In January 2017, we will launch the Starfish Impact School—a free, all-girls secondary school that will differ dramatically from any existing school in Guatemala.
According to a recent report by the Malala Fund, 32 million girls are currently missing out on the first 3 years of secondary education, and millions more who start never graduate. The first target of UN Sustainable Development Goal #4 is to ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. While enrollment in primary education in developing regions reached 91% in 2015, current trends suggest it will be another 95 years before there is parity in girls’ lower secondary education for the poorest 20%.
Young indigenous women in rural areas face the greatest education barriers, often due to a lack of physical access to education centers or an absence of curricula in their native languages. According to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, only 10% of indigenous girls who live in rural Guatemalan communities are enrolled in secondary school, and less than 1% continue on to university.
Further compounding this problem is the severely substandard Guatemalan educational system. According to the Guatemalan Ministry of Education, only 10% of high school graduates meet international standards of literacy, and only 8.5% reach the standards of math comprehension. Schools in rural Guatemala lack both quality and quantity. These debilitating factors severely impede each young woman’s ability to realize her full potential as a productive employee, social changemaker, and leader. All that being said, designing and launching the Starfish Impact School is an understandably complicated and difficult endeavor.
We want to share exactly how we are designing this school to maximize sustainability and ensure quality. The length of a school day will double (8 hours versus the traditional 4), and students and educators have spent the past year rigorously preparing for this major shift. For students, this means attending Escuela Estrellitas. After a week of their usual schooling, 50 rising 7th-graders spend their Sundays with our educators and mentors in Sololá. Here, in addition to getting acclimated to Starfish’s culture of wellness and empowerment, they have been receiving lessons in language arts and mathematics from our educators.
“When they first started, they were so timid and soft-spoken. Now they raise their hands, they speak up in class, and they are becoming more confident,” says educator and Sololá mentor Jerónima. “I’m very excited to watch them grow.”
For educators, this means intensive professional development and content coaching. Achieving quality education in a country where rote learning is the norm requires investment. Teachers have to be retrained; curricula must be overhauled. They are completely re-learning what teaching means, having never seen these techniques used in their own education, and it’s impressive to watch.
Our educators spent months learning teaching techniques to ensure that they are using class time in the most effective way possible. Consultants and methodologies were sourced from organizations all over the world such as KIPP charter schools, Contextos in El Salvador, and GALS (Girls Athletic Leadership Schools) in Denver. Every week, Oscar Alvarez—our Director of Innovation—teaches these new techniques to our educators and they then incorporate them into their lesson plans. Last week, our educators moved on to Phase 2 and began giving biweekly practice courses to their fellow educators. This not only creates a safe practice space between educators, but it also encourages the same skills we want to foster in our students: critical thinking, creativity, working in groups, and assertiveness.
To build content, educators have been working with content coaches—bilingual experts in their respective teaching fields—to develop dynamic, project-based curricula designed to meet the needs of today’s society.
Virgilio, our language arts educator, says, “It’s a great opportunity to strengthen ourselves as educators—you have an ally that can help you maintain a high level of work. My coach has been very helpful in the planning of my curriculum, from analyzing objectives to identifying appropriate books for assignments.”
In addition to all of this, our educators also receive biweekly coaching from Oscar and Alix (our Director of Curriculum and Assessments). In these sessions, they go over their curricula, set and assess goals, and receive constant feedback from their teaching sessions amongst their peers and at Escuela Estrellitas. “I’ve never seen the kind of support for teachers I’m seeing at Starfish day in and day out and the kind of dedication they have,” says Alix. “This is revolutionary for education. It is changing the way people think about education within the community.”
This is just a glimpse into the hard work our staff is putting in every single day to make this school a reality—to bring quality secondary education to indigenous Guatemalan girls. We are breaking the rote learning culture that exists within classrooms in much of the developing world, a culture that will not produce the curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking that the jobs of the future will require. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s extraordinary. When there’s so much room for progress, it means you make huge leaps every single day.