TYLER, Texas — The University of Texas at Tyler announced yesterday that it has been awarded a $241,502 grant from the U.S. Embassy in Belize to strengthen primary education in remote villages across the Central American country.
"We want to provide support for the Ministry of Education to have a consistent quality of teachers wherever they go so that we can impact the potential of these students in these remote villages," Wes Hickey, UT Tyler’s Dean of Education and Psychology and a member of the Teachers for a Better Belize nonprofit organization, said.
Last year, UT Tyler’s School of Education entered a partnership with the Belize Ministry of Education to help redesign the country’s teacher preparation program. With the help of the grant, the UT Tyler team will focus on two of the lowest-performing educational districts in Belize: Toledo and Stann Creek.
These areas have extremely remote villages, most not accessible by car until recently, Hickey said. A combination of lack of access to electricity, poor educational resources and inconsistent teacher training has caused these remote schools to underperform on the country’s standardized tests.
To combat this, Dr. Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz, associate professor and assistant director of the School of Education, is leading the charge to update Belize’s educational philosophies.
"Going into Belize with this project, for us, is about meeting their needs and doing what they need to develop their own education system,” Oliveras-Ortiz said. “My ultimate goal and I would say Dean Hickey's as well, is the fact that we want Belizians to build a capacity so that they can scale up this project with our help ... ultimately we want to step back and let them take the lead."
Belize, according to Oliveras-Ortiz, needs to “shift” their education to more student-centered and project-based learning, as well as preparing to teach with technology — a new hurdle that has arisen because of the country's COVID-19 shutdown.
But Oliveras-Ortiz’s main goal is to create “field supervisors” to guide soon-to-be and new teachers on how to effectively educate students.
Hickey and Oliveras-Ortiz are hoping for a trickle-down effect — by helping these field supervisors to instruct teachers, they plan to see the teachers become better educators for their students, improving test scores across the most underperforming districts.
“We want to make sure that as teachers are developed there and even beginning teachers in that area that they get the extra support to be even stronger as they work with students," Hickey said.
But this program is not only beneficial for Belize — it has an impact on the UT Tyler students and faculty who participate.
"The experiences that we get Belize are really unique,” Oliveras-Ortiz said. “It allows us to go into a country where English is the language of instruction ... probably 99% if not 100% speak other languages other an English at home. It's the perfect place for us as educators to really understand English-language learning and instruction of students in a second language."
Hickey also explains that study-abroad UT Tyler students will take educational practices they’ve developed while in school, like small-group work, and implement it in under-performing classrooms for Belizian teachers to model.
Most importantly, Oliveras-Ortiz said, the experiences challenge student’s perceptions “about diversity and equity.”
“They all have to take standardized tests, just like our students do, so it really challenges them to think very differently and really appreciate what we have," Oliveras-Ortiz said.
Oliveras-Ortiz and Hickey will travel with two other faculty members to Belize to begin working with the Ministry of Education on training field supervisors and creating a consistent curriculum for teaching educators next summer.
But, because of COVID-19, they may have to begin their efforts virtually. Even this past year, Hickey said, they’ve had several teachers from UT Tyler’s educational department join in the effort to lead professional development training for the country digitally.
"Going to Belize really opened my eyes to how fortunate we are in the United States and how much we could and can do with all the resources that we have for our students,” Oliveras-Ortiz said. "It's an experience that has truly changed my life and the perspective of what's really important in life and we do we need to do to make a difference.”