The uphill struggles of many in Nicaragua have been well-chronicled both here and in countless other reflections written by visitors to that country. The reality of need is evident not only in statistics (such as percentage of people earning less than $2.50 a day, second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, etc.), but also in the endless stream of mission, outreach and development agency people visible on flights in and out of the country every single day. Nicaragua is a worthy and close-by neighborhood for the exercise of our largesse. But the needs evidenced in Nicaragua are not likely to be eased by short-term and sometimes short-sighted North American efforts. There exists a more systemic and underlying difficulty.
Education. Or rather, the insufficiency of it, both in terms of quantity and quality. Now, we’re all fond of stating the obvious when it comes to education, that as a society the more of it we have the better our long-term prospects for the future become. We compare our educational outcomes with those in other countries, we gnash our teeth when math and science scores seem to fall further behind other nations, and we wonder aloud whether the cost of a college education is worth the investment vocationally. These are all reasonable concerns to have, and we acknowledge them continuously. But in Nicaragua, the level of urgency and need for education improvement is on another plane altogether. And without substantive interventions, the outlook is not good. This is a country where most kids don’t last beyond the third grade. Where teachers all too often have no training for the classroom. Where the compensation for teachers is less than half the average monthly need for cost of living. Where even the first lady of the land has described the education performance as, “mediocre.” Clearly, the scope of both the need and the impact is well-known across society. Despite all the sources of assistance and other forms of aid coming into Nicaragua, its developmental outlook can never be hopeful without address of its education shortfall.
The plight seems pretty dire on the face of it, and that’s why our visit a couple of weeks ago with Vanessa Castro was so uplifting. She’s a well-educated educator: a PhD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has worked with the World Bank, IADB, UNESCO, and CIASES . And her passion is education of Nicaragua’s kids, especially through reading development.
On a national level, Vanessa and others are trying to motivate children with a campaign to encourage reading with greater speed and comprehension. Underwritten by several sponsoring organizations, the campaign consists of a contest accepting first-grade classes from all around the country that wish to participate. Any class with a teacher who is full-time and present in class can compete at the school, municipal, and departmental level to reach the finals. 80% of each class must pass the requirements, which include reading an average of at least 25 words per minute and answering 80% of the comprehension questions correctly. The success rates are improving as the number of schools and participants increases, and the excitement is evident in Vanessa’s face as she tells stories of small successes. “Offering awards is just the means to the end of raising these children’s reading fluency to acceptable international standards. We need community motivation, parent participation, and teacher training to spur the children towards these goals.”
Those goals constitute a big part of why WPF has added education as one of its main focal points for assistance. The Foundation’s activities undertaken over the past three years are varied and widespread across public and private organizations, but all with the aim to lift Nicaragua’s children through enhanced education. For example, with WPF involvement the reading literacy program purchased more than 12,000 books last year for placement in primary schools, often constituting the only books available to students in those schools. Some 8,000 children were served by the effort, a mere fraction of the need but nonetheless an important number of kids exposed to new, engaging stories, and a love for reading.
There are lots of ways that organizations like WPF might seek to make a difference in the lives and futures of Nicaraguans, to be sure. But even a cursory assessment of their greatest needs underscores the reality that, reading between the lines, education is the basis of future hope….