Imagine a kindergarten in Ghana–a dull, undecorated room full of mismatched furniture with nowhere to move around, no books or toys, and with as many as 60 to 100 children from kindergarten age to10 years old, many of whom are slow learners. They learn by listening to an unmotivated teacher and parroting the lesson by rote. It’s not a stimulating environment for teachers or their students.

In 2006, Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) and MASHAV, the Agency for International Development Cooperation in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, came together in an initiative to greatly improve early education for children in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi, the country’s second largest city, which had recently been declared a Millennium City, meaning that a set of goals for the city had been put in place.

Janette Hirchmann is the former director of the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center in Haifa and planned courses in Israel for educators from developing countries.

“By 2015, the millennium goals should be reached. One of the goals is education for all elementary school children. It was decided by the Ministry of Education in Ghana. Until then, kindergarten and early education were not part of the education ladder,” she said.

“This project is grassroots in origin. The old curriculum was very rigid. Roughly 80 teachers were emerging from teacher training each year. But those teachers needed to be retrained themselves, as they were stuck in the old methods. This project and its success has now brought to light the fact that the old system must change from philosophy through training.

“This small project that started with five schools and 25 teachers has been a tremendous influence in seeing preschool education in a different way. The Ministry of Education has made a five-year proposal for training all kindergarten teachers in Ghana to work toward a child-centered philosophy,” Hirchmann said.

Gladys Amaning is among five educators selected to go to Israel for training and is a staunch and tireless leader of the initiative. “Preschool education was reviewed and it was decided that if the foundation was well-planned, then education through the primary through upper classes would be solid. With the government’s review, a law was passed in 2007 that preschool should come onboard the mainstream of education. It was not a part of the system, and therefore, they were not operating as they should be internationally,” she said.

“Teachers were not well-trained. Some just wanted to honestly help children. It was a place for mothers who just needed to put their children somewhere. School was like a day care situation instead of a real learning environment. Until now, this had been the model,” Amaning said.

In 2008, MCI collaborated with MASHAV and the Mt. Carmel Training Center to bring two non-religious missionaries to Kumasi and do a fact-finding exercising and find out how to upgrade the kindergarten system. What they found was that teachers were not specially trained to teach kindergarten-age children. They were as bored as their students. Teachers and students frequently skipped class. The system was bad, but it was the only system in place.

“What we saw was a child-centered model with planned activity centers and classes. We came back showing video slides to the top people of what we saw in Israel. We started training. Within a short time of three years, the environment had been completely changed. The most interesting thing was that we used local things, even the trash, and created scenery and an atmosphere for play. Children learn though fun and experience,” Amaning said.

Hirchmann added, “It was a tremendous change in the approach of the teachers. The way in which we felt it could be done was that if the teachers themselves experienced play–if they experienced that one could learn through play, then they would be able to do this with the children. Everything was learning through play and active participation the theory was taken out of the practical.”

But a good idea needs a good leader, and Amaning had to get others as excited as she was. She got people from the top to the bottom excited about the project, including the teachers. “We can effect a change in our school system,” she said, using every opportunity to promote the project.

To date, 130 teachers have been trained. The goal is to have 700 dedicated kindergarten teachers.

“We need teacher learning materials, which has been difficult. We hope that we will be able to get funds. If we do that, from what we have been able to do is help the children to be critical thinkers. You can see the potential coming out of the children. We believe that we can help the children through this process. If they can throw away their fears, doubts and shyness and they are confident in themselves as they grow up, they will be able to fit into the society and be able to do something better,” Amaning said.

“The children are now helping their parents to get ideals. It’s a breakthrough to help children come out of their shells. When children enter the first grade, the teachers are very excited. They compare them with children who come in raw and see that there is a big difference. They take initiative and can master what they want. It shows a vast difference between the old system and the new system,” Amaning said.

“Children are now asking questions. It is not part of the culture to ask questions. In a way, it’s changing the culture,” Hirchmann added.

Four years later, things could not be more different. Teachers and their students are now actively engaged in learning. Teachers take pride in their jobs and kids are thriving. Classes now have between 35 and 50 students with one teacher and one attendant per class.

Early childhood education in Ghana now has a ray of light, but there is still much work to be done. “We need to expand and move forward. We have to train more teachers for sustainability,” Amaning said.

Among those things still needed are books. Teachers who are now enthusiastic about their work use their own money to buy things for students. The project, which while awash in enthusiasm, still desperately needs funding for materials and training.

“We’re hoping that the Ministry of Education will open its pocket a little wider,” Hirchmann concluded.