Efforts by the Society of Jesus to improve quality of education is starting to pay dividends
Geovania Garret Mouzinho Freitas, 16, will graduate this year from the Colegio de Santo Inacio de Loiola (CSIL) in Kasait, Timor-Leste. (Photo by Michael Coyne)
Waking early to catch a bus has become a habit for Geovania Garret Mouzinho Freitas. She has to leave home in Dili at 6 a.m. every day to attend classes at the Colegio de Santo Inasio de Loiola (CSIL) in Kasait, a rural area 15 kilometers west of Dili.
The 16-year-old does not mind as long as she can continue studying at the Jesuit school.
Freitas was among the first batch of 85 junior high students to enroll at the newly built CSIL in 2013. Early on, she had doubts about the new school but her mother, who knows Jesuits, convinced her that things would be just fine.
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"It's like a miracle. Now there are so many buildings, with good facilities, and good teachers that enable us to learn more effectively," she said.
Freitas, who wants to be a politician, does not regret going to study at CSIL five years ago, because what she wants at a school — big classrooms, big buildings, a laboratory, canteen, library, huge hall, and more — are available.
CSIL now has 693 students, from grade 7-12, supported by 36 qualified teachers. Each classroom has 30 students, compared to other schools in Timor-Leste that have more than 50 students per class.
"I am lucky to study here," Freitas said.
Similarly, Nelson Alves da Costa, a 12th grader from Liquica district does not mind being in a dormitory with a dozen other boys, as long as it supports his study at the Our Lady of Fatima High School in Railaco, also run by Jesuits with the help of St. Canice Parish in Sydney, Australia.
The school has developed Da Costa's abilities in music and soccer, and he wants to end high school this year with good marks.
"The school is good and I only need to pay $5 per month," said Da Costa. "I have to pass this year's final exam so that I can go on to university," he said.
Natalia Ximenes, 15, meanwhile, is grateful to be a 10th grader at Our Lady of Fatima High School. She stays in a girl's dormitory and has rigid rules to follow.
"I don't mind waking up at 5 a.m., following a routine before school at 8.30 a.m. I believe these will forge me into a good person," she said.
A permanent dormitory has been built for dozens of girls studying at the Our Lady of Fatima High School in Railaco, in Ermera district, Timor-Leste. (Michael Coyne)
Juvinal da Costa, a maths teacher and head of discipline at CSIL, said one of strong points that all Jesuit schools have in common is discipline, which other schools in the country often ignore.
When students break the rules, they will be punished with tasks such as cleaning windows, the yard, toilets, cutting grass, watering flowers, providing organic fertilizer. Students caught cheating will also be punished, and expelled if caught three times.
"These measures have proved effective in instilling discipline among students. But many schools in Timor-Leste tend to ignore them," he said.
According to Da Costa, even though education in Timor-Leste has improved over the past several years, it still has crucial issues to address such as the poor quality of teachers and inadequate learning facilities
"Many teachers are not competent," he said.
"For instance, mechanical engineering graduates will become teachers because there is no other job opportunity for them. It's disastrous because they are not trained for the job," Da Costa said.
Not many schools apply good teaching practices in Timor-Leste like CSIL does. To teach at the school, teachers must pass written and teaching tests. Similarly, students must also pass written and oral tests before they are enrolled.
Da Costa said there is a long way to go to fix the country's education system, because many schools, particularly in rural areas, do not have adequate facilities, such as a laboratory or a library.
"Also, there is no real communication between parents and schools. So, when conflict happens, there is no room for dialogue. Sometimes, teachers are beaten by parents or students' relatives," he said.
Jose Monteiro, national coordinator of the Timor-Leste Coalition for Education (TLCE), said poor teacher quality and inadequate facilities have been major problems since the country's independence.
In 2000 there were efforts to fill in the gap — after many teachers fled back to Indonesia — by using voluntary teachers. But many had no educational background and are still teaching.
According to the TLCE, there are more than 14,200 teachers in 1,523 state and private elementary and secondary schools, but many of them are not trained graduate teachers.
He said the government has started to improve teacher quality by providing them with training. "More and more teachers now have at least a diploma in teaching," he said.
However, government efforts to improve education in Timor-Leste are limited due to lack of money. In 2016, the government allocated US$120 million and $130 million in 2017 for education, but most of the money was used for salaries and administration.
"It's not possible to build new buildings. Hence, many schools have more than 50 students in a classroom. Also, many schools do not have facilities such as chairs, libraries, laboratories, clean water, or toilets," he said.
"So, it is difficult to guarantee quality education," Monteiro said, adding that most teachers are also struggling to understand Portuguese which is the official language in schools.
Jesuit teacher academy
To address the issue of poor teacher quality, Jesuits in Timor-Leste established the Instituto Sao Joao de Brito (ISJB) — named after a Portuguese Jesuit saint martyred in India in the 17th century — to train Timorese who want to teach.
Opening in 2016, it now has a total of 99 students taught by 16 lecturers including three Jesuit priests.
"The four-year program aims to prepare them to become professional high school teachers," said Father Sidelizio Ornai Pereira, SJ, the rector of ISJB.
Currently the emphasis is on English, Portuguese and Catholic Religion. But in 2019, Psychology and Sociology of Education will be added.
"These are important and relevant for Timor-Leste education," he said.
In the first year, all learn an introduction to mathematics, English, Portuguese, teaching skills and Ignatian pedagogy — a teaching method taken from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. They begin specializing in the second year.
"Training will also include how to prepare teaching programs, syllabuses, class management, and administration," he said.
At the institute, both students and lecturers are required to master Portuguese and English.
The course costs students $400 a year, but scholarships are provided for those who cannot afford to pay the tuition fees.
Adozinha dos Santos Soares, from Ermera district, said she chose to study at De Brito because of its quality and good teaching practices.
"I study Portuguese because I want to teach Portuguese in high school," said Soares, 19, adding that Portuguese has become the official language of Timor-Leste, along with Tetun, and all Timorese people must learn it.
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