Adolescents in rural areas of Madagascar experience some of the worst health and educational outcomes in the world. Only 1 in 5 will complete middle school. Nearly half are married as children. And one in three girls will become a mother before she is 18.
These challenges are why we have always persisted with a holistic approach at Projet Jeune Leader.
One well-known component of this approach is our Youth Spaces - one-room buildings where PJL Educators hold their courses, offer counseling, and provide
safe, recreational activities for students. The spaces are heavily-used: they improve access to quality learning and resources from trained and trusted mentors, and are loved by students and teachers alike.
However, we recognize resources are finite. The cost of Youth Space construction (an average of $7,500 per building) and ongoing maintenance have been the biggest limiting factor for expanding PJL to the hardest-to-reach rural schools
- which typically only serve 100-350 students. PJL Youth Spaces are not nearly as cost-effective in these small schools as they are in larger, urban communities.
Adding Up the Evidence Towards a More Cost-Effective Model
During the 2018-2019 school year we collected our first evidence that the Youth Space, although an undeniable draw for students, is not a critical component of our comprehensive sexuality education model. Youth Spaces are not required to improve the short-term and presumably, long-term sexual and reproductive health outcomes we work to achieve. Instead, it is our Educators' daily presence and our comprehensive, participatory curriculum that promote positive and healthy knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions among our young adolescent target population.
We know this because students in grades that had weekly comprehensive sexuality education courses with PJL’s Educators showed improved outcomes after one full school year. However, students in a different grade at these same PJL partner schools - who had access to the Youth Space benefits but who did NOT have weekly courses - did not improve. In fact, they showed the same lack in changes as students at comparison schools without PJL.
Furthermore, during that same time we had a new, rural partner school where construction of the Youth Space was delayed the entire year. PJL Educators instead held their courses and extracurricular activities in existing school infrastructure. Using accountability feedback mechanisms, we documented the same high levels of support and demand for our program from students, parents, and teachers at this school as other partner schools with Youth Spaces.
With this data, we had reason to test a new, leaner version of our model, meant for adolescents in rural communities where few other services exist and where the need is highest.
An "Innovation Hub" at Iboaka Middle School
In 2017, after hearing about us from another school in her district, the School Director at Iboaka middle school sent us a three page letter requesting that Projet Jeune Leader be implemented at her school. She was distraught by the high numbers of teenage pregnancies and the even higher incidence of school dropouts. Unfortunately, for nearly 3 years we had trouble securing funding to work at this small, rural school which has 370 students and is in a rural community more than 20 kilometers on bad roads from the city of Fianarantsoa; it was much more cost-effective to work in larger, urban schools.
However, in late 2019 we were at a turning point. We were determined to focus on affordability so that we could respond to the need and demand for Projet Jeune Leader, especially in rural areas.
We had just enough flexible funding to run an “innovation hub” – testing a no-Youth Space variant of our model. With their Director still as enthusiastic as ever, we relocated a male, 3rd year Educator named Ranjah to the community in time to start the 2019 school year and secured hours in the school’s timetable for him to teach weekly comprehensive sexuality education to every student in the school.
Without the Youth Space construction and equipment at Iboaka middle school, we had cut our activity-based costs by well over 85%.
Even more exciting was that this cheaper model was still a success. The school and community were incredibly supportive of Projet Jeune Leader - even without the upfront, tangible benefit of a Youth Space for their children.
When Ranjah presented PJL and the program's objectives at the first parent-teacher meeting of the year, he was met with enthusiastic questions and thanks. The School District's Superintendent, who was also in attendance, gave public praise to PJL and thanked us for choosing to work in Iboaka. Throughout the next five months we collected more evidence of support through our program's feedback mechanism.
We also found that for rural students at Iboaka, Ranjah served as much more than a sexuality education instructor, but also as a coach, mentor, and counselor - especially in informal settings in this small rural community.
Ranjah didn't need a classroom to counsel students; he provided them with advice and mentoring while fetching water, or walking together to and from school. This is indeed the first time we have truly explored the power of our Educators; informal interactions with students outside of the classroom.
We are now starting to understand how Educators in these hardest-to-reach communities fill a critical gap in adolescent students' lives. And from our learnings from our innovation hub at Iboaka middle school, we now have a more cost-effective strategy to bring comprehensive sexuality education to even more rural schools in Madagascar.