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Building education from the ground up

Honduras, February 27, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Amie Wells/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sara Photo: Amie Wells/Mercy Corps

Comayagua, Honduras — Sara is an atypical 14-year-old in rural Honduras. The reason? She's still in school.

Most children in this tropical valley stop going to school before age 12, mostly because their families need them to work in limestone factories or to help harvest coffee, sugar cane or other crops.

Sara lives in a village a short drive outside Siguatepeque, one the larger cities in Honduras. But standing in front of her house, you wouldn't know you were anywhere close to a population center. Located along a dirt track, the village consists only of a single-room schoolhouse, a tienda and a smattering of modest metal-roofed homes.

This village was constructed in the late 1990s for those displaced by Hurricane Mitch, which among other things destroyed 33,000 homes in Honduras and damaged another 50,000.

Proyecto Aldea Global (PAG), a longtime Mercy Corps partner, was one of the agencies to respond to Mitch's trail of devastation. In Comayagua, a department in central Honduras, PAG replaced schools destroyed by floods and built new ones — 67 in total.

But PAG did more than just erect buildings; it built a foundation for education to prosper.

Fourteen-year-old Sara is the youngest daughter of Marta, a middle-aged mother of 10 who is playing a key role in PAG's efforts to improve education for Comayagua's youth.

When I visited Marta one afternoon, we sat down at the only table in her tidy two-room home. The first thing she did was point to one wall, which was covered by framed awards, certificates and other academic honors earned by her children.

Marta's two youngest — Sara and her 17-year-old sister — are still in school. Marta is committed to seeing them graduate — unlike her older children, who didn't finish as a result of both inadequate schools in their pre-Mitch community and the family's pressing financial needs.

For four years Marta has volunteered with PAG in a program to ensure quality education in rural schools.

Marta explained that one of the problems with public education in Honduras is the way the system treats teachers. They're assigned schools by the government, are given very little training and are paid poorly for their work. What's more, their salary isn't tied to their attendance.

To support teachers and make sure they're providing quality instruction, PAG does two things. One is giving teachers comprehensive training, empowering them with the resources they need to be better educators. The other is making the community responsible for tracking teacher attendance and distributing paychecks based on those records.

Marta has been keeping track of all the teachers employed at her daughters' school. Every day, teachers must sign in and out with Marta, who showed me the well-worn ledger she used.

If teachers don't show up, they're not paid. And if it's a continual problem, the community can request their resignation.

The program appears to be working: Marta said the program makes the teachers feel more committed to the families, and vice-versa, and that only one teacher had been fired for non-attendance in the last four years.

In fact, the teachers have embraced the opportunities that accompany PAG's program, including training sessions and efforts to improve school infrastructure.

Activities of the program — called Programa de Educacion Lenca de Honduras in Spanish — include:

  • Seminars for teachers to improve their teaching and evaluation skills, enhance classroom control and refine instruction techniques;
  • Support to help parents better understand and increase their level of involvement in their children's education;
  • Education for children on how to advocate for and defend their rights; and
  • School infrastructure including classroom buildings, fences, latrines, water tanks and more.

The result? About 2,200 students in 13 municipalities have benefited from PAG's efforts to ensure sustainable and quality education. For Marta, that quality education will bring unprecedented benefits. Chances are good that in the next four years, she will hang the family's first two high-school diplomas on her wall.