Global Activism: 'ConTextos' aiding children in Central America through literacy education

July 17, 2014

Photo by James Garbarino
'ConTextos' Founder Debra Gittler, at San Jorge School, located in a coffee farm.

While Central American children flood into the U.S. to escape crime & poverty, Chicagoan Debra Gittler works to create conditions on-the-ground through literacy education, opportunity & advocacy, that she hopes will help these children thrive and keep them in their home countries. Debra moved to Central America to start ConTextos. The group says “[We do] more than just develop the mechanical skills of sounding out words. We encourage kids to think deeply, to be curious, and to question their environment.” For Global Activism, Gittler tells us how her work is spreading across Central America.

Just the other day, I was at a school in Usulutan, one of the areas of El Salvador that has had an explosion of violence post the gang truce. I sat with Manuel, a first grader, who told me: "I have lots of family in the United States," he explained. "Cousins and aunts and uncles. But I want to stay here in El Salvador. I like my school."

When we asked Debra to tell us about the importance of her work, she wrote:

I want to emphasize the relevance of our work in Central America, especially given the refugee kids at the border. To emphasize that the reality is, these kids have access to schools, but no education; ConTextos changes that. We are growing throughout the region and looking for greater support in our hometown here in Chicago. Those kids at the border... those are the same kids that we serve.

Just the other day, I was at a school in Usulutan, one of the areas of El Salvador that has had an explosion of violence post the gang truce. I sat with Manuel, a first grader, who told me: "I have lots of family in the United States," he explained. "Cousins and aunts and uncles. But I want to stay here in El Salvador. I like my school."

Before ConTextos, Manuel had no books and his entire experience was copy and dictation. He went to school four hours a day. Now, his school is open to him all day long, he has access to books and other materials, and he has real conversations in his classroom. We read a book called "Where are the Giants" about hidden magic in the world. Manuel says to me (I'm translating): "You know--and this isn't in the news, but it's true-- I've heard that there are fairies in Mexico..."

I asked his teacher about Manuel. She said that before, she used to scold him for his imagination. Now she encourages it. Her students are encouraged to think and imagine and explore. Classroom attendance is up.

And this school is in the midst of gang territory. MS 18 is scribbled on the walls of the school. Manuel's photo is below.

It's important to realize that even though we are a literacy organization-- and the only org in the region with the goal and implementation in multiple countries; whereas Africa and Asia have multiple orgs addressing the lack of resources and training across countries, Central Am/ Latin Am have NONE-- we go far beyond just teaching reading.

At one of our schools--an area of extreme poverty where most live as subsistence farmers-- the school ran out of space for their school garden. "Why can't we plant on the roof?" asked one of the 5th graders. At first, the teacher balked that it was a ridiculous idea. Now they are growing basil and mint on their roof. The teacher explained: "by changing how we teach-- asking questions, encouraging the kids to question-- we've seen changes in how they approach life." These kids live in areas with plenty of problems. With ConTextos' intervention, they're encouraged to think about those problems.

That school was one of our first schools. There's now 13 schools in their network. Kids read at a "1st world" level. The Ministry uses the schools as models for teacher development.