To address educational gaps among marginalized populations in the Americas, a group of Latin American students attending Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched in 2004 an education assistance network. Drawing from the knowledge and expertise in the United States, their goal was to expand access to secondary and higher education for underprivileged urban, rural and indigenous communities.
The network, called ViaEducation, designs curricula, provides teacher training and facilitates youth-organized community development projects. In just six years, ViaEducation has developed programs in eight Latin American countries. The Mexico program is the fastest growing and has already reaped some tangible successes.
A pilot program in the northern states of Nuevo León and Guerrero has doubled in size over the past two years to 240 schools. According to Mariali Cárdenas Casanueva, ViaEducation’s Director of Educational Development in Mexico, the key is grassroots community involvement. “When the community leads the projects, the ideas come from their own needs and observations,” says Cárdenas, who worked for 15 years in social development of rural and indigenous communities before starting ViaEducation. “This makes the project more sustainable and the changes more lasting.”
ViaEducation’s projects in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala foster a balance between outside expertise and local communities. ViaEducation’s network of universities, governments, foundations, and nonprofit organizations includes Harvard University, the Colombian Ministry of Education and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Some fund specific programs. Others provide evaluation tools and research. But it is the whole network that has allowed ViaEducation to offer multifaceted services and programs to diverse communities.
According to Cárdenas, students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds often “don’t feel like they have the capability to modify their own reality.” So the network’s curriculum emphasizes communication, negotiation and critical thinking as means of self-empowerment. These skills form the foundation of ViaEducation’s four subjects: educational quality, civic education, educational policy, and social responsibility. The civic participation program has been particularly successful in Mexico. A country-wide evaluation conducted in 2008–2009 and directed by Fernando Reimers of Harvard concluded that 65 percent of the public school students who participated in the civic participation program improved their scores on the national civic education exam.
Students are not the only beneficiaries of ViaEducation programs. Educators in the participating communities receive formal training that encourages student involvement in development projects. In Mexico, ViaEducation has facilitated more than 300 projects led by local youth aged 7 to 20 to engage in local community issues.
One of these was a recycling program designed with the help of a teacher trained by ViaEducation and led by secondary students of Emiliano Zapata high school in the Chiapas, Mexico, community of El Aguaje. The 2009 project led to the construction of a compost center that transforms biodegradable waste into fertilizer and information sessions for their peers about the importance of recycling and the benefits of compost.
Despite its comparatively short history, ViaEducation is attracting attention across Latin America—and winning supporters. The network recently received funding from the Organization of American States to expand a program designed by the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, led by Enrique Chaux, and implemented by 30 teachers based in Mexico on how to prevent domestic and school-related violence.
What is most innovative about ViaEducation is that it reverses the traditional brain drain. Latin America’s best and brightest are turning knowledge gained in U.S. universities into a tool of social change and mobility back home that will span generations.