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The Problem

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it has the lowest literacy rate in the Western hemisphere, with only 61% of adults able to read and write. One of the reasons for this low rate is that the current educational system requires students to learn in French, which is spoken by only 5% of the population. There is no requirement to master literacy in Creole, the language spoken by all Haitians, even though early learning in one’s mother tongue is the basis for comprehension and intellectual growth. In addition, many teachers are untrained, and corporal punishment and verbal humiliation are common forms of discipline in class. Finally, children are often hungry when they get to school, further inhibiting their learning. As a result of all these challenges, many children perform abysmally on national exams, thus cutting off their opportunities for further education and employment.

A New Approach

To address these problems, Chris Low, an American educator, and Abner Sauveur, a Haitian teacher, co-founded the Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC) in 1996. The Center is located on the impoverished rural island of Lagonav, which is home to about 120,000 people. Its unique educational program is based on core principles that offer a fundamentally different approach to learning:

  1. Elementary grade classroom instruction is delivered in Creole. Thus, students learn to think, read, and write in their native tongue. French is taught as a second language.

  2. Students learn in an environment that prohibits corporal punishment and promotes mutual respect and dialogue between school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, with an emphasis on respect and equal opportunities for women and girls.

  3. Elementary grade students learn to read by writing and illustrating Mother Tongue Books in Creole to be read by their classmates. These books are age-appropriate and culturally relevant. In this way, children solidify their reading skills, and develop their creativity through storytelling and art.

  4. Teachers follow a curriculum that includes art, music, and physical education as well as organic gardening that promotes concrete skills as well as food security.

  5. Teachers receive training to ensure that excellence in educational content, communications, support and positive reinforcement is sustained in each classroom.

  6. Parents and community members are encouraged to replicate the practices of mutual respect and group-level problem solving that is practiced in the classrooms.

Over the last 26 years, MCLC’s programs have evolved to include a best-practices elementary school with a full breakfast program and summer camp, a high school, and an Institute of Learning for teacher training. This year a classroom for 3 year olds was opened. In addition, MCLC sponsors activities designed to help families improve their food supply and their health: family gardens and fruit tree nursery for food, cisterns for potable water, first aid - including a nurse, modest economic development initiatives featuring artists, and community support during crisis. Crisis response has included education through popular theatre, rebuilding of homes, and distribution of vital supplies. Parents, teachers, and other community members engage in problem-solving discussions about how to address their economic, social, environmental, and educational issues.
The Results
In 2012, it won a worldwide grant competition for All Children Reading innovations from USAID/Australian Aid/World Vision. The Matènwa model was introduced in five schools on Lagonav, where first and second grade students' reading averages were 0 words per minute (wpm). After the intervention, these same children scored 26 wpm and 34.5 wpm at the end of second and third grade, respectively. Their comprehension scores moved from zero to 40 percent. By 2022, MCLC had brought its model to 92 schools, serving over 7,000 students on Lagonav and also trained teachers coming from Jacmel, Cap Haitien, Kenscoff, St Marc, and Hinche. MCLC began to show that its model was replicable and was awarded Haiti’s first-ever National Award for Excellence in Pedagogical Innovation.
By 2014, MCLC was educating 260 children in Matènwa, and third graders were outperforming their peers on literacy tests in Creole. They read an average of 73 words per minute and scored 100% correct answers to comprehension questions. In contrast, 3rd graders elsewhere in rural Haiti read an average of only 23 Creole words a minute when reading a short story and gave an average of 17% correct answers on comprehension questions.
Then in 2016, wanting to make literacy available to all of Haiti’s people, MCLC established the Matènwa Institute of Learning, with the Matènwa elementary school as its lab school. The Institute hosts administrators and teachers from Lagonav and conducts on-site classroom observations at their schools.
In 2017, The Matènwa Secondary School became a full 7 – 13, serving 175 students.  It offers technology know-how, practical summer internships, and skills for adult life.  MCLC will also strengthen its current community initiatives, including economic development options and community problem solving.  Throughout all its work, MCLC supports Haiti’s embrace of the United Nations “Rights of the Child” manifesto; these include rights to education, to nutrition, to social services, to have your voice heard, and to be protected. 
Most recently, in 2022 the local Ministry’s Inspectors put out a circular stating that physical and verbal abuse would no longer be tolerated in schools. Everyone must learn how to use positive discipline. The Ministry of Education announced that it would only subsidize Creole early grades schoolbooks.
MCLC’s Vision for the Future is, by 2030, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education’s 4 inspectors, a 230-school network of Institute-trained directors will exist across Lagonav. MCLC’s Institute of Learning will reach 1000+ teachers and administrators as well as 25,000+ children. The Institute will assist 4 schools to become Matènwa Model Learning Centers to assure high quality programs across the island.
Friends of Matènwa is a U.S. – non-profit organization formed to secure funds for MCLC and by extension, other organizations in Haiti that improve educational, social, and economic opportunities. FoM has successfully raised a core operating budget each year for MCLC, receiving support from individuals, U.S. government agencies, private foundations, schools and churches.  FoM collaborates with like-minded organizations to co-fund the “Matènwa approach”. All the key components of MCLC’s existing and future programs require additional and ongoing funding. These budgets per year include:
Matènwa Elementary School:           
$260,000 (includes breakfast program and summer camp,
                                                                                  and facility upkeep)
Matènwa Secondary School:             $135,000 (includes technology, design lab, artists in         
                                                                                  residence, summer career internships)
Institute of Learning:                           $200,000 (includes teacher training and outreach)
Post Grad and Entrepreneurship         $35,000 (courses, start-up grants, scholarships)
Community Projects:                           $150,000 (includes health, water, gardening, emergency responses,
                                                                                  and public education)

Endowment:                                          $300,000 and growing. Need a total of $25,000,000!
Ways You Can Help
Friends of Matènwa has an annual fundraising goal of $1,000,000. Your gift will help to reach that goal. You may designate your gift to  “where most needed,” a specific program or to the endowment fund.

  • Partner Gift            $10,000 - and above

  • Visionary Gift           $5,000 - $9999

  • Leadership Gift        $2,500 - $4,999

  • Sustainer Gift                   $1 - $2,499

                                                                                                                                                               Updated  12.2023

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