Penn State Scholars Observe Bilingual Primary School in Belize
by Joe Savrock (May 2009)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Three doctoral candidates and a faculty member of Penn State’s School Psychology Program recently traveled to the Central America country of Belize to evaluate the region’s community response to a new bilingual school system.
Ashley Miller, Laura Pendergast, Brian Schneider, and Leah Van Deth, scholars in Penn State’s Specialization in Culture and Language Education (SCALE) program, gave an overview of the Belizean culture and discussed the weeklong trip in an open presentation held April 27 in CEDAR Building.
The SCALE initiative in Belize is a service-learning project whose overarching goal is to facilitate an in-depth understanding of the complex relationship between culture and language.
The SCALE program at Penn State is a four-year initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The project is headed by James DiPerna, Beverly Vandiver, and Barbara Schaefer, faculty members in the School Psychology program. SCALE is aimed at preparing doctoral-level school psychologists to provide services to at-risk English language learners.
Miller, Schneider, and Van Deth accompanied Vandiver on a visit in March to the Gulisi Community Primary School, located in the town of Dangriga along Belize’s Caribbean coast. The Gulisi School incorporates a unique bilingual curriculum aimed at preserving the indigenous language of the region.
Belize, previously the British Honduras, is a highly multicultural Central American nation of over 300,000 people. English is the country’s official language; other languages include Spanish, Mayan (with several dialects), Creole, Low German, and Garifuna.
Garifuna is a derivation of African, Indian, and European languages and dialects. It is the native tongue of the indigenous Garifuna people, descendants of Africans and Caribbean Indians whose home and cultural center is in the region of Dangriga.
Over recent generations, the English language has become increasingly dominant among the Garifunas. Researchers fear that the unique regional languages and cultures of Belize will become extinct unless these customs are infused into the educational lives of the children.
“Intercultural bilingual education is becoming increasingly important throughout the world to ensure that official languages do not extinguish indigenous languages and cultures,” stated Vandiver.
Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE), a wing of the National Association for Bilingual Education, seeks to preserve indigenous languages worldwide. IBE receives support from the United Nation’s UNICEF organization to develop programs aimed at training teachers in the instruction of indigenous languages.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Belize’s Ministry of Education have funded three upstart bilingual schools throughout Belize—one of which is the Gulisi Community Primary School, founded two years ago. Currently, six teachers at the Gulisi School are instructing about 119 students.
The school’s superintendent and building manager, Phyllis Cayetano, organized the Penn State visit. Her husband, Roy Cayetano, was a widely recognized scholar in the study of language. He created the orthography for the language and was instrumental in UNESCO’s recognition of the importance of preserving the Garifuna language, dance, and music.
“The teaching staff, along with Mrs. Cayetano, are dedicated and passionate about the mission of the school,” said Schneider, a third-year SCALE scholar. “In addition, the students are enthusiastic about learning the Garifun language and culture, and the community also seems to be very supportive of the IBE program at Gulisi. These are three important components to the success of any school.”
At the Gulisi School, English is the primary language of instruction. Garifuna is integrated into the curriculum of every class in each course. It is theorized that this approach to education successfully allows the children to learn to speak Garifuna and participate in cultural activities.
“Most of the students speak Creole and English, but they vary in their Garifuna proficiency,” observed Schneider. “As such, the primary language of instruction is English, and the supplemental instruction in Garifuna is designed to promote the goals of the IBE initiative. Therefore, in one sense, the Garifuna instruction is more like foreign language learning.”
The instructional effort at Gulisi not only looks to be successful in its purpose, but it is likely to yield important academic benefits. As the SCALE scholars pointed out in their presentation, bilingual students are known to have better-developed cognitive functioning skills and tend to be more attentive than monolingual students.
“I see potential in the Gulisi School's effort to keep the indigenous Garifuna language alive, contingent upon the fact that funding remains available,” said Miller, now in her fourth year as a SCALE scholar.
The Gulisi School lacks the comforts of most other schools around the country, which receive strong backing from the Catholic Church. At Gulisi, each child is given only one pencil and one notebook.
Miller observed that, “Although the teachers at Gulisi know that their school is doing a lot of good for its students and the Dangriga community at large, they also recognize that financial support is necessary to keep the school and its initiative alive. They spoke of additional needed resources, such as books, paper, fabric to make uniforms, and access to quality teacher training.”
Despite its limited resources, the Gulisi School is buoyed by the mettle of the school’s administrators, teachers, and students. “Phyllis and Roy Cayetano, as well as the principal and teachers, are very devoted to the IBE’s Garifuna initiative,” said Miller. “Likewise, the students seemed to genuinely take pride in learning about the Garifuna culture, heritage, and language—even those students who did not identify as Garifuna.”
With previous funding from Belize’s Ministry of Education and Culture, the Gulisi School was able to rent a building and to subsequently construct another. Further expansions are needed; Phyllis Cayetano is working on fund-raising efforts and is soliciting the Ministry of Education to meet the school’s needs.
Vandiver reflected on the overall trip. “I am pleased that the school psychology students in SCALE had the opportunity to travel to Belize and become involved with the Gulisi Primary School,” she said. “They did an excellent job in engaging with the children, parents, and teachers. They saw how theory and research can be applied effectively in a school setting. Specifically, they were able to see how culture is lived and its importance in education.”
Miller added that, “The teachers were very welcoming and were eager to talk with us. They also seemed to be very proud of the fact that Penn State took interest in their school.”