Chérif is challenging conventional knowledge of how to help improve under-resourced schools by building an adaptable, virtual education system.
The New Idea
Chérif is changing the way public education is offered by building an adaptable, virtual education system. Not only does this provide alternate pathways to access education and connect hard-to-reach populations such as rural students and young people who have left school, it also gives the existing public school system a complementary tool that challenges schools to reach higher quality education.
To help overcome systemic failures in Senegal’s K-12 public school system, Chérif has created a continually updating and high-quality virtual set of course offerings which his not-for-profit organization develops, owns, and disseminates. Ecoles au Senegal has also set up a system for selecting experienced teachers, locally and internationally, who deliver the courses in accordance with the official education program in Senegal. These teachers are validated by the education inspectorate, the official body which authorizes teachers to teach at schools. Chérif has gotten the backing of the Senegalese Ministry of Education, which enables him to intervene in local schools. Chérif works in making the content of the national curriculum available online and accessible to all, to equip all students with the knowledge they need to succeed at their exams. He also works to find young people wherever they are, especially via social networks, communities, and media.
In rural areas where students have access to limited teachers and resources, Ecoles au Senegal has created an online version to be present in classrooms where there is a need for classroom instructors. The educational contents are accessible online and free of charge to all students regardless of their social background or gender. Beyond the courses, Ecoles Au Senegal offers advice, tools, and methodologies to enable all students to succeed throughout their school year, their exams, or to motivate them to choose a better academic path from the middle school level onward.
To have wider access, Chérif has set up a series of awareness campaigns throughout the country in schools to keep students informed, but also reaches out to young people on social media, bringing school back to them. Apart from the lessons, educational games relating to the courses of the national curriculum are put online to capture their attention.
The Ministry of Education has made this virtual curriculum the new standard for K-12 schools across Senegal and other Francophone countries, facing similar strains on their education systems, have begun to study Ecoles au Senegal for replication across the region.
Education in Senegal is free and compulsory until the age of 16. Since 2000, the nation has made significant headway in improving primary school enrollment rates— raising it from 69.8 percent to a steady 92.5 percent in 2009. However, the difficulty is in retaining students: many are discouraged from continuing education after the primary level because of untrained staff, challenging school environments, and resource shortages.
The majority of teachers come in for short spurts of time as volunteers or directly out of their own schooling. More often than not, their lack of experience prevents comprehensive instruction of the syllabus, and the students fall behind, unable to make up for their academic shortcomings within the necessary time frame. Beyond this, teachers’ unions are continuously dissatisfied with their payment plans, benefits, and work environments. Getting an education in Senegal often means dealing with strikes and other union collaborations that disturb the school year—leading to large, unnecessary gaps in a young person’s education. Rural areas still lack access to quality infrastructure such as schools and adequate classroom space. Those areas struggle with school enrollment because of the lack of schools and in the cases that schools exist, they are overcrowded or far away, which also leads to drop out.
Chérif began his work prior to the pandemic, during a lengthy teachers’ strike. He approached the Ministry of Education to access the curriculum for students in the final year of secondary school with an aim to publish these materials online so that students could study and prepare for exams on their own. After the first year, of the 215,000 students who successfully completed courses posted on the Ecoles au Senegal platform, 83% of them subsequently obtained a baccalaureate diploma, compared to an overall baccalaureate pass rate in Senegal of less than 40% of students who took the baccalaureate exam.
Since the Ministry of Education gave Ecoles au Senegal permission to develop, produce, and own a comprehensive virtual version of Senegal’s K-12 curriculum, Ecoles au Senegal has built a core team of seventy teachers who have produced 5,600 daily course offerings. Ecoles au Senegal’s production team of teams (staff and volunteers) complete 8-10 new virtual course lessons every day.
Chérif has forged alliances with the government through the Ministry of Education and academic inspectors to allow Ecoles au Senegal to complement existing in person instruction with Ecoles au Senegal’s virtual offerings. After the go ahead from the academic inspectors, with the backing of the Ministry of National Education, he approaches schools to implement his initiative, by creating a team within each school to support his work. This is followed by awareness-raising to build allies within the education ecosystem, recruitment of teachers, and training on values and principles of Ecoles au Senegal.
To create the K-12 virtual course content, Chérif created a team of teams to handle all the facets of online course instruction, from selecting the right teachers to the technical aspects of producing the films and making them available on Ecoles au Senegal’s online platform. Ecoles au Senegal has set up a system for selecting experienced teachers, locally and internationally, who deliver lessons in accordance with the official curriculum for education in Senegal. These teachers are experienced teachers who are validated by the education inspectorate. They are interviewed by a committee comprised of inspectors from the Ministry of Education, retired inspectors, and a staff member of Ecoles au Senegal. The teachers are selected based on their abilities to deliver virtual courses as well as their value, experience, and commitment to serve. Additional selected teachers are recruited to be virtually available when questions are raised by students in online forums.
Because Ecoles au Senegal works to complement in-person instruction, it helps to decrease the strain on teachers. Newer teachers can become facilitators, using virtual courses as master class material, and learning from senior, experienced teachers. More experienced teachers now have an avenue to focus on teaching, rather than struggling to reach students with limited resources in a single classroom. And, because the system is recognized by the Ministry of Education, teachers who volunteer with Ecoles au Senegal tend to volunteer with the platform for an extended period of time, since they can also use their time towards career development (for example, teachers studying to pass the inspector exam or retired inspectors becoming trainers for newer teachers). Now that Ecoles au Senegal has begun working in schools with high demand for its resources, it is beginning to approach more ‘well-resourced’ schools to see how even these schools could benefit from being part of the network.
In addition to setting up a service that allows schools as well as individuals to access courses online via the Ecoles au Senegal platform through a computer, phone, or tablet, Chérif has created solutions in areas where schools do not have internet access. For example, in rural areas, boxes have been installed at schools that have few teaching resources. The boxes contain, among other things, modems that connect students and teachers within a 50-meter radius to the Ecoles au Senegal app. Each modem can connect at least 100 students to the modem without impacting signal quality to access Ecoles au Senegal online. To further support families, Chérif has also established partnerships with national telecommunications companies to offer free access to students who cannot afford data connection. During the pandemic Chérif also established a partnership with Senegal’s National Television, Radio Television Senegal (RTS), the Virtual University of Senegal (UVS), local media, and social media to offer additional avenues to access Ecoles au Senegal’s online courses.
Chérif also works with a group of willing and available students who have used and passed their exam class using the Ecoles au Senegal application. Students promote Ecoles au Senegal applications at home and on social media by interacting with young people who may have dropped out of the formal school system and getting them to download the application via QR codes. Each group is supervised by a group leader from the Ecoles au Senegal team.
Chérif wants to ensure that Ecoles au Senegal becomes part of the resource repertoire of every K-12 public school in Senegal. He has also launched a pilot, Ecoles au Mali, which mirrors his early efforts in Senegal to make available the last year of the Malian curriculum for students passing and eligible to take the baccalaureate. Countries in the region such as Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have sent representatives to visit Ecoles au Senegal, and studies are underway with teams from these countries about how to replicate the model and address the same systemic problems that Senegal has encountered. One early financial supporter of Ecoles au Senegal, the Bank of Africa Foundation, has stated its interest in supporting efforts to replicate the work in each of the fourteen countries where the Bank of Africa is registered.
As the eldest of a family of three children, Chérif’s father passed away when he was 13 years old. He was educated by his uncle because his mother lived abroad. His mother attached great importance to studies and spared no effort for his success. His uncle served in the military, with strong values focusing on discipline, rigor, thoroughness, self-sacrifice as well commitment to help others succeed as a measure of his own success.
Early in his career at APIX, a government agency for investment and major works, he met frequently with local entrepreneurs, which inspired him to pursue a similar path. At age 30, after finishing business school, he created his first company, from which he has since resigned. It was called “Sign Up” - a social media marketing agency which worked with local governments to raise awareness on societal issues.
Frustrated by repetitive labor strikes in the Senegalese education system, as well as the mediocre level of education, the inexperience of the "new" teachers in the colleges and high school, and the near total absence of logistical support for teachers and administrators, Chérif decided to act. He did so, but carefully in a step-by-step way, demonstrating a solution like the material importance of available online content. With the demonstration of that success, he gained the further trust of government authorities step-by-step to allow him to build out each element of the broader architecture needed to address the deeper and underlying system issues in the K-12 education system of Senegal.