Back to school in Africa

As summer wanes and schools prepare to welcome students back to the classroom, many American children and parents fret about where the money will come from for new shoes and school supplies.

They may also worry about whether expensive tutoring will be needed, as changing standards in education require children to pass increasingly stringent tests to advance to the next grade level. 

Students in the New Life Center after-school program, Zambia
Students from nearby schools get extra help in a tutoring program at New Life Center, Garneton, Zambia. Photo from Sandy Groves.

On the other side of the world, in a part of southern Africa called Zambia, the concerns are similar but more severe. Poverty there is far worse, and the odds are stacked against even more children.

AIDS has claimed many parents, leaving a plethora of orphans and children being raised by grandparents or other extended family, said Sandy Groves, a missionary serving with her husband, Delbert, at the United Methodist New Life Center in Garneton, Zambia.

The disease is so prevalent that “every family is affected by that,” Groves said.

Students in Zambia take a break from school during the month of August. When they return in September, many who are transitioning from the middle to higher grades will be worried that they are not well-prepared for the mandatory exams.

“What we find is that a lot of students get to the higher grades and then do not pass,” Groves said.

In Zambia, she explained, some children attend government-sponsored schools with trained teachers until the eighth grade. But the most impoverished – often orphans -- attend schools staffed by community volunteers. They can’t afford the required uniforms, shoes and books to enroll in government schools.

After seventh grade, students must also pay tuition. With uniforms and books, the estimated cost of moving into secondary school is around $200, a staggering amount for many Zambian families. Plus, students must be able to produce essays and pass exam questions written in English to be promoted to higher grades.

In a part of the world that is home to 74 tribal dialects, language has long been a stumbling block for youngsters who don’t master the nation’s official tongue – English – by their teenage years, Groves said. Often the schools don’t start teaching English until grade four or five, she said.

In 2009, New Life Center started an after-school tutoring program that focused on building English-language skills to help students pass milestone exams administered in grades nine and 12. Students from four nearby schools walk to the center, and New Life sends a bus to pick up about 20 students from Kamatipa and Kawama. Schools in the area typically don’t offer lunch, so the students get a meal at the center before starting in on extended studies. 

Rev. Delbert and Sandy Groves will be itinerating in the U.S. from October through February. Beginning in October, churches interested in inviting them as guest speakers may call (727) 546-7763,
(407) 257-6604 or
(727) 249-2075. To reach them before that, visit the website  or email

Last year, local teachers and students began clamoring for math to be added to the tutoring program. So Groves tried her hand at being a math tutor and found that the results were dramatic: a 100 percent exam passing rate in the first six months of the program for students who participated.

“That’s definitely more than we expected,” she said.

In March, with the help of Emily Padilla of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, New Life added science to its list of subjects students can receive help in.

Overall, students receiving tutoring at New Life have gone from passing rates of about 10 percent in the ninth grade and 1 percent in grade 12 to at least 50 percent passing at both levels. Groves said about 60 to 70 students typically participate in the program.

“We really still target the orphaned and vulnerable,” she said.

The center has also started a class for older students who failed the ninth-grade exam and want to try again, Groves said. Most of the 15 students in that class are women in their mid- to late 20s, she said.

The biggest needs for the after-school ministry are scientific calculators and math kits that include protractors and compasses, Groves said. She said the students can always use basic school supplies like pencils, pens and paper.

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