In the poorer regions of Africa, children are unable to go to school. Developing and post-conflict countries struggle to obtain basic necessities and are sometimes unable to provide children with an education. The result of this is an illiterate generation that will eventually turn to violence in revolt against their continued dependence on aid. MindLeaps is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that seeks to break that cycle, and in fact had successes, by offering these children dance lessons.

The Situation

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 32 percent of the youth do not receive an education and are illiterate. Usually, people blame this on a lack of access to schooling; however, this claim is inaccurate. MindLeaps discovered that the underlying causes are unstable homes and living conditions, education fees while schools propose free education and even apathy towards children. In some cases, children who do have the means to attend school drop out before completing their education, believing employment and a bright future for themselves is impossible. This belief stems from their lack of a supportive home life and struggles for basic necessities, as well as the influence of crime, prostitution and drugs of the elder generations. Aware of this, MindLeaps saves children by reaching out to them with a means to improve their academic situation through dance lessons.

The Program

Studies showed that dancing and movement are important in the development of learning skills, creativity and self-esteem, as well as the improvement of memory and cognitive thinking. With this research, MindLeaps developed a dance curriculum for at-risk youths in Africa, focusing on both cognitive and non-cognitive skills that they would not have developed otherwise. Students who graduated from MindLeaps have in fact shown significant cognitive and behavioral development in functions such as memorization, language, discipline and teamwork. Once dancing strengthens their minds, the children are then able to move on academically, earning sponsorships and scholarships from the organization and the dance instructors.

The Misty Copeland Scholarship

One of these instructors is Misty Copeland, a well-renowned American ballerina who came from poverty, as well. Copeland works with MindLeaps as an advisor, ambassador and dance teacher, as well as participating in their scholarship program, the International Artists Fund. In 2015, she traveled to Rwanda to help MindLeaps launch its girls’ program and established the Misty Copeland Scholarship, which provides a top dance student the opportunity to attend boarding school. Three years later, Misty returned to Rwanda and found that a student who had received that scholarship, a boy named Ali, had gone to achieve major academic success.

MindLeaps’ Achievements

Ali was not the only one to achieve success through MindLeaps. In January 2017, the organization reintegrated over 50 students into formal education in Rwanda. In March of that same year, more than half of those students ranked in the top 10 positions of their respective classes. MindLeaps’ dance lessons saved more than 600 at-risk children from illiteracy and potentially violent futures in 2017 alone. More than 3,500 children have completed the MindLeaps’ program across six different countries since 2014. The organization has seen a 0 percent drop-out rate for students whom it helped move on to formal education.

In short, Mindleaps saves children in slums and homeless children in underground tunnels thanks to dance lessons. Dance lessons offers them an opportunity to lead a life away from poverty. Developing their cognitive skills and earning their educations, enables these children to help and provide for their families, which in turn spares the next generation from illiteracy and hardship.

– Yael Litenatsky
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Technology to promote literacy

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is an independent state comprised of about 600 small islands, that also shares a land border with Indonesia. PNG uses technology to promote literacy in a number of ways. PNG broke off from Australia in 1975 but still receives substantial economic, geographical and educational gains from the country. However, the Australian government reports that in spite of their economic growth and middle-income country status (due to agricultural and mineral wealth), “PNG’s social indicators are among the worst in the Asia Pacific. Approximately 85 percent of PNG’s mainly rural population is poor and an estimated 18 percent of people are extremely poor.”

The World Bank details that PNG also faces a “vexing” situation regarding their remoteness and number of languages. Communities in PNG are very closed off from one another and land travel is strenuous. PNG has 563 airports and air travel has proven to be the common way to get from one place to another. At over 800 languages, PNG is recognized as “the most linguistically diverse country in the world.” As a result of these two factors, PNG’s education system faces a variety of challenges. PNG was ranked 153 on the Human Development Index in 2017, and its adult literacy rate was reported to be 63.4 percent in 2015. Australian Aid and the Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) cooperated to produce The SMS Story research project, a way to use technology to promote literacy.

The goal of the SMS Story Research Project was to ascertain whether daily text message stories and lessons would improve the reading ability of children in grades 1 and 2 in Papua New Guinea. The text messages were sent to elementary school teachers in the Madang Province and Simbu Province using a free, open-source software program called Frontline SMS. The project was a controlled trial with two groups, one group of teachers received the message and the other did not. About 2500 students were evaluated before and after the trial. Using statistical testing, it was determined that the reading ability of the group who received text messages was higher than that of the group that did not.

It was found that the schools participating in the study had little to no reading books in the classroom and that students in groups without an SMS story were “twice as likely to be unable to read a single word of three sub-tests (decodable words, sight words and oral reading).” It seemed that many classrooms in PNG did not provide easy access to reading materials or proper reading lessons.

Amanda Watson, a researcher involved with the project stated that the SMS stories were helpful to the teachers as well. She says, “The teachers actually received almost like a reminder to teach, a bit of a motivator to keep teaching and they received that every single day and we think that really helped them to realize that they’re supposed to be teaching reading every single day, five days a week.” This suggests that before the trial, some of the teachers may not have promoted reading as much as they should have, either due to lack of access to materials or not realizing its importance.

Daniel A. Wagner, of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues, detail the importance of using technology to promote literacy in countries with minimal access to education or educational materials in their paper, “Mobiles for Literacy in Developing Countries: An Effectiveness Framework”. He underlines the importance of promoting literacy through information and communications technologies (ICTs) in today’s world where there are “more connected mobile devices than people” and provides several examples of organizations that are working towards increasing literacy through ICTs.

The Bridges to the Future Initiative (BFI) is run in South Africa by the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy. They aim to “improve literacy through interactive, computer-based lessons” created by the University of Pennsylvania’s International Literacy Institute (ILI). They provide access to educational materials and issue students with “mother-tongue resources” in regions where computer sources or books are mostly in English. Comparably, Ustad Mobile is an application in Afghanistan that runs offline on phones. They center around instructing reading comprehension, listening, and numeracy. Teachers and students can download and share lessons; the app also includes exercises, videos and interactive quizzes in order to “mobilize education for all”.

BBC Janala is another project using technology to promote literacy in Bangladesh. It is a multi-platform service and can be accessed through TV, internet, print and mobile phones. BBC Janala concentrates on teaching English through three-minute audio lessons, quizzes, TV shows, newspapers, textbooks and CDs.

Illiteracy is an issue in Papua New Guinea; most likely due to the lack of reading materials and importance placed on literacy. However projects like, “The SMS Story” are all over the world and are working towards using technology to promote literacy one step at a time.

Jade Thompson
Photo: Flickr

Global Illiteracy
The ability to read and write is one of the few skills with the power to completely change a person’s life. Literacy is vital to education and employment, as well as being incredibly beneficial in everyday life. Global illiteracy is extensive. As of 2018, 750 million people were illiterate, two-thirds of whom were women. 

In 2015, the United Nations set 17 goals for sustainable development, one of which included the aim to “ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy” by 2030. Though this is an admirable goal, current progress suggests that global illiteracy will remain a substantial problem in 2030 and beyond, due to challenges such as poverty and a lack of trained teachers in some areas. While eliminating global illiteracy by the 2030 deadline seems out of reach, companies and organizations around the world are taking steps toward improving literacy rates, often with the help of technological innovations.

  3 Organizations Fighting Global Illiteracy

  1. The Partnership-Afghanistan and Canada (PAC), World Vision and the University of British Columbia have collaborated to create a phone-based program aimed at improving literacy rates among rural women in Afghanistan. Women in remote areas who lack local educational resources learn from daily pre-recorded cell phone calls, which teach them how to read and write in Dari, a Persian dialect widely spoken in Afghanistan.  The lessons require only paper, a writing utensil and cell phone service, which are widely available throughout the country.

  2. The World Literacy Foundation operates many literacy-boosting programs, one of which is its SunBooks project. The project provides solar-powered devices through which students can access digital content and e-books while offline. The SunBooks initiative, intended to boost literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa, helps young people overcome barriers to literacy such as limited access to books, a lack of electricity and limited internet access. Only 35 percent of schools in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity, so traditional e-books are not a viable solution to a lack of books. SunBooks’ content is available in local languages and in English.

  3. A collaboration between Pearson Education’s Project Literacy Campaign, the World Bank and All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development has resulted in a project called EVOKE: Leaders for Literacy. EVOKE is a series of lessons on problem-solving, leadership and the importance of literacy, styled as a video game in which the student plays a superhero. EVOKE aims to empower young people to be literacy advocates in their own communities, and more than 100,000 people have participated in the program.  The project has shown promise in getting young people excited about reading and writing.

People generally understand literacy as a necessary part of education and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established it a human right in 1948. Yet still, hundreds of thousands of people cannot read or write. Literacy rates are improving, but not quickly enough to meet U.N. targets. These organizations are making valuable contributions toward fighting global illiteracy so that every person can be empowered.

– Meredith Charney
Photo: Pixabay

Urban and Rural Poverty in Egypt

While the North African nation of Egypt has experienced substantial economic growth in recent years, it still grapples with the issue of poverty. With an overall poverty rate of approximately 28 percent, Egypt still struggles with more than a quarter of its population living in poverty. However, like many other developing countries, there is a poverty divide in Egypt between rural and urban people that is highly problematic for the nation. Specifically, reports completed by the World Bank indicate that the highest share of the nation’s poor population lives in upper rural Egypt. The inequality and poverty divide in Egypt between wealthier urban families and poorer rural families are issues that the North African nation must look to correct if its goal is a more stable and evenly-distributed domestic economy.

Urban vs. Rural Poverty in Egypt

There are some explanations for the poverty divide in Egypt. Like many other countries, those living in rural communities tend to rely more heavily on industries such as agriculture and livestock as a means for sustenance. Agriculture accounts for approximately 27 percent of the total Egyptian workforce and 55 percent of employment opportunities in rural upper Egypt are related to agriculture. This means that as Egypt continues to modernize its economy in its urban centers, those in more rural, agriculturally-focused regions such as upper Egypt and the Nile River valley will inherently be forced to find more reliable and modern sources of employment in urban centers. Agriculture constitutes too small a percentage of Egypt’s economy (11.7 percent of the total GDP as of 2017) for the government to significantly invest in such an industry and, as a continuously urbanizing nation, it seems as though this trend will continue. There are simply more opportunities for employment and financial prosperity in bustling urban centers like Cairo than in secluded rural villages throughout poorer regions.

However, several factors may be quietly contributing to the poverty divide in Egypt, one of which involves the illiteracy rate. As of 2017, of Egyptians aged 15 years and older, about 28 percent of that population is still illiterate. Many of these illiterate people live in rural areas where education is much less accessible. In fact, a 2017 report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) found that the rural illiteracy rate in Egypt stands at about 32 percent, while the urban illiteracy rate is approximately 17.7 percent.

Hannah Adkins, a university student who visits family in Egypt, commented on the issue of illiteracy in Egypt. “Illiteracy is definitely higher in rural areas because they simply have more limited access to schools and teachers,” Adkins told The Borgen Project. “Urban areas have a large concentration of wealth so that people with more privilege can afford to send their kids to private or international schools.”

According to statistics reported by the Education Policy and Data Center, 25.5 percent of rural Egyptian children do not receive secondary education, compared to 14.5 percent of Egyptian children in urban areas. The lack of wealth distribution between rural and urban areas has led to a steep poverty divide in Egypt. As a result, many Egyptians find themselves stuck in a cyclical process of poverty and illiteracy with little opportunity to emerge.

Though the poverty divide in Egypt has been accentuated by many factors like illiteracy, there are still groups and organizations focused on resolving such issues. In fact, Egyptian agencies like CAPMAS have set goals to eradicate the poverty rate by half by 2020 and fully by 2030. CAPMAS plans to do so by implementing different programs aimed at benefiting poorer families, especially in rural areas and villages throughout Egypt. In fact, a 2015 program called Takaful and Karama (Solidarity and Dignity in English) in an effort to provide poor families and elderly Egyptians with income support, education and healthcare assistance. This program was launched with the support of a $400 million World Bank program. Egypt’s government has made it clear that eradicating its crippling poverty divide is a top priority, and as long as the nation can keep up with its plans in the coming years, impoverished Egyptians will hopefully be able to dig themselves out of their desperate situations.

– Ethan Marcetti
Photo: Flickr

Mindfulness in Education Systems of IndiaIn recent years, India has improved its education system greatly. An increasing number of children have access to education and enrollment rates in primary school are on the rise. Over 98 percent of Indians have access to a primary school within one kilometer of their home. Yet, the nation still faces challenges with poor education and high dropout rates. In an effort to combat these challenges, India has introduced mindfulness in education systems across the country.

Education Challenges in Delhi

India is among the top five countries for children not attending primary school. There are over 1.4 million students between the ages of 6 and 11 not enrolled. Approximately 29 percent of children drop out of school before finishing the five years of primary school, and only 42 percent of students complete high school.

Many schools are not able to handle the needs of all the students. Only 74 percent of schools have drinking water and over 50 percent of schools have working restrooms for girls. Recent reports show that learning levels are not being reached, and standardized tests show that countless children will not progress in the school system. This highlights the need to improve the quality of education in India.

The Lasting Ramifications of Stress

Many students face external problems, such as poverty, that can seriously hinder their education. New Delhi slums have astounding illiteracy rates of 70 percent; however, the entirety of New Delhi has an impressive literacy rate of 86 percent. In the 2011 census, it was reported that 3.9 million residents of New Delhi live in slums. Non-government reports have estimated that the number of impoverished people living in the slums is much higher, sitting around 8 million. Residents of the slums lack access to adequate plumbing, drinkable water and transportation.

Children who are constantly exposed to poverty-related stress can have serious health consequences later in life. Physical reactions from stress, such as increased heart rates, stress hormones and adrenaline take a serious toll on a child’s health. Eventually, these children are at a higher risk of developing diabetes and other life-altering illnesses.

Over time, the structure of a child’s brain is forever altered. Cognitive functions are impaired, which can have disastrous consequences on a child’s emotional responses and attention span. Impoverished children are also at a higher risk of suffering from depression. In fact, one out of four children surveyed between the ages of 13 and 15 face the challenges of depression in India. In contrast, children who do not experience stress or depression experience healthier sleeping habits and are able to easily fight off illnesses due to having stronger immune systems.

Mindfulness in Education

India is combating stress-related illnesses and the inability to focus in class among children with an additional course in “Happiness.” The course objective is to improve the students’ emotional well-being through meditation, story-telling and other activities that focus on mental health. The students will learn mindfulness, empowering them to be less distracted and to improve their ability to focus. Apra, a primary school teacher, believes that mindfulness in education will help many students in Delhi. She adds that the course will specifically benefit children from poorer families as they will have “time to be happy.”

Mindfulness in education has shown encouraging results in urban schools. Created as an alternative to detention, Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore has implemented an afterschool program dedicated to meditation and mindfulness. Success can be noted by the drop in suspensions at school. During the 2012-2013 school-year, 4 students were suspended. However, the following year there were no suspensions, something the school attributes to this program. Moreover, a study by Stanford University found that mindfulness in education has also helped lessen symptoms of PTSD.

Mindfulness in education is not the solution to end poverty, but it is a method that can be used to lessen the disastrous effects on impoverished children. Studies on mindfulness in education are still very new, but studies point in the direction that mindful practices will have tremendous results for students. Furthermore, the evidence shows that disadvantaged children will greatly benefit from this practice. For India, this could mean that retention rates in school will rise, and more children will be able to receive a quality education.

– Stefanie Babb

Photo: Flickr

Education in Morocco
Education in Morocco has staggered slowly towards greater improvements in their learning infrastructure as illiteracy rates remain high. According to a 2015 statement by the National Agency for the Fight Against Illiteracy (ANLCA) approximately 10 million men and women are still illiterate.

Mounia Benchekroun, a Moroccan consultant in social and educational development stated in the The Arab Weekly, “The figure of 10 million illiterate in Morocco should raise a national awareness that would require a much stronger national political engagement in order to fight this scourge.”

Morocco’s High Commissioner for Planning Ahmed Lahlimi also shared his analysis on illiteracy rates in 2014. Lahlimi stated it was more common for adults over 50 years old to be illiterate, which is approximately 61.1 percent. In contrast, only 3.7 percent of children under 15 years old face illiteracy. There is an evident gender gap as approximately 41.9 percent of women are illiterate compared to to 22.1 percent of men.

Although the National Education and Training Charter (CNEF) lagged behind in its goal to reduce illiteracy to less than 20 percent by 2010 with complete eradication by 2015, this issue of high illiteracy rates is accompanied by good news. Literacy rates have made strides throughout the years for education in Morocco, increasing with the implementation of literacy programs by NGOs and with a new 2024 goal to eradicate illiteracy.

Lahlimi states that rates have dropped to 32 percent compared to 42 percent of the population 10 years prior. Moreover, Morocco has earned the Confucius Literacy Prize honorable mention for their improvements in literacy rates between 2004 and 2012. A continued emphasis on improving literacy rates for education in Morocco is significant in creating equality and advancing the health and development of the country as a whole.

The Global Education Monitoring Report states that educated mothers are less likely to die in childbirth by two-thirds and that child mortality would be reduced by a sixth. Literacy plays an important role in mortality rates through the ability to read. Literacy provides information to make well-informed decisions, such as utilizing a nurse at birth or understanding nutrition. In addition, according to Alfalit International, research has shown that illiteracy can limit an individual’s ability to understand and process information necessary to take care of oneself.

With the importance of literacy among Moroccan men and women, ANLCA calls on national and international powers “for a new impetus to-wards a literate Morocco.” New improvements for education in Morocco will come in addition to an eradication of illiteracy by 2024.

Priscilla Son

Photo: Flickr

Education Women in PovertyEducating women is a powerful weapon in fighting global poverty. But those living in developing countries may not reach their full potential because they often do not receive a proper education.

Currently, females are underrepresented both in school enrollment and attendance in developing countries.

According to the book “Deprived Devis: Women’s Unequal Status in Society,” “The evidence is overwhelming that education improves health and productivity and that the poorest people gain most. When schools open their doors wider to girls and women, the benefits multiply.”

There are several indicators that reveal important patterns and trends in women’s education in developing countries, such as measures of literacy, enrollment status and years spent in school. The World Bank says, “Each of these indicators leads to the same conclusions: the level of female education is low in the poorest countries, with just a handful of exceptions, and by any measure, the gender gap is the largest in these countries.”

Literacy Rates
Literacy is one of the dominant objectives of education around the world. The ability to read and write is a human right; nonetheless, the literacy rates remain low among women, especially in developing countries.

Primary School Enrollment
UNICEF says that low adult literacy rates are a result of past under-investment in the education of women, specifically referring to primary school.

Dropout Rates and Years of Schooling
According to the World Bank, “Gross enrollment rates, which are usually reported for all primary and secondary classes, tend to mask some other important measures of educational progress. These include how many of the students remain in school, how many are promoted to the next grade, and how many complete each cycle.”

Secondary School Enrollment
Female enrollment at the secondary level has remained low in the developing world. Many women drop out during primary school or do not have access to the resources they need in order to attend secondary school.

Teachers Training
The lack of access to education in developing countries can also be blamed on the decline in teacher training. This diminution is due to the shortage of teachers in low-income countries. There are not enough resources to train individuals for this role.

Poverty is also considered a major contributor. “If a family has limited funds and has to be selective on whom to send to school, more often than not, it is going to be the men,” according to UNICEF.

Cultural Practices
The machismo ideology still prevails in some developing countries — and adverse cultural practices also contribute to the lack of access to education. Females are more likely to stay home and learn how to be housewives and mothers.

Recently, a UNICEF spokesperson emphasized that “females are often shackled by gender roles and outdated traditions, with male privilege and entitlement ensuring that when educational opportunities are limited, men will take available classroom space. Gender roles and traditions that keep girls from school contribute an additional barrier to universal education: illiterate mothers.”

The speaker also added that UNICEF ensures children have access to a rights-based, quality education that is rooted in gender equality because it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that impacts future generations.

The United Nations identified the importance of universal education during the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In order to meet the goals, the World Bank said that “developing countries need to focus more on improving female enrollment and attendance of secondary and tertiary education as well as continuing efforts to improve women’s access to primary education.”

The U.N. recognizes three social benefits of providing females with education: better health care for women and their families, better maternal and infant health and outcomes and, finally, access to better jobs which help families and countries prosper. UNICEF adds that “All of these occurrences are imperative to global development, and they can be accomplished by educating females in developing countries.”

Isabella Rölz

Sources: Google Books, The World BankUNGEI, UNICEFUnited Nations
Photo: Women Thrive

Statistically, if you walk up to someone randomly and ask them to read aloud your favorite T.S. Eliot poem, nine times out of ten that stranger will be very embarrassed by the prospect of reading aloud, and a staggering one out in ten won’t be able to read the poem at all.

According to a new report by the World Literacy Foundation (WLF), a staggering 10 percent of the world’s population is either completely or functionally illiterate, meaning they can’t perform basic tasks like reading a medicine label or balancing a checkbook.

Globally, more than 796 million people are illiterate, and according to the WLF report, this year alone it will cost the global economy over one trillion dollars.

A rare uniting factor between countries with great wealth and those with very little, illiteracy around the globe traps individuals “in a cycle of poverty with limited opportunities for employment or income generation,” said the report.

Aside from being unable to do simple things like read a nutrition label or fill out a job application, the WLF says poor literacy also affects a person’s ability to engage in critical thinking activities. Examples of these include understanding government policy and voting in elections, analyzing advertising and recognizing scams, and of course, the ability to pursue higher education or advanced training.

All of these hurdles placed before the illiterate severely hamper their ability to be as socially and economically productive as their literate counterparts. Illiterate people earn up to 42 percent less due to difficulties with communication and handling tasks that require some degree of literacy.

Illiteracy places even more strain on society by creating barriers to healthcare and financial planning for the illiterate, which can lead to increased crime rates or welfare dependence.

“One can put figures on the social cost in terms of welfare payments or the burden on the health system. But the real opportunity cost will never be known. These are the costs of lost opportunities to create individual financial wealth, encourage entrepreneurs, build healthier and more stable families whose members can make a productive contribution to all areas of society (political and cultural as well as economic),” said the report.

A formula developed by the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates the cost of illiteracy to a country at 0.5 percent of their GDP, meaning the wealthier the country, the more dramatic the impact. The U.S. alone stands to lose an estimated $362 billion this year due to the combined costs of illiteracy.

Ensuring access to quality primary education for all children is critical to improving literacy levels globally, and reversing the economic drain it creates, says the World Literacy Foundation. Progress has been made, said the organization and initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals and the recent Sustainable Development Goals are drawing attention to the issue, but more needs to be done, according to the WLF.

The WLF offered some recommendations in their report to bolster the current efforts to eradicate illiteracy. These included: establishing adult and parental literacy programs, establishing programs to attract and retain students in schools, and ensuring access to quality resources, training and technologies to students.

The organization even went so far as to suggest that if the global economy is going to “literally throw away money” through inaction, that it might as well actively invest in literacy programs.

Gina Lehner

Sources: The Guardian, World Literacy Foundation
Photo: Flickr

High School in Nicaragua
In order to eliminate poverty, the impoverished must be educated. This is the philosophy practiced by Margaret Gullette, co-founder of the Free High School for Adults in Nicaragua. 12 years ago, Margaret, who resides in Newton, Massachusetts and is a resident scholar at Brandeis University, was volunteering in Nicaragua through the Newton-San Juan del Sur Sister City Project when she and another woman, Rosa Elena Bello, decided they wanted to start a literacy program.

“It’s a great story,” Margaret said as she recalled the details. “Rosa was working in a clinic for women and children, and infant mortality rate was not improving.” The two women believed that it would never improve without literacy. It is not enough just to donate money; the people must be educated.

In Nicaragua, one out of 10 people are illiterate, and this figure is even higher among women. The average Nicaraguan has less than five years of schooling and only 29 percent of children complete primary school. Much of this can be attributed to the poverty cycle. Until 1979 a dictator ruled Nicaragua, and dictators rely on ignorance to control the masses.  “Poverty and ignorance should always be put together,” Margaret explained. Because many adults who lived under that dictator’s rule and did not receive an education themselves, not only do they not have enough money to pay for school supplies and uniforms, but they often do not value education.

In order to begin the literacy program, Margaret applied for funding to 25 different grants. She received 24 rejections, but the one acceptance was all the two women needed. At first it was difficult to get Nicaraguan women involved in the program because their lives revolved around housework and children, but in the first three years nearly 300 women received certificates for the completion of sixth grade.

High school in Nicaragua runs from grade 7 to 11, so after the success with the sixth grade program, the next logical step was to continue the women’s education into high school. Once again Margaret found funding in America, and the following year (2002) a free high school for adults opened. 12 people graduated that year and the number has been growing ever since. The high school currently has 800 students and 616 graduates.

Eventually the Nicaraguan government took over the building of the schools, and the 12 communities that have these high schools have better overall health and fewer unwanted pregnancies. What makes the Free High School Program unique is the teaching model adopted by Margaret and Rosa. The schools use feminist textbooks and a modified version of twentieth century educator Paolo Freire’s teaching method.

Freire believed that education was vital to the liberation of the oppressed and did not support the method of teaching in which students are simply empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. For basic literacy, Freire believed in teaching language that is meaningful to people’s lives. He did not have a program for women, so Margaret and Rosa adapted his method to teach the women in Nicaragua. The first word the women learn is “fetus,” which Margaret says is a word every woman should know.

The Free High School program has continued to grow with a technical high school that opened in 2006 in which students can specialize in one of three fields: Management of Tourist and Hotel Enterprises, Accounting and Civil Construction. A number of graduates from both the Free High School and the Technical School have gone on to receive university degrees and other accomplishments.

Margaret believes that “there is always something to do in Nicaragua,” pointing to her husband David’s bio-sand filter project for contaminated water as an example. The next steps in the Free High School project are to buy new textbooks and construct an office building for the organization in Nicaragua. Go here ( to learn more about the various Newton-San Juan del Sur Sister City projects, including the Free High School.

– Taylor Lovett

Sources: San Juan del Sur Sister City Project, Bless the Children, Interview with Margaret Gullette
Photo: The Random Act

reading skills in brazil
Researchers from the Frontiers scientific community recently conducted a study in Brazil to examine the cause of low reading skills in Brazil’s young children. The study tested 106 children ranging from ages six to eight. The study found that poor memory skills are closely correlated with lower reading skills.

The 106 children tested came from a variety of backgrounds. Half of them live below the poverty line, half above. Researchers intentionally split participants this way to determine the impact of socioeconomic status on basic reading skills. After testing the children, researchers found that memory skills had the most severe impact on young readers, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The testing consisted of 12 cognitive assessments. Researchers were able to determine that memory skills correlate with reading abilities based on the fact that the children who were evaluated by their teachers as “poor readers” scored the lowest on the Working Memory/Cognitive Flexibility sections of the test. The other three components of the assessment were Interference Suppression, Selective Attention and Response Inhibition.

Higher level readers, on the other hand, consistently performed better on the Working Memory/Cognitive Flexibility sections of the test. The difference between high and low level readers’ results were not as significant in the three other areas. Therefore, the examiners conducting the test were able to hypothesize that memory and reading skills are related somehow.

A strong memory allows a child to concentrate on an activity for an extended period of time, which may account for children with strong memories who find reading easier at a young age. These children have a greater attention span and can focus on learning how to read for a longer period of time than children with weaker memories.

In countries where student to teacher ratios are poor and classrooms are small, the potential for distractions in the learning environment is very high. Children with strong memories and, therefore, extreme concentration abilities can focus on their studies better than students with less cognitive flexibility.

Unfortunately, distracting conditions are common, meaning that some children inevitably will score lower on reading tests. By providing funding to decrease student to teacher ratios and build more functional classrooms, it is possible to decrease distractions in classroom settings which hinder learning in children with weaker memories. By fixing the classroom environment, educators can solve a seemingly un-fixable problem.

Emily Walthouse

Sources: Frontiers, Psyblog
Photo: Economist