Schoolchildren with books they received through the Guatemala Literacy Project. Courtesy photo
BY LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
On Tuesday, July 21, Rotarian Joe Berninger, executive director of the Guatemala Literacy Project (GLP), was the guest speaker for the Rotary Club of Los Alamos. Celebrating 23 years of service, the GLP is dedicated to “breaking the cycle of poverty in Guatemala through education.” Berninger is a member of the Ohio Pathways Rotary Club.
Presenting from Cincinnati through Zoom, Berninger told Rotarians about this educational program which was established in 1997. The GLP is now one of the largest, grassroots, multi-club and multi-country projects in the Rotary world. Over 600 clubs participate worldwide, and the program currently serves over 55,000 impoverished children everyday by providing textbooks, computers, teacher training, and scholarships.
With citizens in so many countries needing assistance of some kind, Berninger chose to focus on Guatemala because it was considered, at the time, as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In 1997, two-thirds of the Guatemalan populace were illiterate; 80% lived in poverty. Most adults used their inked thumbprints as signatures accompanied by their names written by someone with literacy skills.
Using a three competencies standard–reading and teacher training, technology, and graduation–GLP lifts school children out of poverty by providing as many as 12 years of education, instead of the usual six. In 2002, one boy saw no future for himself after elementary school. Encouraged by GLP, he went on to attend school for another six years and has now graduated from college and manages a hotel. His education changed his life, bringing him from stifling poverty into a solid middle-class lifestyle.
The first competency, reading and teacher training, incorporates methods in which teachers, all who must have 12 years of education, are trained for two years and coached during in-class sessions. Each classroom has at least 150 books. Students learn to read and are encouraged to portray stories through theater and write their own books to add to the classroom library. Eight-hundred teachers have already been trained through GLP’s program. Together, over the course of their combined careers, they can instruct two million students.
Berninger noted that 90% of the students who live in rural areas do not have access to textbooks. Rotary has provided over 200 different textbook titles to 25,000 students. Rotary has also established 52 computer centers and 94 reading centers with outreach to over 700 schools. The availability of textbooks has helped increase test scores, and teachers have regained 25% of their classroom teaching time because students are more self-sufficient.
To sustain the project, students are charged a very small fee each year for the use of their books. That money is re-invested in new books at the end of five years.
The second competency is technology. Berninger stated that 60% of mid-level jobs require computer skills. To address that need, GLP provides three years of computer training with over 100 lessons. Ninety-five percent of the students who complete these studies find jobs or decide to further their education.
Last but not least, graduation is the third competency. Only 10% of Guatemalan school children graduate from high school. To increase that number, GLP teaches life skills, such as leadership and practicing for job interviews. Students are also exposed to a wide variety of career opportunities–such as engineering, medicine, administration–as teaching is usually the only professional role familiar to them. Students also complete a community service project every year.
In 2018, Rotary International President Ian Riseley, speaking at the annual international conference of Rotarians in Atlanta, told the crowd of 33,000 that the Guatemala Literacy Project was “the gold standard of Rotary projects.”
When asked about the biggest challenges GLP encounters, Berninger said the parents’ and children’s “low expectations.” He continued by saying that, as indigenous peoples, they are used to being “in the underclass and oppressed,” so do not have the confidence in their abilities and doubt the opportunities for success that are available to them through literacy.
To learn more about the Guatemala Literacy Project, please go to: https://www.guatemalaliteracy.org/.”