A car honked as it drove past, veering over a non-existent center line on the road to get around me. I paused to turn and watch the car go past me, acknowledging his courtesy honk letting me know he was passing. It’s a habit of pedestrians I noticed almost immediately upon arriving here. There are hardly any sidewalks on the roads and those that have them aren’t very spacious. When you hear a car coming you have to stop and watch it go past because there’s no other way to ensure there will be enough room between you and the vehicle when it passes. So you especially have to appreciate the drivers courteous enough to let you know they’re coming.
I continued my walk up to the Desruisseaux Combined School at the top of the hill. It was only about 8:30 in the morning and the day was already so hot that I was breaking a sweat in my blue button-down shirt and khakis. The gate to the school was open, and I could see a few of the volunteers sitting around a picnic bench underneath a shaded tree on the school grounds. They were sitting and standing within a sea of students. The boys were dressed in light brown shirts with dark brown pants and the girls wore brown blouses with ribbons and bows in their hair. As I stepped inside the gate a handful of the students ran up to greet me and the other volunteers I was walking in with. A little girl of about six years old came up and took my hand, leading me to where the other volunteers were sitting.
The bell rang in the distance and the students scattered off to their designated classrooms. We gathered our things and walked down the slope to the first-floor room that was the school library. The rhythmic sound of drums emanated from the classroom above it. Once in the library we arranged the room accordingly for what we had in store for the students. We were here to conduct the Eastern Caribbean Basic Literacy Assessment (ECBLA) for about 35 of the students. The ECBLA is used across the region as an assessment tool to gauge the literacy capabilities of primary level students. The assessment is completed individually between a student and teacher (or in this case a volunteer). It requires students to recite the names and sounds of the letters in the alphabet, recognize and decode words, and comprehend short story passages within the ECBLA booklet.
I took a seat at the table in front of the door and waited for a student to be brought to me. A boy came in and sat down across from me, a grin spreading across his face. I smiled too as I introduced myself, but we already knew each other from a frisbee game we played at the community field the day before. I couldn’t help but feel relieved that I was starting my day of student assessments with a student I already knew.
My anxieties about facing a student struggling with the assessment subsided as he breezed through the names of the letters. We quickly moved on to the second half of the alphabet section in which the student must recite the sound each letter makes. I began ticking off correctly the first couple letters until I realized he was just re-stating their names. I gently interrupted and asked him to start over, placing extra emphasis on my request that he recall the sounds of the letters and not the names this time. He looked up, nodding that he understood. But glancing back down at the page of letters, he paused. A moment or two of hesitation passed as I patiently waited for him to begin.
“Pee,” he said. My heart sank a bit in my chest.
‘P’ was the first letter on the alphabet list. “Pee” was the name, but “puh” was the sound of the letter and the answer that I was looking for.
I stopped him and told him again what I was looking for. When that didn’t work, I asked him if he could think of a word that began with that letter.
“Great! Now can you make the sound that starts that word?” I asked encouragingly.
He stared back blankly, unsure of what to do. Every fiber in my being wanted to drop him a hint as to the answer, but it was my job to remain unbiased because this was to gauge how well he could read.
“That’s okay. Let’s move on to the next one. Can you think of a word that begins with this letter?”
My hopes lifted that maybe he could make the “kuh” sound I was looking for. But once again, he could only come up with the word; he was unable to decode the word to isolate the sound of the ‘k.’
I conducted the rest of that section by having him provide words instead of the sound, as it was all I could do for a reader at his level. He struggled with the word recognition and passage reading as we worked our way through the remainder of the assessment. The boy who I was playing frisbee with on the field yesterday, unbeknownst to me, was a first-grader reading at the pre-k level.
At this moment the reality of why I am here sank in. Primary literacy is a target objective for Eastern Caribbean countries; and the struggling literacy rates is something that the Peace Corps is here to help resolve. Most students don’t move on past secondary school, the Caribbean equivalent of high school in America. Literacy rates are not where they need to be, and consequently the Peace Corps’ Primary Literacy Program is in place to fix the issue by improving the literacy rates of primary level students. Through six-year (three-volunteer) cycles in communities throughout the Eastern Caribbean, our aim is to ensure that the next generation of Eastern Caribbean leaders will be better educated than the last.
That’s not to say that every student reads below his or her expected level. After I completed my assessment of the student I knew, I conducted four additional assessments with students that read at or above their expected reading level. As with any school in any country, there will be students who struggle and students who excel. But we as volunteers are here to ensure that every student receives that additional attention and instruction they need to learn that they might not get without our presence.
When I would first tell people I was joining the Peace Corps, many expected to hear that I was being sent to a remote village in Africa or Southeast Asia. So when I would tell them I was headed to the Eastern Caribbean, often times I would get responses like, “Well lucky you,” or “Oh that must be so tough.” Responses like that would seem to discredit why we are here, as if we’re all here for a two-year vacation. Although we may be serving on a tropical island, we are here to meet the needs of the community.
Soon I will be learning what specific island and community the Peace Corps will place me. I look forward to receiving the opportunity to build a connection with the students in my community and enabling them to build the educational foundation they need to have success for their future. After all, one day the future of the world will quite literally be in their hands.