THIES, SENEGAL - It only takes a trip across the street for senior students at St. Bernadette Kamonyi Secondary School to learn what it takes to secure a job. The students cross the road, gathering under umbrellas on a cloudy day in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
For weeks, they've been going on field trips that involve walking around the block to visit local businesses and learn more about the workforce. They stop at a sim card vendor to ask what he looks for in an employee.
For these senior level students, this information is vital. In a few months they'll try their best to get jobs.
"What I have to do in an interview, I have to first introduce myself, name, age and I have to share my education level and even my background. When you are going through the interview process, you have to dress smart," says Aminadab Niyitegeka, a 22-year-old student.
Niyitegeka says he'll look for any job that's available and is hopeful that what he's learning in his work readiness class will help.
Traditionally, secondary schools in Africa have emphasized core subjects like math and science, often neglecting other areas like public speaking and teamwork.
But there's a new trend. Schools are exploring new teaching models to incorporate soft skills and professional training. It's an effort to equip students to become better communicators, problem solvers and global citizens.
Back on campus, Niyitegeka and his classmates conduct mock interviews. Niyitegeka stands in front of a female student who plays the role of the interviewer. Even practicing for the interview makes Niyitegeka nervous. He has a hard time looking at the "interviewer." He fiddles with the hem of his shirt and shyly looks away.
Confidence is an integral part of the soft skills lesson, along with leadership, geniality and emotional stability. With support of the U.S.-based nonprofit Education Development Center, or EDC, Rwanda has institutionalized the work readiness curriculum — called Akazi Kanoze Access — into all secondary and vocation technical schools.
Akazi Kanoze, which means "work well done" in Kinyarwanda, has trained more than 20,000 students with soft skills to make them more attractive to employers.
"Students must work in groups, for example, a group of four students, five students, they interact. We give them role plays. We give them scenarios. They present. Through presentations, they acquire communication skills," says Emmanuel Ntagungira. He's a teacher and trainer with Akazi Kanoze Access.
Ntagungira says he hopes the curriculum will help to close the national unemployment gap, which stands at 13.2 percent according to the National Institute of Statistics. He routinely visits employers who have hired high school graduates trained in the soft skills program.
"They're very happy because they're work ready, they have a positive attitude and employers are satisfied with the work that they are doing," Ntagungira says.
The program has seen success with female students in particular. Monitoring the progress of graduates, teachers and program organizers say females who participated in the work readiness classes were 12 percent more likely to be employed upon graduation than young women who had not taken the classes.
It's an innovative curriculum that requires teachers to learn, too. In one of the classrooms, an Akozi Kanoze trainer is teaching Rwandan and Senegalese educators to be more engaging. They hop, skip and laugh like schoolchildren. The class is lively and conversational. They say it's a huge step away from what they're used to in a typical classroom.
Inspired by Akozi Kanoze, the teachers visiting from Senegal take what they learn back to their schools.
With the goal of reaching 30,000 students, 250 schools in Senegal have been selected by the government and EDC to participate in a trial to include soft skills, entrepreneurship and financial literacy in a program called Improving Work Entrepreneurship Performances, APTE. More than 1,000 teachers were trained last year and the classes began in January.
Sokhna Mbaye is the principal of a school in the city of Thies, 93 kilometers outside Dakar. Mbaye says she was excited when she was approached by EDC to bring APTE into her school. The principal said she encourages her teachers to be more open minded and willing to try new teaching models.
"Local schools certainly have failed somewhere. Because we know what geography is. We know what mathematics is but we did not really have skills to face life and to make our own choices. This is what we missed. We hope that the APTE program can fill the gap," she said.
Mbaye sits at the back of a classroom, watching students discuss their values. They mention ideas like loyalty and dignity.
"Their names will be mine," Mbaye said, adding she hopes that they will have the confidence to go out into the world and achieve more than she did.