School of the Nations tackles illiteracy in its community programme

The face of illiteracy in this country has for some time now been represented by in-school youths who pass through the education system but leave it unable to interpret two sentences.

It is a problem the School of the Nations is currently tackling, one community at a time. The institution makes no claim that it will solve the general problems of illiteracy through its programmes, and its ambitious projects to date have simply been executed as a service to the community. However, Nations’ after-school reading programme, targeting youths in Tiger Bay has had a tremendous impact on a small group of students who are struggling to learn against the odds.

Delroy McLean is a product of Nations’ after-school programme and at 14, he is not ashamed to admit reading was “something I couldn’t do till now.” Delroy has attended school since he became eligible and he has moved from class to class without ever learning how to read. “I know some of the words by looking at them but to read them all together was hard,” he revealed during a recent interview with this newspaper. He said people basically called him a dunce.

“I was called a dunce and I believe it, but when I came here I learn how to read and people ain’t have nothing to say now,” the lad said with a broad smile. He is proud of his accomplishment and he feels like the people at Nations were sent to “help me.” He is now considered one of the better students enrolled in the programme.

Dr Brian O’ Toole, Director of School of the Nations and Nations University said the school has been focused on one thing since its initiation some 15 years ago: service to the community. He admitted the various projects executed in the past have been fragmented, but over the past five months the school has sustained an after-school programme in the Tiger Bay area, which he said, has produced dramatic results within a short period of time.

O’Toole said the project has been going so well that an overseas-based philanthropist has decided to personally fund two full scholarships to Nations for two students from the Tiger Bay area for five years inclusive of school fees, books and uniforms.  He noted that a group of business people from the Tiger Bay area will form a committee to consider the applicants for the scholarship and make a decision as to who gets selected.

“It will show the kids that if they make the effort then they can get educated [here] and get out of poverty,” O’Toole said of the scholarship offer. The children, he said, come from different academic backgrounds; some are clearly struggling while others are high achievers who lack the necessary support to stay on top. Prior to relocating his school to the Tiger Bay area in September 2009, O’Toole said the school had initiated the after school programme. Sixth form students at Nations were asked to take up the initiative and 26 students opted for the programme, offering their services in the areas of reading, art, science and computer studies, among other things.  He said many are committed, adding that “some very exciting things are starting to happen.”

O’Toole said service has been the high priority of Nations since it started, recalling that in the early years the children did service projects such as working along with senior citizens’ homes and with children who are differently-abled. He said the move to the Tiger Bay area seemed ideal because they realized the impact they could have on the children through new programmes.

O’Toole revealed that he was advised against moving to Tiger Bay because “people said it is dangerous.” Though a bit concerned he decided to make the move. According to him, some of the views on the area were based on prejudices from many years ago.

Currently, the school is targeting two groups: children under 11 years and children between the ages of 11 and 14 years. Significantly, he said the mothers from Tiger Bay have been very involved in the project, showing up regularly every week and in the case of one batch, every two weeks to follow up on the progress of their children and to discuss the critical supporting roles they play in the programme.

He disclosed that a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) funded programme which targets youth empowerment is also partnering with Nations. He mentioned that the Varqa Foundation, which was also initiated at Nations, had put up a proposal for the programme to UNDP which was supported.

He noted that five volunteers from UNDP also joined the after-school programme. “The idea is to use the resources we get to give the project a boost,” he added.

O’Toole pointed out that some five years ago Varqa was commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to look at the challenge of illiteracy in Guyana and according to him, some 5,000 students were accessed and around 20 per cent of the 12-year-old children surveyed could not read. O’Toole, who has been in Guyana with his family some 30 years now, said he is excited about the possibilities of the after-school programme. They are currently in the Tiger Bay area, but are also examining where to expand to and which areas to include. “We have seen some dramatic results from the children who attend regularly. What this combines is a commitment to serve and the desire to equip parents in the area with the skills they need to help their children,” he added.

Leon Niles, one of the UNDP volunteers noted that the project has been fulfilling “so far” and said that it is growing into something really special. He said the children are great to work with and he believes that they are only now getting started.

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