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A Grand Rapids, Mich., woman is heading a project sponsored by the World Bank to improve literacy for schoolchildren in Sierra Leone.

Kuyvenhoven teaches a student in Sierra Leone to read.

Johanna (Jo) Kuyvenhoven, a member of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, will spend August through December of this year leading the second component of a three-part $17.9 million project in the African country. Her team’s task is to develop a strategy for teaching reading in grades 1 to 3 and to improve the quality and learning outcomes for 800,000 children in 6,000 schools nationwide.

Kuyvenhoven will work closely with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Education and numerous other agencies, with funds from the World Bank’s Global Partnerships for Education.

“With my friends and colleagues, we are thrilled to realize some of our hope for Sierra Leone all along,” said Kuyvenhoven. “A large influx of money is so badly needed. Primary education outcomes are not even at a skeleton level.”

Kuyvenhoven, an education professor at Calvin College, specializes in literacy education and has been involved in literacy efforts in Sierra Leone since 2001. She first went there as a missionary with Christian Reformed World Missions in the early 1980s. When she returned in 2001 as a civil war was ending, she saw a traumatic situation and wanted to help.

“I know what reading unlocks and what reading offers,” she said. “It becomes a matter of justice and equity. Without these skills you are blocked from access and participation. It’s a key matter of justice, and I feel called to it.”

In 2007, she introduced new methods for teaching reading at Kabala Christian School in Sierra Leone that led to a 100 percent passing rate on the national exam in a district where the usual pass rate is about 7 percent. “I was able to find out what is possible in these conditions,” she said.

Kuyvenhoven’s work in Sierra Leone runs deep—she has done assessments, conducted research, and led workshops on teacher training. And her network runs wide—she has developed a network of language literacy educators spanning the entire country. But she knows that the responsibility ultimately lies with her colleagues in Sierra Leone who will be implementing the coming changes. So she is committed to collaborating with them on every level.

Her church in Grand Rapids has prayed for her, encouraged her, and shown great interest in her Sierra Leone work, she said. “The reason and the power through which I do my work is my faith,” she said.

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