PBS Documentary Finds Students Around the World Seeking a Basic Education

By Mark Walsh — September 15, 2016 3 min read
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PBS has taken us all around the United States so far this week for a look at education programs and ideas as part of its Spotlight Education week. On Thursday night, it’s time to go around the world to see what the pursuit of a basic education is like for five poor children in five countries.

Time for School 2003-2016” is scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time. This is really one to check local listings for, because Thursdays are a night, it seems, where local public television stations really do their own thing instead of following the national PBS schedule. (In my Washington, D.C., market, none of the three public television stations are airing this special on Thursday.)

“Time for School” started following children in 2003 from seven countries: Afghanistan, Benin, Brazil, India, Japan, Kenya, and Romania. (Series’ creator Pamela Hogan explains here that the idea came from the fact that some 100 million children in the world have never set foot in school.)

The series has had other versions along the way, which I haven’t seen. The new version follows the students from five of the original seven countries. In the order they are introduced:

India: Neeraj Gujar is a 10-year-old in 2003 when she is able to enroll in a night school established for the benefit of children like her who are working the fields. The film points out that India still has the largest number of child laborers and that millions of the country’s children do not attend school. Gujar wants to become a teacher.

Brazil: Jefferson Narciso is a shy 5-year-old who lives in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, which from the recent Olympics we know is a poor neighborhood that presents dangers for children such as exposure to the drug trade. His single mother receives a government stipend to send him to school.

Afghanistan: After her family has spent years in a Pakistani refugee camp to avoid Taliban rule, Shugufu Sohrabi is able to enroll in school back in her home country at age 11. As the filmmakers return to check on her in later years, the Taliban has regained some of its strength, and terror attacks on girls schools have increased, so just to see Sohrabi defiantly continuing her education is inspiring.

Kenya: In Nairobi’s largest slum, 10-year-old Joab Onyando crowds into a classroom of 70 students, which was only possible after the government eliminated primary school fees in 2003. He soon loses his mother to AIDS and then must care for his younger siblings when his father leaves.

Benin: In the small West African country, 9-year-old Nanavi Todénou is the first girl from her family to enroll in school, thanks to a government program to eliminate the gender gap in enrollment—and the permission of the local voodoo priest to excuse her from the convent. But when Todénou’s father dies, her family finds it difficult to keep her in school.

Watch the trailer here.

The 90-minute film checks in with these students and their families in 2006, 2009, and 2015, highlighting obstacles they each face which will knock some out of school, while others persevere.

The most striking feature of the documentary is just how rudimentary a basic education is for these students, yet how the students and their families appreciate that it will improve their lives.

* * *

The other Spotlight Education show on the PBS national schedule for Thursday night is a special edition of the series “Craft in America.”

The one-hour episode highlights Navajo weavers in New Mexico, glass-forming techniques at the Punahou School in Honolulu (where President Barack Obama attended high school), a studio glass program for disadvantaged students in Omaha, Neb., and Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., where prospective teachers are learning to instruct about ceramics.

Crafts aren’t much in my wheelhouse, but the “Crafts in America: Teachers” episode was an interesting departure among the many education documentaries and shows on public television this week.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.