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In Honduras, bilingual school gives poor kids a chance
Américas / January-February 2003

By Larry Luxner

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- An alarming 40% of Honduran children don't receive formal schooling, and 69% of all kindergarten students in this impoverished country drop out before the school year ends.

But on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, 590 kids from very poor families are getting a first-rate education -- in both English and Spanish -- at what is possibly the only school of its kind in Central America.

Fundación Mhotivo (which stands for Más Hondureños Teniendo Identidad, Valores y Orgullo) is funded by the business community of San Pedro Sula, with 800,000 inhabitants the industrial capital of Honduras.

The school was inaugurated Oct. 5, 1998 — less than a month before Hurricane Mitch attacked Honduras with a vengeance, killing over 7,000 people and destroying the country's fragile economy. In fact, at least 10% of the school's pupils are from families directly affected by the hurricane.

"I don't think there exists another school like this in Central America, where all the kids are on scholarships and their parents don't pay a cent," says the institution's rector, Elsa Marina de Hoffman.

What makes Fundación Mhotivo unusual is its emphasis on teaching English to childrn who otherwise would never get a proper education even in Spanish.

Located right off a busy highway leading to San Pedro Sula's international airport, the school — situated on a 94,000-sq-meter property — has 12 classrooms for pre-school children and another eight for first- and second-graders. Fundación Mhotivo added a first-grade curriculum in August 2001, and a second-grade curriculum in August 2002. By 2006, the school will accommodate students from kindergarten through the sixth grade.

In a recent interview, Hoffman said that "70% of our children are really poor, 20% are lower middle-class and 10% are middle-class."

Fundación Mhotivo's philosophy, she said, revolves around "the rescuing of traditional values, and pride in being Honduran."

"We are ecumenical," Hoffman told Américas. "The school is Catholic, but we have students who are evangelists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religions. The idea is to look for very poor people with very few resources who can't study in a private school, let alone a bilingual school where costs are high. They come here on scholarships given by private companies or personal benefactors."

On a bronze plaque at the school's entrance, the names of the benefactors are listed. Many of them are members of the local Palestinian community: Emilio Hawit Lara, Jacobo Faraj, Juan Canahuati, Nasry and Alicia Canahuati, Jorge and Emilia Charur.

"There are two forms of scholarships. The companies can choose the candidates from among their own workers' children, or they can give us the scholarships and we look for the kids," says Hoffman, noting that over 140 local companies have contributed to Fundación Mhotivo; the biggest benefactors are Alimentos Concentrados Nacionales, Banco Ficohsa, Cervecería Hondureña, Shell Honduras and telephone company Hondutel.

Businesses pay 1,000 lempiras (about $59) a month to sponsor each student; this covers registration and all school supplies. Besides helping the community, the donation of scholarships also generates good PR for the companies — many of them apparel factories whose employees assemble garments for export to the United States.

"We have a responsibility to provide jobs, and through jobs, opportunities," says Mario Canahuati, who established Fundación Mhotivo and is now Honduras' ambassador to the United States. The foundation is now headed by Rafael Flores, president of the Cámara de Comercio de Indústria de Cortés.

"We are conscious that only through education can we provide the tools people need to search for new opportunities," said Canahuati. "We make sure the parents participate, and we're getting pretty good results. We're seeing some changes almost immediately. The parents realize that something different is happening in their lives."

Preschoolers attend Fundación Mhotivo from 8 a.m. to noon, while first- and second-graders attend classes from 7 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.

The school has 12 teachers whose salaries start at 5,100 lempiras (just over $300) a month. All of them are bilingual, and some of them have lived in the United States; the others studied in bilingual schools. Fundación Mhotivo also employs 12 assistants who are bilingual but lack teaching certificates; they earn 2,100 lempiras (about $125) a month.

Second-grade teacher Joselina Galindo says that unlike public schools in Honduras, where "most of the time, the teachers are going on strike, and they lose a lot of time," Fundación Mhotivo is much more rewarding.

"For me, it's very motivating to build up the children's moral and religious values," she says. "These children can be a part of the future development of our country."

Says first-grade teacher Carolina Licona: "We try to help them understand the real world. In other schools, you teach them English. Here we try to teach them values, and to face the world."

Casta Duran, who also teaches first grade at Fundación Mhotivo, agrees.

"Here, the attention is much more personalized. We try not only to only English as a second language, but also how to survive in society. Most of the kids in this school belong to the lower class. We want them to become professionals."

The U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Larry Palmer, visited Fundación Mhotivo in late November and said that "every city in Honduras should have a school" like this one.

So far, Fundación Mhotivo has spent around $2 million. The school already has a soccer field, four basketball courts and two volleyball courts.

"And that's just the beginning," said Canahuati. "We want to transfer our experience and knowledge to other communities and other public schools. The concept is to make sure people realize the importance of education. People don't understand what education can do for them."

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