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Conservation education: the life cycle of a Classroom Africa school

Photo of rural DRC primary school students entering new Ilima Conservation School building

African Wildlife Foundation launched its Classroom Africa program in 2013 to provide rural communities access to a quality primary school education — and a strong incentive to engage in conservation. In return for a significant conservation commitment by a community, Classroom Africa rebuilds or upgrades a primary school, ensures ongoing teacher training, provides conservation education and, where feasible, offers students access to technology.

The process starts long before construction. In fact, getting to the groundbreaking can take months of behind-the-scenes effort. Developing a Classroom Africa school in any landscape is a fairly organic process, rather than following a strict checklist of steps. We take you through the basic phases involved in getting to a completed school building — and the engagement that follows after construction is complete — using our Ilima Conservation Primary School as an example.

Aerial photo of Ilima Conservation Primary School adjacent to tropical forest in DRC

1. Choose the landscape
Timeframe: 6–12 months

To choose a site, AWF starts where we already have a conservation team on the ground and a strong relationship with local communities. If Classroom Africa support will reinforce our conservation impact in the landscape, AWF consults local authorities and community members to determine which school in the area needs to be rebuilt and improved.

2. Identify the school
Timeframe: 3–6 months

Classroom Africa never establishes a brand-new school. Instead, the program provides support to existing schools that are part of the country’s educational system. The choice of schools is driven by AWF’s conservation strategy for that landscape. Chiefly, we assess ecosystem threats and whether the schools have meaningful needs that Classroom Africa can address. We also determine whether engaging the school will lead to improved community participation in conservation.

In a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo within the Congo Basin forest, the Ilima community was one of the first in the landscape to adopt and implement a formal land-use plan for biodiversity protection. AWF built the Ilima Conservation Primary School to reinforce the positive results that come from engaging in conservation while also opening up opportunities for future generations through education.

Photo of foundation of new buildings at Ilima Conservation Primary School in DRC

3. Fundraise
Timeframe: 1 month–1 year

AWF begins the process of identifying and securing donor commitment to rebuild or refurbish the chosen school.

4. Secure an agreement
Timeframe: 3–4 months

The Classroom Africa team begins working with AWF’s landscape staff to engage the relevant schools and their communities and discuss how we can help improve the educational prospects for their youngest generations. We introduce the Classroom Africa program and outline what AWF will provide. In return, community leaders agree to specific conservation actions that AWF calls “conservation covenants.”

Photo of new buildings under construction at Ilima Conservation School

5. School design
Timeframe: 4–8 months

Classroom Africa staff begins analyzing the specific infrastructure improvements needed. We ask teachers, students, parents, community leaders, and local education authorities about infrastructure needs and challenges. The Classroom Africa team contracts a local architect, who designs a new or refurbished building and campus, depending on community needs and bearing local climates in mind. We engage with local stakeholders and education authorities throughout the process.

Photo of Ilima Conservation Primary School with untiled roof with children from the community in the foreground

6. School construction
Timeframe: 12–18 months

Once funding commitments are in place, designs are finalized and approved by local communities and the Classroom Africa board. Then, a contractor is selected and construction begins! We hire local builders as much as possible. The suspended roof at our school in Ilima is built by community members trained in cutting shingles from local hardwood and installing the roof for easy maintenance.

Photo of community members preparing wooden shingles at construction site of Ilima Conservation Primary School

7. Ongoing support
Timeframe: Indefinitely

To build a school and walk away limits the conservation impact of our schools.  The real sticking power of conservation — the change in attitudes and increase in knowledge — comes with the other elements, such as teacher training and conservation education. Those elements must start fairly quickly after the build is completed to keep up the momentum and show the community we intend to stick around.

Photo of primary school children in classroom at Ilima Conservation School

8. Monitoring and maintenance
Timeframe: Indefinitely

At the end of every term, the Classroom Africa team checks in with each school to gauge student academic performance. Baseline and follow-up surveys help measure students’ conservation knowledge. Historical data shows that Classroom Africa support is not only increasing students’ appreciation of the area’s wildlife and wild lands but also boosting academic performance.

>Learn about Classroom Africa’s school in Ethiopia and how it is shaping the future of community conservation in the Simien Mountains National Park landscape

Perrin Banks
About the Author

Perrin is the Senior Manager of AWF’s Classroom Africa program, ensuring effective implementation and management of all Classroom Africa projects. She also served as a Program Design Officer for AWF prior to her current role. Perrin earned her BA in environmental studies from the University of Colorado Boulder, and her M.Sc in climate change and development from the University of Sussex.

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AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.

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