The Matènwa Story

In a recent MIT literacy study, third-graders in a remote mountain community posted reading scores that far surpassed Haitian averages. What’s going on?

Turn the clock back to 1996. Abner Sauveur, a Haitian educator, and Chris Low, an American elementary teacher, are conducting adult literacy classes in rural Haiti. They decide to start an alternative elementary school in the village of Matènwa on the island of La Gonave where Abner lives.

Matènwa might not seem a promising test-bed for ambitious new educational principles. Its roughly 300 households, scattered along a mountain ridge on the island of La Gonave, subsist on the few crops and livestock that the arid terrain supports. The dwellings are simple, with no electricity or running water. Residents walk 45 minutes to the nearest open-air market on Fridays and Saturdays. To reach a bank or a hospital, they take the bone-crunching 2-hour ride down the mountain in the back of a pickup truck.

Before Abner and Chris open the doors to the first group of first-graders, they announce three revolutionary principles:

Children will be taught in Haitian Creole, not French.
The school will have a garden and students will learn agricultural techniques and use the garden for hands-on learning of science and math.
Children will not be hit, physically punished, or humiliated.

“When parents heard that kids wouldn’t be hit,” Abner recalls, “they took their kids out of our school. But after they saw that kids were learning, they returned to our school next year.”

Fast forward to 2014. Every day, 240 students come to the Matènwa Community School in pre-kindergarten through 6th grade, and there is talk of adding a high school. The school campus includes not only classrooms, but an assembly room, a library, a computer room using solar power, art and music buildings, and an athletics field. All children get a hot breakfast – for many, their only meal of the day.

Matènwa children engage, and they learn. Chris Low continues to improve the Matènwa curriculum by adapting “best practices” of American progressive education. Consider the Mother Tongue Books example. Research shows that children’s reading is enhanced by having age- and culture-appropriate reading material, and by practicing writing. But virtually no early grades reading material exists in Haitian Creole. In the Mother Tongue Books program, Matènwa students write their own story books, which are printed and distributed for other students to read. So they learn.

But the school, remarkable as it is, is only one part of the story. Beginning with the first school garden, the Matènwa Community Learning Center committed to comprehensive involvement with the community and its problems. Now, more productive family gardens can be seen throughout Matènwa. Sanitary public water supplies have been built. An artists’ collaborative makes silk scarves and jewelry for sale in the US. A theater troupe presents skits on AIDS, birth control, and child slavery. The 2010 earthquake was met with emergency food, public education, and rebuilding.

From the beginning, the MCLC story has depended on funding from outside Haiti. Tuition is very low – currently about $3 per child per year – to make sure that all Matènwa families can afford to educate their children. The Haitian government provides no funds. Nearly all of the MCLC operating budget must be supported by individual donations and fundraising events. Grants have been obtained from US-based and international institutions for capital expenditures such as buildings and computers and, recently, projects to apply the MCLC approach in Haitian schools and communities beyond Matènwa. In 2011, Friends of Matènwa was established to take on some of the fundraising, to be the fiscal agent for US donations destined for MCLC, and to manage special projects that go beyond core MCLC activities.

To learn more about the Matènwa Community Learning Center, please go to: www.matenwa.org

The Matènwa story is incomplete. Challenging chapters remain to be written. Please join us; please support this wonderful school and community.