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Schooling Without Schools: Radio-Assisted Education Program in the Dominican Republic

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Barahona, Dominican Republic--It is 4:30 P.M. and the temperature has dropped to 89 degrees. In a small, unlit room, 31 children, ages 7 to 14, sit on a bare cement floor with clipboards in their laps. In the middle of the room is a radio. As it emits the sounds of various animated voices, the children circle letters and numbers on their worksheets and answer questions loudly in unison.

This is a 1st-grade class in El Manantial, a small coffee-farming community near Barahona. Located in the southwest region of the Dominican Republic, a country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, this learning center is one of the settings for Radioeducativo/Comunitario (radeco), a radio-assisted education program developed by the Bureau for Science and Technology Education of the U.S. Agency for International Development (aid).

Through radio broadcasts that started last January, radeco teaches literacy and numeracy skills to 1,000 1st-grade children in 21 communities that have no schools. The project is administered by InterAmerica Research Associates Inc., a firm that works under federal contracts on a number of educational programs. The $4-million effort--including $3.2 million donated by aid and an additional $800,000 provided and administered by the Dominican Secretariat of Education--is designed to test the efficacy of the radio-delivered instruction in reducing illiteracy and non-numeracy in underdeveloped regions.

The project is patterned after Radio Mathematics in Nicaragua, an aid-funded radio project within existing schools that was developed between 1974 and 1979 by the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, according to James Olsen. Mr. Olsen served as the director of the radeco project in Barahona for 18 months. Anne Olsen, his wife, served as deputy director during that time. Mr. Olsen says radeco is the first known effort to use radio programming to provide primary education for the inhabitants of a region in which many children do not have access to schools.

aid's work in education, which dates from 1961, has included other radio-education efforts--such as the Nicaragua project and a similar program in Kenya focused on language arts--designed to counter illiteracy, according to a spokesman for the agency.

aid conducts research in literacy because of "the enormity of the problem in Third World countries," the spokesman notes, and has also supported national out-of-school education programs in those countries.

If radeco is successful, says Mr. Olsen, it could be used in other underdeveloped regions and adapted for use in areas of the United States with high illiteracy rates. By 1985, the radeco staff members hope to expand their teaching to 10,000 1st- through 4th-grade children in the same area of the Dominican Republic.

Information Collection

When radeco came to Barahona, staff members first turned their attention to gathering information about the populace, according to Mr. Olsen. They drove in jeeps, walked, and rode mules through the moun-tains to collect data on the living conditions, lifestyles, and history of the area's approximately 700,000 people.

Calculating on the basis of those families they were able to visit, the surveyors estimated that about 42 percent of the inhabitants--who constitute 13 percent of the total populace of the Dominican Republic--are illiterate and that the region's infant-mortality rate is 18 percent, both the highest rates in the country. And they estimated that 95,000 children in the region are malnourished.

Although there are some schools in this part of the Dominican Republic, nearly three-quarters of their students fail to pass the 1st grade, according to Mr. Olsen, and not all villages have access to a school.

But the radeco team members also found in their interviews, Mr. Olsen says, that the campesinos--or farmers--placed a high value on education as a way both to empower their children to conduct business successfully and to enable them to live a better life.

Based on their visits to 91 communities in the southwest region, the radeco staff selected 21 in which to establish radio centers that would offer 1st-grade teaching. The sites were chosen on the basis of community interest, the lack of accessible schools, and the size of the population of children to be served.

Next, the radeco staff asked villagers to nominate candidates to serve as radio-auxiliares. They are community members--often with only a 3rd-grade education--who set up the radio each weekday, distribute worksheets and pencils, and function as on-site teacher aides for the students who come to community-built shelters to receive the radio-based instruction. In conjunction with community leaders, the radio-auxi-liares were selected and trained by the radeco staff.

With a supporting staff structure in place and space rented at the local radio station, Radio Barahona, the radio-education program "opened its doors."

Living Conditions

The average child who comes to a radeco learning center to listen to the broadcast every day from 4 to 5 P.M. is between 7 and 14 years old and has a mother, a father, and six siblings, according to Mr. Olsen. When the father works, he works at a subsistence livelihood that is dictated by the seasons. The child and his brothers help their father while his sisters work in the house. The family makes approximately 6 pesos--the equivalent of $4--a week.

The average child and his family live in a one-room wattle-and-thatch house with a dirt floor and two chairs. The house has no electricity, no potable water, and no latrine. At night, the family sleeps on the floor.

Eating plantains, some citrus fruits, and, infrequently, a small amount of chicken, the average child consumes less than half the daily protein and only 60 percent of the minimum daily calories recommended by the U.S. government for American children. He has diarrhea due to the poor water supply and sanitary conditions. His stomach is distended and he is so small that he looks three or four years younger than he is.

radeco's broadcasts for such children continue year-round, except for three to four weeks during the rainy season in May and June. The typical village setting in which the broadcasts are received is a small structure with no walls, desks, or books, according to Mr. Olsen. In these shelters, children sit in groups as small as 14 or as large as 64, tired from a full day of work but anxious to learn how to recognize a letter of the alphabet or count a group of numbers, he says.

Each lesson, written in Spanish by a Dominican member of the radeco team, stresses specific skills, focusing on reading and writing, mathematics, or natural and social studies. The emphasis on a specific skill is continued over the span of a few weeks until qualitative and quantitative test results show that it has been "well-learned," meaning that at least 80 percent of the students in any given group have mastered the skill, according to Steven Kozlow, an evaluation coordinator for the project.

For example, in a reading segment during the hourlong program, students may hear the radio announcer introduce a letter, form syllables by combining letters, and form words by combining syllables. Students actively participate in each lesson and are praised by the radio announcer after each response. Lessons must be short enough to hold the students' attention and clear enough to reach the student who has had no prior school experience, according to Mr. Olsen. Segments are broken up by songs, folk music, and physical exercise.

'The Program Will Continue'

Mr. and Mrs. Olsen are back in the United States now. Their terms with radeco finished, they left Barahona and the project in the hands of Dominican administrators.

"My hunch is that the program will continue," Mr. Olsen says. "If we can build a constituency, it [will be] very hard to cancel it." Mr. Olsen says he would like to see radeco progress from a research experiment to an institutionalized, long-term program. "As I see it, this should be part of a rural-development project," he explains, to help the southwest region become a more significant part of the republic's market economy. Without that, he says, "the reality is ... we are teaching these skills in isolation."

"Poor people here refer to themselves as los oldidados, the forgotten ones," Anne Olsen adds. "And in this sense, they are like the poor in our own country. What really counts is the nation's commitment to marshal poor peoples' energies constructively so that they are able to contribute productively to the society, whether in the Dominican Republic or in the United States."

Unforeseen as part of the project, but a definite step toward rural development, is the paved highway that is slowly coming to Barahona from the capital, Santo Domingo, opening the area to more people and trade and providing a way for the students to use the reading, writing, and counting skills taught by radeco.

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