DEFIANCE, Ohio - Nine Defiance College students, faculty and staff spent their 2011 spring break on an island off the coast of Belize in Central America. Their journey, however, was not the typical spring break adventure. The group was a learning community from DC’s McMaster School for Advancing Humanity, and the focus of their trip was to work with teachers and students of the Holy Cross Anglican School in San Mateo in one of the poorest regions of Belize.
The DC group included Blake Ruffer, an integrated math major from Stryker, Ohio.
The group of students also included Nicole Grim and Sarah Hornish, both of Defiance; Rachael Lange, Berea; Aubrie Ridinger, Grafton; and Tyler Thomas, Holgate. Leading the group was McMaster Fellow Robin Kratzer, director of DC’s Academic Resource Center. Joining them were McMaster Associate Fellows Joshua Francis, assistant professor of education, and Cindy Shaffer, director of planned giving.
Defiance College has had ties with this location since 2007 when Shaffer and her husband Dick visited Belize. That is when they first discovered Holy Cross Anglican School, met Francis and Vernon Wilson, the school’s founders, and had their first walk-through of the San Mateo community.
Holy Cross Anglican School was founded five years ago by the Wilsons who moved to Belize in 2001 serving as Episcopal missionaries with the Anglican Diocese of Belize. They took a few days of vacation to the island of Ambergris Caye where they noticed a large number of children who were not in school. The Wilsons discovered that the children were not in school due to lack of available school space. After much discussion, prayer, and hard decision-making, they decided to build a school. They were allotted eight acres of swamp land in San Mateo. Construction began in July 2006, and the school opened in September the same year with 62 students, three teachers and three classrooms.
In response to a plea for help from the Wilsons, Cindy Shaffer took a three-month leave of absence from Defiance College during the fall of 2007 so that she and husband Dick could return as full-time volunteers at Holy Cross during the transition from three grades to a full primary school of eight grades. Shaffer said, “Neither of us are teachers, but we did anything and everything they needed, including painting, assembling desks, assisting in the kitchen, sorting uniforms, distributing textbooks and tutoring. We fell in love with the children of Holy Cross, and our lives have been forever changed by the experience.”
When the Shaffers returned to Defiance, Cindy lobbied for a McMaster site at San Mateo. She related the potential for social work, science, religion and educational projects and told of the deplorable conditions and the opportunities for research.
Since 2007, Dick and Cindy have continued to go to Holy Cross at least twice a year. In February of 2010, while attending an educational conference in Belize City, Robin Kratzer and Joshua Francis, Defiance College education faculty, explored locations including Holy Cross Anglican School, identifying needs for future McMaster School trips. Kratzer and Francis took an interest in the educational needs and opportunities at the school, and this most recent project was born.
Currently there are 450 students divided into 17 classrooms at Holy Cross School. Of the 17 teachers, two are trained, five have some type of course work above high school or an associate degree in a related or unrelated field, and the remaining 10 have nothing above a high school diploma. The teacher turnover rate is high because most are from the mainland and are assigned to teach on the island by the Ministry of Education, but it is too expensive to live on the island. There is a need for more classrooms and more teachers. However, the Ministry of Belize has decreed that the school is not allowed to build any more classrooms over water; the swamp must be filled in first, which is very costly. New buildings are also being required to withstand hurricane force winds.
The Defiance College group worked with teachers and students at the school creating lesson plans and activities to demonstrate alternative teaching strategies for teachers to use in the classroom as well as introducing a reading intervention program to assist in increasing literacy.
Kratzer noted, “A strong focal point for me was the 30-station computer lab that was donated two years ago. This is the only computer lab in a primary school in the country.” She was told that the teachers needed training on how to use the technology and how to integrate it into their classroom teaching. This need along with the plea for pedagogical training of teachers inspired Kratzer to write a proposal for this location. “There is much work to be done at Holy Cross Anglican School and the San Mateo community to help the people have a chance at a sustainable life,” she said.
Francis saw a great need for classroom management training as well as instructional strategy training for teachers.
The group also worked with the local community, helping them to build roads of rock and silt to replace the precarious network of board sidewalks known as London bridges. The unstable plank bridges extend above a lagoon heavily polluted from sewage and trash. With little help from the Belizean government, San Mateo citizens have lived for more than a decade without roads, electricity, sewage disposal, or clean water.
Carol Babb, deputy chief executive officer of the District Offices in the Belize Ministry of Education, met with the DC group and expressed her gratitude for the work done by the college students as well as the teaching materials that were provided. She hopes to extend use of the resources to other schools in the country.
Defiance College, chartered in 1850, is an independent, liberal arts institution in Northwest Ohio offering more than 40 undergraduate programs of study as well as graduate programs in education and business. Defiance College has received national recognition for its educational experience of service and engagement. The college website is www.defiance.edu.
June 27, 2011