The Kindergarten Readiness Initiative is a collaboration of agencies and service groups working with the Kennett school district to help our community’s vulnerable families be equipped with resources necessary for school entry. We have learned that the school system is one of the first to be impacted by some of the cultural changes occurring in our community.
Currently, there are 96 students from Guatemala enrolled in the Kennett school district. It is easy to think that the Spanish-speaking cultures are all the same, but we are learning there are differences, even in the languages spoken. As part of our effort to better understand this new culture, which is finding a home in our community, I reached out and interviewed Amy Scheuren from Kennett Area Community Services, who serves on a Guatemalan non-profit association in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Following are some observations and understanding that Amy has provided us.
• Family and extended family are very important. Father is the head of the household and should be present when addressing family matters.
• Guatemalan religions are Catholic and Evangelical Christianity primarily. There is a smaller Mormon population. The traditional Maya religion/traditions permeate much of the religion, especially in rural areas.
• Rural women typically cook over open fires inside the homes. There are various NGOs that build safe cookstoves, but the need outstrips the capacity of these projects.
• There are 24 distinct languages spoken in Guatemala—23 indigenous plus Spanish. Spanish is the official language of Guatemala. As a first and second language, Spanish is spoken by 93% of the population. Guatemalan Spanish is the local variant of the Spanish language. Twenty-one Mayan languages are spoken, especially in rural areas, The languages that Amy was exposed to are K’iche’, Mam, and Kaqchikel.
• Since 2009, extortion of the transport sector has become a way for organized crime to obtain illicit funds, a type of “insurance.” Many bus drivers in Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, are afraid to board their vehicles, because the job is becoming increasingly dangerous. Bus drivers are killed and even passengers are threatened. Sometimes the bus routes doesn’t run for days because of this problem.
• Education is free and compulsory for six years. However, parents have to pay for books, uniforms, school supplies and transportation if the school is not within walking distance. Parents often can’t afford to buy the items to send their children to school, so the children don’t go. School is only a half day. Despite primary education being compulsory the main average years of schooling in 2011 was “4.1 years per student with the stat higher for boys and lower for girls. According to UNESCO, Guatemala's literacy rate in 2014 was 81. 29 percent with illiteracy rates up to more than 60 percent in the indigenous population.”
This is exacerbated by the feeling that, for poorer students, time spent in school could be time better spent working to sustain the family. It is especially hard for children living in rural areas to attend primary school. Most drop out due to the lack of access and largely inadequate facilities. Guatemalans have the lowest literacy rate in Central America.
• Chronic and acute malnutrition and lead exposure are common especially in the rural, indigenous areas.
As we interact with this vulnerable population, we are learning the importance of honoring the culture and approaching our work in a way that shows respect. This may be expressed through assuring the father is present at meetings, because he is considered the head of the household, or to be considerate of the literacy level and Spanish language abilities of the parents. Paramount, we want to build a trust that can work through existing barriers and empower parents to seize the opportunities that are being offered to them to accomplish our mission, “parents as first teachers.”