Can kids’ books change education? In Honduras, where many have never seen them, educators say ‘yes’

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Even before 2020 brought the pandemic and back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes, almost half of Hondurans were living in poverty. Add in climate change, gang violence and unemployment and the country’s challenges become even greater.

Perhaps less common is the toll these crises are taking on the country’s already precarious public education system – which is now being rocked by two full years of pandemic shutdowns with no online option.

The result? Third graders who can’t read, dwindling student numbers and little attention to crumbling infrastructure. And all of this in a country where only a third of children make it to high school, and many have parents who can’t read at all.

A non-profit organization is trying to change some of these statistics, one book at a time.

At Centro Educacion Basica Guatemala in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, librarian Jacklin Avila Galindo reads “Carmen la Estrella” to a group of exuberant students. The book is about a little girl who loves to sing and dance. But what would be a run-of-the-mill scene in the US is revolutionary in Honduras.

Librarianjackelin Galindo with Chispa Founder Sarah Brakhane and Chispa Educational Program Administrator Gleen Miralda (Karyn Miller-Medzon)
Librarianjackelin Galindo with Chispa Founder Sarah Brakhane and Chispa Educational Program Administrator Gleen Miralda (Karyn Miller-Medzon)

Because in this country, children’s books are as rare as the unicorns in Galindo’s story. And this is where the Chispa project comes in. Founder Sara Brakhane explains that children’s books are not only a first for students used to memorization and textbooks, but also for many teachers. That’s why Chispa helps schools build libraries and offers teachers and families extensive training on how to use books.

“Sometimes people in the United States ask me, ‘What method do you use?'” says Brakhane. “And we say ‘honestly, the 3-2 method. Three fingers on the front, two fingers on the back and that’s how you hold up a book!”

In other words, even reading to children is new. And the goal isn’t just to improve literacy, although that’s an important one. Ultimately, Chispa – through its libraries and children’s books – seeks to change the way teachers view education by teaching them to ignite student creativity and encourage critical thinking through books.

A standard classroom at the Centro Educativo de Guatemala in Tegucigalpa (Karyn Miller-Medzon)
A standard classroom at the Centro Educativo de Guatemala in Tegucigalpa (Karyn Miller-Medzon)

“A lot of this is something our teachers don’t take for granted because they weren’t raised with it, but also because they didn’t learn it in college,” says Brakhane. “The college itself never thought teachers would have children’s books in their schools.”

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In the last six years, Chispa has distributed 43,000 books and installed libraries in 78 schools. The projects are funded entirely by donations, with the school communities covering around 3% of the cost. That, says Brakhane, instills a sense of ownership and pride in even the poorest schools.

Librarian Galindo says the library has changed everything at her school. In the cement-walled building where the students don’t have flush toilets, the brightly painted library full of colorful books makes children want being at school.

“Students can relax here,” she says, adding that the new books often highlight aspects of the kids’ culture or characters they’ve seen on TV. She laughs at older kids being drawn to Peppa Pig books and is proud that her students were so enamored with dinosaur books that she had to dig deep into the subject to keep up with them.

Allison, a 14-year-old among the older students at the library, says her new favorite book is a comic about a bully and how a young girl comes to terms with her relationship with her nemesis. She quickly flips through the pages and describes how the young protagonist worries about throwing up during her school presentation. And the best thing about the book? She says it’s part of a series — something she never knew existed.

students Genesis, 11;  Allison, 14;  and Dianna, 10 show off their favorite books.  (Karyn Miller-Medzon/Here & Now)
students Genesis, 11; Allison, 14; and Dianna, 10 show off their favorite books. (Karyn Miller-Medzon/Here & Now)

Headmaster Bernardo Guttierez is proud of what his school has achieved – a haven for many of the children whose families cannot provide shelter or medicine, let alone books. He also talks about the country’s legacy of violence.

These realities add to the challenges of Chispa. Gleen Miralda, the group’s education coordinator, says he’s determined to give kids what he didn’t have when he attended the same schools ten years ago. He talks about the dilapidated buildings, the lack of public investment and the gangs.

“Violence has always been an important part of our country’s history,” says Miralda. “But in recent years it has increased.”

That means families have to take their children out of school, he says, and sometimes leave the country.

“In some zones, gangs control the school,” he says. “They sometimes come to school during the school day.”

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Miralda says the impact on children and schools is profound, particularly in cases where children are brought into work by gangs.

“They call them banderas … these little informers who can go around unnoticed,” he says, adding that they could also be used to smuggle drugs.

And they don’t just control schools. Glen explains that gangs can control entire neighborhoods.

“And by control, I mean who comes into the neighborhood, who goes out. The gang might cancel classes one day because of something going on in the neighborhood,” says Miralda. “And some of the students themselves are children of gang members. And of course these children have to be accepted into school even though the teachers know who they are.”

The fire dynamics are a challenge for Chispa.

“Sometimes it’s very internal,” says Miralda. “We may not even know what’s going on between the authorities and the gang members. A school principal could call to make sure we get through this day. Yes, it’s risky, but it’s complicated.”

Reading lesson at Centro de Education Basica Guatemala (Karyn Miller-Medzon)
Reading lesson at Centro de Education Basica Guatemala (Karyn Miller-Medzon)

But when asked if the risks are worth it, Miralda replies, “Really, yes.”

Other obstacles that Chispa faces are less tricky but still complicated. This includes taking books to various rural areas where a handful of students study in mixed-age classrooms. These settings may lack power and cellular. And getting there is difficult, too, as roads are often impassable and villages can be 20 or more miles apart.

The solution? Think Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, except in this case it’s a set of backpacks. Dunia Estrada is Chispa’s technical coordinator and architect of the simple idea: put a stack of books in a backpack and distribute one to every teacher in a region.

“These teachers then swap or rotate their backpacks every two weeks to a month. And so, for example, in one of our school systems, we were able to distribute 800 different books to 500 different students,” says Estrada. “That’s why we call it a traveling library.”

On the other side of Tegucigalpa, Director Ana Joaquina Garcia of Centro Educativo China says it’s important to understand that the school’s new library will keep children in school. It tells the story of a mother from her deprived neighborhood who had to move for economic reasons but tried for months to commute her three children back to school.

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“She tried … because of the library space, because of the opportunities,” she says. “Children don’t want to leave”

Garcia adds that she was recently visited by officials from the Honduras Ministry of Education. They wanted to learn more about the library and innovative teaching.

Back at Chispa headquarters—a small bungalow-style home—founder Brakhane sits at a long table covered with books. In the living room, 120 boxes (about 6,000 titles) are waiting to be unpacked; Shelves lining the walls are filled with picture books, chapter books, cardboard books, and more.

Nasaret Pereira, 11, says she didn't read much before the library came to her school as she didn't have any books at home.  (Karyn Miller-Medzon/Here & Now)
Nasaret Pereira, 11, says she didn’t read much before the library came to her school as she didn’t have any books at home. (Karyn Miller-Medzon/Here & Now)

Still, it’s impossible to keep up with demand.

“None of these schools necessarily deserves these books more than another,” says Brakhane, adding that his waiting list for a library is now two to three years, while Chispa can only complete about 10 a year. Each library costs about $15,000, including books, training, maintenance, and setup.

In a land of overwhelming need, Brakhane realizes there is not much Chispa can do. However, she is not discouraged.

“In English, there’s the story of the stranded starfish,” she says, continuing to tell the story of a little girl who throws a starfish back into the sea after a storm – leaving thousands of others still stranded in the sand. When someone asks how that will make a difference, she replies that she “made a difference for this one.”

In Spanish, Brakhane continues, the analogy is with grains of sand—that it takes individual grains to build a sandcastle.

“So we will keep fighting to knock down our grain of sand,” she says.

In Spanish, “chispa” means spark: “The spark from a fire, or the chocolate chips, chips, that you put in a cookie,” she says. “But it is also used to describe a person. So someone who is smart means they are someone who goes out and does bigger things. That they have the enthusiasm for life. And we know our kids have that. There is no end goal. And maybe there is no end in sight.”

Brakhane pauses before adding softly, “But that’s our grain of sand. And we will fight for that.”

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