Education Equals Empowerment

Education plan attacks barriers to success

By Caitlan and Luke Smith

Lake Atitlan, in the highlands of Guatemala, is the center of the devistation
left by years of civil war. It's also where Common Hope was founded before
moving operations to Antigua.

Examining the many problems surrounding education in Guatemala can be overwhelming, and coming to a sustainable and practical solution is even more complex.

One organization, however, believes that the problems cannot be solved by fixing the education system alone.

Common Hope, an organization based out of Antigua, the largest tourist destination in Guatemala, tackles the issue of education through a four-pronged approach. Through supporting education, housing, health care and family development, Common Hope sees the possibility of reversing the cycle of poverty that has plagued Guatemala for decades.

Common Hope was founded in 1986 by a missionary couple travelling to Lake Atitlan (also known as the "highlands") who saw rampant poverty. They asked community members what they most needed. The answer was education.

The missionares supplied teacher training and supplies, yet they soon realized kids were not attending school because they were sick from parasites contracted in unsanitary living conditions. Thus, the couple soon saw a greater need beyond education.

Sadly, the civil war soon reached its height in the area surrounding Lake Atitlan, and the couple was forced to leave. They faced death threats as thousands of people were killed by death squads and a "scorched earth" policy carried out by various military regimes and guerilla armies. This devastation throughout the highlands can still be seen in the shaky education system for the rural population (Michael D. Coe, The Maya.)

Thus, in 1990 Common Hope set up a new base in Antigua, Guatemala, focusing on a comprehensive approach to fighting the lack of education and extreme poverty throughout the highlands of Guatemala that is seen by many as a residual effect of war and ethnocide.

Common Hope begins its four-pronged approach by affiliating children and their families. This process is based upon a socioeconomic scale including factors such as how many children the family has; if they own, rent, or squat on their land; if it is a single parent family; and how much their income is and whether or not it is stable or fluctuates. Another qualification families must meet is living in one of four areas in which Common Hope works, and they must have at least one child attending school.

Common Hope requires one child to be in school, as it shows the organization that the family desires to send their children to school yet cannot afford the cost. Many schoolhouses require weekly school supplies, which creates an economic burden on many families, thus causing students to quit attending.

According to Renato Westby and Caroline McGee, employees of Common Hope, primary school can cost up to 100 USD a year, a brutal cost when 56.2 percent of the country lives in poverty and the average per capita income is 5,000 USD.

Many families also work on farms, and it is to their benefit for some of their children remain at home instead of attending classes.

Once a child is chosen for affiliation, she or he and his or her family then benefits from all services provided by Common Hope. Common Hope strategically chooses not to affiliate all the children of a given family as it could create a dependence on the organization, thus weakening the whole purpose of the project. Overall, Common Hope has affiliated over 3,000 children and their families.

Common Hope’s first and foremost goal is bettering education in the four areas in which it works. They begin by providing all school supplies for affiliated children to lessen the cost to the family. The organization also maintains a library andcomputer lab and sponsors youth group programs and coordinated leadership activities in the hopes that these programs will allow students to thrive in the classroom and the community. The eventual goal is to finish high school.

Once students graduate high school, Common Hope provides competitive scholarships for those wishing to attend university.

Beyond providing resources and outside training for students, Common Hope works with schools to equip teachers and administrators. Renato Westby, program development coordinator, spoke to us about what Common Hope specifically focuses on within the school system.

Common Hope first partners with local public schools and supports them through personnel, supplies and incentives. Currently they are partnered with three schools, although Westby hopes to soon partner with more.

Each school has a Common Hope staff member, or an "education promoter," who is a highly trained educator. The education promoter provides teacher training, shows teachers different models of learning other than the basic rote teaching method which plagues most classrooms, helps out the principal and administration through strategic planning and even steps into a classroom to give a teacher a break.

Supplementing the education promoter, Common Hope also creates one-year contracts with partnering schools with various goals for the school and incentives if the goals are attained.

Westby described the lack of standardized testing in Guatemala, which makes it difficult for schools to analyze the knowledge their students gain from the school year. Common Hope decided to create a standardized test for one school, providing a pre-test for the beginning of the year and post-test at the end. If schools reached their goals for the year in terms of student performance on the test, Common Hope would reward them with a monetary supplement.

Westby commented that schools so far appreciate the organization investing in their programs and providing support when the government will not.

Westby explained his many hopes for this project and said he sees it being a great asset to local public schools and their students.

The next prong Common Hope sees as a necessary supplement to better education is their housing program.

On our tour with Caroline McGee, we were able to visit a family in their home, which was built through the housing program. Many families affiliated with Common Hope still live in poor conditions in homes built of scrap metal with dirt floors.

As the missionary couple first saw in the highlands, many children quit attending school due to parasites contracted in unsanitary living conditions at home.

Therefore, Common Hope works with families to build safer environments for their children. If families own the land they live on, Common Hope helps them build cinder block houses with tiled flooring. For those families renting their land, Common Hope uses Fibrolit, a compressed concrete sturdy enough to withstand the weather yet also removable and portable in case they decide to move. For temporary flooring, Common Hope uses a type of tile that can be removed easily and transported to a new location.

To gain a house made by Common Hope, families usually work sweat-equity hours, hours worked for the organization to pay for housing costs. The organization also provides water and electricity. Since many affiliated families also cook tortillas to make money, Common Hope provides eco-comals which significantly reduce the amount of smoke inhaled by family members. A traditional comal is placed over an open fire, but the eco-comal encases the fire and provides a chimney for smoke to escape outside of the house. The eco-comal thus significantly decreases the risk of respiratory illnesses.

Health care remains another important aspect in trying to keep children in school and families well enough to support their children.

Common Hope’s facilities house a basic clinic, dentist office and a pharmacy. All affiliated children and their families can use the facilities. More than just providing treatment for basic ailments, Common Hope also holds community health outreach talks to teach Guatemalans how to prevent certain illnesses and how illness can negatively affect children in school. In 2011, 3,200 people attended these talks, showing a growing awareness in the community.

Finally, Common Hope supports family development as a method of bettering education in the community. Common Hope currently employs 21 social workers who create goals with affiliated families, such as obtaining a house or bettering their tortilla business.

Social workers also address issues of preventative healthcare, children’s success in school and cases of abuse which could affect a child’s performance in school.

Common Hope believes that this last prong will create stronger families and set a new trend in how families treat their children and education.

After we spoke with Caroline McGee and Renato Westby, it is clear to us that Common Hope’s four-pronged approach is both unique and productive.

McGee and Westby both displayed an obvious passion for the issue of education in a post-civil war country where the government spends only 3.2 percent of its GDP on education.

Common Hope is persevering through the odds and continues to believe that change will come, as it has already happened in small numbers.

McGee and Westby both said they looked forward to further developing the programs already in place and continuing to affiliate more families and partner with more schools.