A bilingual education programme created by the Diocese of Georgetown has caught the eye of the Guyanese government as a potential model for its national curriculum.
According to a Catholic News Service (CNS) article, the programme was launched in 2017 for children ages three and five in four Wapichan Indigenous villages in southern Guyana’s Rupununi region. It uses storytelling about local animals, as well as painting that relies on materials found in nature.
Today, the programme has around 100 nursery school students.
It is waiting for approval to ramp up to 14 villages and could soon go national, including all nine Indigenous languages in Guyana, and expand to all primary school grades if the government adopts it as part of the national curriculum.
The article said that the curriculum for first grade is already finished, and then it would move through the years to sixth grade.
The content is in Wapichan for the first years, but it is taught alongside English starting in first grade. By fourth grade, the idea is classes are offered in English, with Wapichan as a course, like math or history.
“The bilingual programme is based on culture and language. It is designed to best serve the child’s educational needs,” said Vicar General Fr Ronnie Fernandes SJ, the ‘motor’ behind the programme.
“This is a new effort”, said Bishop Francis Alleyne OSB. “It is bilingual and targeting the youngest students and giving them their first exposure to formal education. What I find is a big plus with this effort is that the parents are much more involved than if their children had gone to the state school”, he said.
The programme has six units divided over the three terms of a regular school year. It is offered in English and Wapichana, the most prevalent Indigenous language in the south of the country.
The curriculum was built taking into account local needs, but also looking at the structure of other Church-run education programmes in South America.
In developing the programme, Fr Fernandes visited Fe y Alegría (a federation of local organisations which offer educational opportunities to the poorest sectors of society, along with teacher training and educational radio), schools for low-income students in Peru and bilingual education programmes in Bolivia.
“We talked to communities, gathered together experts, visited other programmes and had lots of discussions with the Education Ministry. Changes are always being made, but I think we have a very good programme,” said Fr Fernandes, who is originally from India.
The first unit, which sets the tone, is storytelling. It uses local tales about animals, such as iguanas or kingfishers, to engage the children and get involved in the programme’s structure.
“Storytelling is a way to get them to settle in without going right into academics,” said Leah Casimero, assistant coordinator of the Quality Bilingual Education Program for Wapichan Children. “We want them to wonder and ask questions.”
Another unit, ‘Colors All Around Us’, requires the children to paint, but using plants or other things they find in the community.
Casimero said the impact has been far greater than expected. “The kids love it, and it has caught the attention of parents. We designed for the kids, but it turns out that it is for everyone”, she said.
“We know this is going to take time. We are not leaping, but walking, and we are going to get there”, said Casimero.
A government evaluation was scheduled for 2020, but postponed because of the pandemic. If approved, it would not only be the first bilingual programme offered nationally in schools but represent a big change for the state’s relationship with the Church and private education.
Guyana nationalised education in 1976. It started opening again to private education in the early 1990s, but there is only one K-12 Catholic school in this country of nearly 800,000 people.