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Making the Grade

Ethiopia’s Catholic schools prepare the next generation for success

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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In the sunbaked Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa on this lazy Sunday, the midday heat is sweltering. Even the flies hovering about Father Peter de Groot’s office at Bisrate Gabriel Catholic School seem unable to muster the energy to stay aloft. An educator with decades of experience working under Ethiopia’s scorching sun, Father de Groot, unfazed, goes about the business of helping run one of the country’s top-performing K-12 schools.

Before taking a seat at his desk, the U.S.-born priest reaches into the pocket of his long white frock and pulls out a wrinkled sheet of paper. He flattens it out on his desk and slips on his reading glasses. That morning, the priest had interviewed several high school need-based scholarship candidates and took some notes.

All of the 25 candidates are enrolled in public schools and will be starting ninth grade. All meet the high academic standards for admission to Bisrate Gabriel. And all come from poor families. Father de Groot must decide which of the students demonstrate the greatest need.

“We take the six poorest,” explains the priest.

Father de Groot reads the name of one applicant from his notes. The priest then reenacts their conversation. “I asked him, ‘Are your parents alive?’ His answer: ‘I’m all alone. I’m an orphan.’ ‘Where do you sleep and eat?’ ‘I sleep at a friend’s house and eat food I find myself. I do woodworking.’ This boy is ranked first in his class with a 96 average.”

Father de Groot slides his finger down the page.

“Here’s another,” he continues.

“He has no parents. He has one older brother who works as a day laborer. ‘What does your brother do?’ I asked him. ‘He cuts stones,’ he told me. That means he hammers stones for a living.”

“Now all of these kids are entering ninth grade, but some are definitely older, like the first one. I bet he’s 17 years old. Why? Because they miss grades,” sighs Father de Groot. “He probably didn’t get early schooling.”

The priest reads the next name on his list.

“He lives with his grandmother in a government house, which means that rent’s low, usually a one-room type of thing. She receives a pension of 110 birr [$6] per month. Remember, one kilo of meat costs 100 birr. You can see how poor these kids are. This is the story of a lot of kids, but the difference is these kids are also good students.”

With such a pool of candidates, it seems hard to believe Father de Groot could make a wrong decision. Nonetheless, he approaches the selection process with deep gravitas, knowing these scholarships simply cannot be squandered.

Ethiopia’s third-largest city, Dire Dawa struggles economically. Unemployment is at 40 percent, and many of the 342,000 residents live in poverty. For these young scholars, a scholarship to one of the best Catholic high schools in the country represents the opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to escape the poverty engulfing them and their families.

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