Educating the Island Nation
Bay Islands Have Caught Up with Mainland’s Abysmal Educational Record. Is there a way out?

August 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] The US invasion of Iraq and the Bay Island’s public education system have something in common. They both failed, yet few people have a reasonable hope of making them succeed. The US and Honduran central and local governments find it difficult to ‘stop supporting the troops, or teachers’ fighting there. In both cases a completely new approach is needed. Some individuals and an education committee are looking at alternatives for making a change.

V5-8-Feature-EducationOpportunity Lost, Promises Broken

In the first week of February I encountered a ladino family of eight squatting on a piece of land in shacks without running water or electricity. Of the family’s six young children, three were not in school because the family “could not afford to buy them school uniforms and supplies,” I was told at first.

The reasons why the three 11 to 13 year old boys were not in school were more complex I soon found out. The two boys: Jesus and Oscar, lived on Roatan for six years and had jobs as grocery store helpers. The third one, 15-years-old Juan, came to Roatan only three month before from Olancho and after three grades could neither read nor write.

Juan said that if he went back to school his classmates would make fun of his age. I argued that the teasing would stop in a week and if he managed to learn how to read he wouldn’t end up being teased for the rest of his life.

At the end of the day and Lps. 3,000 later, two of the boys were ready to go to school. While Jesus and Oscar made a promise that in exchange for this opportunity they would go to school for the entire year, Juan decided to focus on looking for a job. When I checked with their teacher I was told Jesus and Oscar stopped coming to class in May. This sad story is en example of the complex and uphill struggle that the people on the Bay Islands are facing and of the priorities that they have.

The Attitude

Someone always has to be last and there is a reason why Honduras is at the bottom of educational systems in Central America. Amongst 9 countries that are already poor, it is Honduras that is furthest behind and there are many reasons for that. One of the most important reasons is Honduras’ moribund education system. If anything is to change it for the better, it is unlikely it will catch up to Nicaragua or Guatemala.

“The problem is that children are not taught to question, debate, or rationalize. I think it is a cultural thing,” says Cam O’Brien, chair of Roatan Municipal Education Commission funded in March 2007.

You cannot outrun the Honduran mentality. Education is way down the list of priorities for typical Hondurans and that will not be changed easily. What Hondurans value in general are not education and honesty, but wealth and power. Changing that will take many generations. It is much easier to reinforce current attitudes than fight them.

From a Bay Islands perspective, perfecting the Honduras’ national education system for the benefit of island youth is impossible. The national educational system is hopelessly dysfunctional and youth are finding ways of educating themselves despite of it, not because of it.

All About the Benefits

The 61,000 Honduran public teachers are a privileged group, capable and ready to protect their own interest and benefits. According to O’Brien, around 98% of the Bay Islands education budget goes towards teacher salaries. “The whole system is focused on salaries and benefits, but is not interested in improving the education system,” says O’Brien.

The Honduras government, while hesitant, almost always gives in to teacher demands, organized in their Honduran Teachers Federations (FOHM). The teacher’s 2006 street protests raised their base monthly base salary from $298 to $353. While the month long strikes continued, 2.5 million Honduran school children stayed at home. According to Oxfam, IMF disagreement over teacher salary increases has cost the country $500 million in delayed debt relief and donor aid cuts.

Honduran teachers, six times more numerous and far better paid than police officers, form a powerful lobby ready to defend their rights and benefits they acquired over time. Too often the interests of teachers do not go with the interests of the students. In 2005, 80 of the 200 class days were squandered as a result of teacher’s strikes and protests.

The teachers who go against the system are ostracized. Eight years ago a national teachers strike paralyzed the Bay Islands schools and one teacher decided to keep on giving classes. Professor Rosa Amelia Bindel taught in Brick Bay until she was pressured by fellow teachers to stop teaching. “She would buy things that the children needed,” says about Bindel Maritza Busitllo, a Brick Bay resident.
Quite a price to pay.

A Typical School

Fausto Miguel School in Brick Bay is a typical Bay Island school. Founded in 1990, in 2001 it received its own two classroom building built with Roatan Municipal money. While the light bill is paid from the Departments Education budget, the children’s parents pay for water and 25 mothers alternate cooking the afternoon student meals.

The school’s four teachers earn an average of Lps. 17,000 a month. With bonuses and administrative costs, the Honduran government pays Lps. 1.1 million a year to educate the school’s 83 students. The yearly cost per student is Lps. 13,250. That does not include educational materials such as transportation costs, uniforms, and supplies that are all paid by the parents.

The most affordable of Roatan’s bilingual schools, Church of God School in Coxen Hole, educates a typical student for Lps. 14,800 a year. It would make more financial sense for the Honduran government to pay private Bay Islands’ schools to educate.

Litmus Test

The litmus tests of the Bay Islands education system is provided by the foreigners who decide to raise their children here. While Hondurans may have few choices, foreigners with children face the dilemma of moving back or sending their children to boarding school to ensure that they have a chance at a western level education.

“I love the multicultural aspect of education here,” says Kim Dueffert, a 14 year Roatan resident who nevertheless would not consider keeping her only child in the island educational system beyond first, or second grade. Her five-year-old daughter Mia, will go attend a grade school in Wisconsin starting in August. “I will be curious to see how she will do in the US education system,” says Dueffert.

For Frenchman Pascal Accard and Canadian Leinie Cohen, a couple who lived in West Bay for 11 years, priorities changed once their two children reached school age. In 2006, while still overlooking a hotel business on the island, they decided to leave Roatan for Panama. “The teachers in Panama all have diplomas. They are not just recruited off the street,” said Accard. “Our children were born here. They are islanders, but we have to show them a vision of other places other than Roatan.”

Foreigners are not the only people looking at options to the island education. Islanders with families in the US often try to send their children to US schools. One of them is Ramsey McNab, 14, and ready to move to Tampa. Just like his brother Kerry and several other family members before him, he plans on transferring from Children’s Palace grade 9 to a Florida Junior High’s grade 10.

The most difficult part of continuing the education in the US is finding a place to stay and not everyone has family willing to take the students in. Ben Gough, a student in the same situation as Ramsey had to give up his aspirations of studying in an American High School because he doesn’t have a family in US.

Food for Thought

Despite the concept of feeding the needy, the school lunch program administered in Bay Islands’ schools develops and enforces poor dietary habits Hondurans suffer from already. Rice, beans, sardines and vegetable oil meals cooked by student parents or teachers themselves are hardly a solution to the children’s nutrition situation, but shape the diets and eating habits of children in the county’s public school system. Correspondingly problems with obesity and poor nutrition surface in Hondurans as young as 18.

At French Harbour public library a high school student receives free tutoring from a US volunteer.

At French Harbour public library a high school student receives free tutoring from a US volunteer.

Municipal’s Help

According to UN 23% of the Honduran budget, or round $422 million, is spent on education. Out of that, $3.7 million or 0.9%, goes to the Bay Islands. To relieve the need for new schools and maintenance, all Bay Islands Municipals had too step in with financial help.

Over the last 18 months, Roatan Municipal built 30 new classrooms at a cost of Lps. 6 million. While education scholarships at one point granted by Mayor Hynds are no longer offered, the Municipal is paying 36 salaries of English teachers, Lps. 130,000 a month, to teach at the public schools.

Can’t Help Everyone

The premise about helping all the children is a difficult one. If anything, you can save the brightest children and help them succeed in getting ahead. The few children that succeed in Bay Islands public schools succeed not because of them, but despite them. Half of children enrolled in Roatan Bilingual School are ladino, and according to Cheryl Galindo, owner of the school, it is because their parents see a clear benefit of the private education system.

The Roatan public school system is as broken as anywhere else in Honduras. It cannot help itself, regardless good intentions. “Teachers blame parents, parents blame teachers, and everyone blames the government,” says O’Brien. In a six month period, the commission wants to go through three phases: gathering information, analysis and finally designing a realistic model for improving the Bay Islands’ education system.

The improvement issue might come to whether they will have to work within the existing national education structure or could they look at their own models. “We are looking at all options,” says O’Brien.


Methodist Bilingual School cadets on September 15 parade

Few Roatan schools, let alone students, have even a complete set of text books. The only books available to teachers are for Spanish and Math. O’Brien took on the system to equip an education center at Sandy Bay Public School near her home. “After six month of lobbying, the Ministry of Education finally sent us a complete set of books,”says O’Biren.

Still, just having the books does not solve the issue. The books offered by the government are held in such low esteem that families of the Corozal Public School decided to buy a set of Santilla books, at Lps. 250 each, for their children instead of getting the government ones.

“We assemble our own books to teach from,” says Estefi Romero, 28, director and teacher of the Brick Bay’s Fausto Miguel School. “The new books lack definitions of terms and stories of witches are inappropriate.” Many Bay Islands teachers feel uncomfortable using the materials provided by Central Education Ministry. They prefer using school books published by Santilla and Division Publica, Spanush language publishers of school books.

Where are the Bay Islands?

There is no mention of Bay Islands in the text books provided by the government in grades 1 through 6. The first reference of Spanish conquistadors in Honduras is not the 1505 Columbus landing on Guanaja, but 20 years later Hernan Cortez coming to Puerto Cortez. The Honduran education authorities would rather lose 20 years of its history than acknowledge the Bay Islands in its history books.

The new books provided by the government base the educational strategy on educating through a story. But among stories of witches, peasants and city children there is not a single story about the Honduras’ islanders. The Honduras education system is not only neglectful; it is purposely omitting the heritage of some of its people.

The Method

Most teaching done in the Bay Islands’ public schools is done in two classroom schools, far away from any supervision. Many teachers are uncomfortable using the new Spanish language books as they contain stories about witches and goblins. “They don’t teach it for religious reasons,” says O’Brien. Whatever the reason maybe, the public school teachers make their individual decisions if and how to use the textbooks in the classrooms. Many teachers just follow their own methodology of teaching with little supervision and no accountability. According to Andy Watler, no teacher has ever been fired from their post in the Bay Islands.

Example of Cooperation

The current illiteracy ration of 40%-60% didn’t apply in the Bay Islands until the 80s when the ladino migration to the archipelago created a class of illiterate and semi-literate adults. Twenty five years ago, almost every Islander would go to school, and would be able to read and write, many times, in two languages. As the school enrollment ratio has gradually declined on the islands to reflect the mainland 50% enrollment, illiteracy grew.

An example of how things used to be in an education structure is the community of 800 people of Saint Helene island where there are two schools. The government school in which 150 students are enrolled is staffed by four teachers who commute to the island from Oak Ridge. Because of the commute, the classes are really only given on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The islands private school, Helene Bilingual School FBEL has 97 students. Larry Benson, director of the school, says that 60-70% of the school’s children have their $150-$300 monthly tuition paid for by sponsors in the US. At the same time, FBEL organizes and pays for construction of the roof and school supplies of the government school. The private school is training four island women to eventually take the educational responsibilities from the school’s American teachers.

Private Helping Public

Saint Helene’s EFBEl isn’t the only private school cooperating with a public school. According to ex-department BI director of education Marta Herrera, there are 537 scholarships for study in the public schools. “There is a way to exchange knowledge, share our curriculum to walk together towards the same goal,” said Herrera about public and private school cooperation in the Bay Islands.

Herrera was in charge of a Lps. 70 million budget, around 400 public school teachers and 200 private school teachers. With all the vested parties, it is sometimes difficult to see a consistency of efforts. “We have to invest in our children’s education, but everyone is pulling in different directions,” said Galindo about the BI Education Commission work.

University Anyone?

When O’Brien first came through the doors of the Sandy Bay School in 2005, the facilities were abysmal. “520 children in a 5-room school. No working toilets or running water,” O’Brien describes of the school. To raise funds and improve the situation, O’Brien came up with a novel way of fundraising.

Every Thursday at 6:30pm a crab race is held at Bay Islands Beach Resort owned and managed by O’Brien. Between March and December 2006, the races raised $10,000 that was used to purchase computers, redo plumbing, wiring and create a first of its kind learning center at the Sandy Bay Elementary School. The attitude of the Sandy Bay students improved dramatically.

O’Brien isn’t alone in trying to make a difference. Shelli Heil, 40, an ex-business owner who in February moved to Roatan from the US, has devoted herself to launching a mentoring and counseling program to the few Roatanians that are thinking of college.

Heil wanted to make a difference, but decided that instead of fighting the system from top down, she could accomplish most if she works with students individually. On July 14, students were partnered with five tutors, US medical students already volunteering at the Clinica Esperanza in Sandy Bay.

Heil set up a mentoring program for students in grades 9-11 thinking about going on to University. The tutoring takes place at the French Harbour’s Library, a place full of books and learning equipment that looks empty, abandoned by island youth. The only people using the library were the tutors and their students.

What Heil found out that students lack understanding of how to go about applying to universities. “There were many people that promised these children a lot and never delivered,” said Heil.
In all, there are around 10 organizations in the Bay Islands attempting to improve the education situation in the island department. The primary education efforts eventually translate into university education opportunities for some of islands youth. “In this country everyone seems to think that education ends at sixth grade,” says O’Brien. According to O’Brien, out of the 15,000 students in the department, 404 graduated from high school in 2006 and less then 10, that is 1/20 of 1%, went on to a university.

What Can Happen?

While it is unrealistic to count on changing the Hondurans attitude towards education, you can try a few ambitious programs that could change the fate of a small Honduran department.

Today, to give their children opportunity of getting ahead, Islanders send their children away to Tegucigalpa, San Pedro and La Ceiba. If anything, maybe Bay Islands could be a place where island children stay for their education, all the way through the university.

To improve the archipelago’s education environment in any significant and meaningful way, thinking outside the box is needed. Part of that help can came from developing a strong scholarship system to private Bay Islands schools to support the talented youth and relieve the overstretched public system. Other help can come from individual programs run by pragmatically, realistically thinking individuals and organizations.

It will take courage to enact a Bay Island wide education reform. Considering the rigidity of the government education system and vested interests of public teachers’ unions, reform looks even less likely. It is also much easier to support the failed governments’ educational program and, despite all its failings, just throw money at it. The Honduran education system is broken and no one department strategy is likely to help this in a significant way. Even with good ideas and good will, you cannot fix, or perfect something that is failing at the core. [/private]

Florida Hospital volunteers paint a mural at the French Harbour community clinic.

Accident Express: Riding 40 miles an hour construction workers commute back to their homes on the back of lorry trucks

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