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Intercultural Bilingual Education

© UNICEF Belize/2011/A. Hoare
Boys in Aguacate RC School making corn tortillas

1 January 2011

Belize, 1 January 2010 –It seems like any other school, but Aguacate Primary School is not a regular school. This special school is now a center of inspiration and motivation for its students and parents aiming at addressing quality intercultural and relevant education. This approach to education is called Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE). It entails an approach with lessons conducted in both the indigenous Q’eqchi language and English. It is suited to the particular circumstances of Belize, home to a variety of ethnic groups including the Mayan Q’eqchi people from Aguacate Village where the community now views diversity as a source of enrichment rather than a factor of exclusion. 

Let me introduce you to, Pablo, who is now enjoying his favourite class. Unlike other children in other schools, Pablo is participating in a reformed model of education in Belize, a country aiming at successfully competing in the global economy, by preparing its human capital through better opportunities for all including its indigenous people.

As a Q’eqchi, Pablo’s father was not comfortable and confident to speak his native tongue due to the subtle intimidation and negative perception toward his language, but today Pablo is very motivated and he likes his school as he feels proud of his language and identity. He feels that he can now understand the concepts taught at school better because of the bilingual approach used.

Pablo also loves that his parents are more involved as they all feel more welcomed knowing that they have an active role to play in their children’s education. All parents now incorporate their knowledge in the curriculum and so they also contribute to this new approach. The principal of Aguacate Primary School, Mr. Kukul, states that parents have a real sense of ownership and pride in creating a healthy and safe school that ensures positive behaviour among the children. They established a feeding program using their own resources. It is indeed an empowering experience when parents feel that they can help provide quality education for their children.

In addition, IBE has liberated the teachers’ and parents’ creative energies and has opened a safe space for meaningful engagement in addressing the challenges of providing relevant quality education for rural indigenous children. IBE has improved students’ performance and reduced drop out rates, increased community participation and established a great sense of pride among all involved.

It is widely recognized that universal primary education has been achieved in Belize, but major challenges still remain in fulfilling the universal right to a quality primary education as it is believed that the major shortcomings are related to social inequalities. 

Before IBE schools, repetition for Pablo would have been the norm, as it is the highest in first grade and among rural schools, especially in indigenous communities. Today, IBE schools help to reduce repetition as the bilingual, bi-cultural education methodologies are proving to be successful. As a multicultural nation, the Government of Belize demonstrates sensitivity to multiculturalism and multilingualism. However, positive values and attitudes toward cultural and linguistic diversity have not permeated educational policy decisions and has been absent in schools making the IBE schools a ray of sunshine in this regard.

Hit hard by poverty and inequalities, Aguacate children are increasingly proud of the new social and physical school environment that reflects a change which gives value to local knowledge and culture. This is evidenced by the establishment of the feeding program which uses local resources in preparing healthy lunches twice a week where parents rotate in preparing meals using local foods complemented by the children’s herbs and spices reaped from their school’s gardens. Teaching of the traditional arts, music and dance using the harp and marimba is fully engaging teachers, children and parents alike.

Aguacate Primary School, located in the Aguacate Village in the southernmost district of Toledo, serves 104 students, 61 males and 43 females. The village has a population of 330 with a homogenous community of Q’eqchi people dedicated to subsistence farming. The school was established by the Roman Catholic Mission and is a grant-aided school where government pays teacher salaries and assists in infrastructural development but the church manages the school.

 With UNICEF’s assistance, IBE methodologies are being implemented by the National Q’eqchi and Garifuna Councils (NGC). In 2008, the IBE project addressing issues of disparity and quality affecting indigenous children was consolidated and included by the Ministry in its Annual Work Plan. The relevance of curriculum to indigenous populations was improved and a pilot approach to teaching of English as a second language using first languages was developed.

Today, 476 children in three schools are benefiting, 75 “trainers of trainers” are now working with schools and communities after completing training in bi-lingual, multi-cultural education in the indigenous languages of Q’eqchi, Mopan, and Garifuna; additionally 16 Mopan parents received the first phase of literacy training in their own language and 20 parents received training in school governance.

Thanks to the positive outcomes of the IBE schools, teachers and parents are empowered to provide quality education for their children. Mr. Kukul, his staff, parents and elders of the community meet every  week to plan together to transform their school and the lives of not only the children of Aguacate Primary School but the entire community of Aguacate. Supporting intercultural and bilingual education is an approach to education and development that considers the cultural rights of indigenous children and their families by providing them with education that promotes the development of their own cultures and language in the classroom. IBE schools for children like Pablo is one of UNICEF’s priorities in reducing inequalities in countries such as Belize.



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