the government and in a country where the average annual income is roughly the same as $2,500 in U.S. dollars, the tuition makes further education for many nearly impossible.
In 2002, Wood founded Reading Education and Advocacy Development (READ), a charitable organization. Since his return from Techiman, he has been working through READ to raise money for Angela, the Ayi-Owen school and to help people in the Brong-Ahafo region of Ghana learn more about the climate changes facing their country.
U.S. dollars go a long way in Ghana and Wood believes other countries are looking to America for direction.
"Americans can form partnerships to benefit and improve life for humankind," he said.
EXPERTS BELIEVE there is reason for hope in Ghana, which unlike other parts of Africa is not plagued by war, rebellion or infighting. John Agyekum Kufuor assumed the presidency of the country of 23 million in 2001 in "a relatively legitimate, straightforward election," Rudi Klauss, vice president for Africa Programs at the Global Education Center of the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, D.C., said.
Since the 1980s, Ghana has been instituting many educational reforms. The 1990s saw the emergence of colleges and universities.
"Education is valued in the society. People want their kids to go to school," Klauss said.
Many Ghanaian parents face a dilemma. "They want their kids to go to school, but canÕt afford it. As kids get older, thereÕs tension because families may need them to find work to meet basic human needs," Klauss said.
Secondary schools are often residential and for those living in rural areas or facing economic hardship, it makes further education even more elusive.
The Ghanaian primary schools are not without problems. The students may be in the classroom, but they are not necessarily learning and by the end of sixth grade, many are performing at substandard levels.
Teacher quality is another challenge.
"The new teachers have gone into the profession as an option of last resort," Klauss said.
As a result, the teacher turnover rate is high, especially in rural areas where it is not uncommon for teachers to miss days at a time while they moonlight at another job to make ends meet.
WHILE IN GHANA, Wood observed some of the trials schools face. Teachers in Ghana historically lecture, do not take questions from students and use punitive discipline. According to Wood, the lecture driven curriculum does not work.
"Research shows students retain 5 percent of the information given in a lecture. If students work in teams and practice by doing, the retention rate jumps to 75 percent."
At the Ayi-Owen School, Wood got students from behind their desks and put them in small groups, asking them to make presentations to other students. ItÕs something they have continued since he left and Owen said, had made a difference, especially since students are taking responsibility for their education.
"Students are doing dramas, acting out the independence movement in Ghana with posters, charts and diagrams," he said. Students are doing research. During a recent lesson on the Atlantic slave trade, many students read books on their own about Harriet Tubman. Only one in 20 teachers had read the same books.
"WeÕre seeing the students surpass the teachers," Owen said.
To continue the independent research students are doing, Wood is collecting books that through a partnership with Books for Africa will be sent to the Ayi-Owen School. He says they especially need reference material.
GHANA RANKS 136 out of 177 countries on the United NationsÕ Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living. The U.S. ranks eighth. After noticing things in Techiman covered with sand and dust, Wood began to study climate change in the region. He believes the changes, especially desertification, are going to be a major threat to Ghana in coming years.
"More and more of the country is turning to dessert, which is a real problem since theirs is an agriculture-based economy. They are losing about 4 percent of their gross domestic product to climate change," he said.
Through READ, Wood hopes to educate Ghanaian people about climate change and what they can do. He is asking people in the U.S. to use paper that is at least 50 percent recycled.
"We as Americans are 400 times more responsible for climate change in Ghana than anything they are doing there," Wood said.
AS READ continues to grow, Wood hopes to build the scholarship fund and collect many books to add to the library at the Ayi-Owen School. He would someday like to link the school to the Internet, a plan he calls "complicated, but doable." He stays in touch with Angela who now leads a book club at the school. Wood will soon complete his own studies at George Mason University where he will earn a degree in community development.
Wood says heÕs doing what comes naturally.
"My family is in international development and aid and IÕve been around it all my life."
Wood believes he can make a difference and says "itÕs more important then ever that the U.S. be viewed as beneficial."