Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

EDUCATION-URUGUAY: Literacy Starts at Home

Patricia Montero Lafourcade

PAYSANDÚ, Uruguay, Nov 10 2009 (IPS) - “At first I was embarrassed and had a hard time getting involved, but then I started relaxing. I like it a lot, because it helps me share different things with my kids,” says María José Jara, a young mother from a poor neighbourhood in this Uruguayan city, referring to an innovative and successful family literacy project.

The programme, Cuenta Quien Cuenta, targets slum neighbourhoods, focusing on the entire family to foment reading, social integration and life skills, using texts that address questions like diversity, discrimination, gender issues, decision-making and basic values like friendship.

The programme was the brainchild of Mabel de Agostini and María Noel Guidali, two teachers in the western Uruguayan city of Paysandú who were concerned about the high repetition rates among children from poor neighbourhoods in their district, where one out of four first graders flunked.

The biggest problem, they found, was the lack of reading comprehension.

Teachers take a two-month training course to participate in the programme, which is financed with international development funds secured by the left-wing Broad Front government of the province of Paysandú.

More than 90 teachers, around 500 families and some 1,600 schoolchildren are now involved in the programme, which has had good results, according to evaluations carried out by the provincial government.

Based on the principle that literacy is a right, the programme is centred on the concept of family literacy, which offers the whole family educational opportunities, on the premise that parents and children learn better when learning together.

The family literacy strategy “generates ties and supplies tools that provide its participants with a greater understanding of the problems of the world,” de Agostini tells IPS.

Those who take part in the programme also feel better understood, besides participating more in society, say de Agostini and Guidali, without hiding their enthusiasm over the results obtained so far.

A preliminary evaluation of the programme found that 82 percent of participating children are reading more, while 84 percent of participating parents have started to read stories to their children on a near-daily basis. In addition, 92 percent of participants say ties between teachers and families have been strengthened.

The programme has also drawn international recognition. It is one of 13 finalists selected by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) for the 2008-2009 edition of the Experiences in Social Innovation contest organised annually since 2004 by the regional United Nations agency, with support from the U.S.-based W. K. Kellogg Foundation, to reward creative solutions aimed at reducing poverty and exclusion with active community involvement.

The finalists, chosen from nearly 800 projects submitted from around the region, have been invited to showcase their projects at the Social Innovation Fair to take place Nov. 11-13 in Guatemala City.

This year’s finalists, which come from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay, are competing for first through fifth prize, which bring cash awards ranging from 30,000 to 5,000 dollars, as well as technical support and follow-up from ECLAC.

“This fills us with pride,” says Julio Pintos, the governor of the province of Paysandú, who is also mayor of the provincial capital of the same name.

The provincial government had already launched a special preschool programme for children up to the age of three from poor neighbourhoods.

Preschool education for four-year-olds is already universal in this small South American country situated between Argentina and Brazil, where the illiteracy rate stands at just two percent.

“Two teachers from Paysandú came up with the Cuenta Quien Cuenta programme, which focuses on a central concern of our government: the need to strengthen the link between children and their families, and to rebuild the home as the fundamental source of education on ethics and values,” he tells IPS.

“We are training the people who play a formative role – parents,” Mario Córdoba, the provincial director of social services, comments to IPS.

Beyond the classroom

After several years of teaching, de Agostini and Guidali decided to investigate the reasons for the gap in reading and writing skills between schoolchildren in the poor neighbourhoods where they taught and children in middle-class areas.

“We found that, above and beyond the adequacy of the strategies used by any given teacher, there were other questions that went beyond teaching in the classroom, which had to do with the support that families were able to give their kids,” says Guidali.

After taking a sabbatical year to carry out their study, the two teachers began to design a pilot plan along with 20 other colleagues from four schools in Paysandú, with the aim of closing the gap in student achievement, based on the premise that the family is the key factor in bringing this about.

“We didn’t focus our project only on the poorest areas, because we also wanted to know what was going on in areas where the housing, dietary and health needs of the children were covered,” says de Agostini.

The study confirmed that many more children from low-income families were flunking, mainly because of difficulties in reading and writing.

Guidali says that “we went out to the poor neighbourhoods around the schools to interview the families, and we asked them what place reading had in their daily lives. We realised that it was unlikely that these kids would see reading as something important, because in their homes it was not a habit.”

“We went beyond the work in the classroom and began to work with many adults who had not finished primary school, who found reading complicated because that experience felt like a failure to them,” says de Agostini.

The teachers turned to the Paysandú provincial office of social services, which provided them with an office, materials and connections. The initial goal was to reach families with children up to the age of four.

With that official support, de Agostini and Guidali set up shop on a street corner in Barrio Norte, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city. Although they were a bit wary of the response they would receive, “it was a success,” says Guidali.

“That first time, 17 people came together to read, and it was really special. Our strategy was to revert the painful, embarrassing experience that these people had with reading, using our technique, which goes beyond just reading a story, and relies on kindness and affection,” she says.

The workshops begin with games and exercises, in which the adults have to resolve hypothetical problems involving questions like gender and household roles, so that by the time they get to the reading, they have already loosened up.

The project took off from there, spreading to other poor neighbourhoods, where people spontaneously began to show up to take part, drawn by a newfound sense of community and the possibility of sharing their difficulties.

The links forged among the families were a strong motivating factor, and illiterate and functionally illiterate adults began to read, the teachers explain.

The provincial primary education inspector, Eliberto Ghibaudi, had an equally positive opinion, telling IPS that “this successful programme must be extended.”

Community teachers

At a national level, the educational system’s Community Teachers Programme, which also focuses on the family, had already managed to reduce the first grade repetition rate in low-income areas from 26 to 22 percent in 2007, according to official figures.

Nevertheless, that is still three times higher than the average first grade repetition rate for all schools.

The community teachers, who have no more than 20 students at a time, do things like visiting the homes of children who are unable to attend school every day. The programme exclusively targets schools in the poorest neighbourhoods.

The plan was launched in 2005 by the leftist Broad Front government of President Tabaré Vázquez, who took office that year.

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