School of Education Continues Collaboration with Schools in Belize
In 2014, a group of professors from the School of Education at Saint Louis University was contacted by Archbishop Carlson of Saint Louis to discuss the possibilities of supporting Belize’s educational system, which was highly underrepresented in early childhood education and special education.
Soon after, a team consisting of faculty members Jessica Leonard, Ph.D., and Joy Voss, Ph.D., was sent by SLU to Belize to spend several days observing children and listening to their stories, which eventually led to an understanding and a commitment to a partnership.
"The first time I visited Belize, I had an instant connection to the people, families, culture, and schools," Leonard said. "To this day, I am honored to call my Belizean friends, my family. Every year I returned to Belize with the excitement of what I would learn next.”
An agreement was established with a Catholic elementary school, St. Martin de Porres, and a higher education institution, St. John’s Junior College in Belize City, Belize. As a component of the partnership, Saint Louis University granted a graduate assistantship position and a Belizean was accepted into the School of Education’s graduate program at Saint Louis University in the winter of 2015. After earning an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction in 2017, Melissa Mendez Tillet returned to Belize to share her knowledge with her country. She was the first in her country of Belize to receive a doctorate in curriculum and instruction.
Being a student at the School of Education was one of my best educational experiences. I met so many caring people who gave me the motivation and strength to continue. The professors are always willing to assist and keep you involved regardless of their busy schedules."Melissa Mendez Tillet, Ed.D.
The University also provides two full tuition fellowships each year to educators from Belize who are seeking graduate degrees. There are currently nine such students at SLU: three Ph.D. students and six master’s students. The focus also shifted to special education in the fall of 2015 and two Belizeans are currently studying for their M.A. in Special Education.
Since the inception of the partnership in 2014, there have been faculty-led immersion trips for 10-15 days each, where students from SLU had the opportunity to visit Belize and work with students at St. Martin de Porres and St. John’s College. During these immersion trips, students also had the opportunity to work on their professional development plan related to their field of study.
Professional development workshops for teachers were also held with St. Martin’s and
St. John’s College. These workshops focus on literacy and a universal design for learning.
A basic model and strategies in relation to teaching were provided along with a network
of support for the learning community in Belize, leading to an inclusive learning
environment for all individuals. Advertisements provided by St. Martin’s and St. John’s
College led to teachers around the country attending these workshops.
In October of 2016, a literacy library was established at St. Martin de Porres, becoming the first literacy library in that region. The local community in Belize helped build proper tables and chairs, creating workspaces for students. Bookbags that were created by a local St. Louis retirement home were added to the backs of chairs, enabling students to store their books off the ground.
Challenges and Solutions
During the initial stages of the partnership, there were clear challenges. Technology
access was difficult and therefore, a grant was written by the Belize 2020 team for
St. Martin’s to expand its bandwidth. Email, Skype, YouTube, and shared Google documents
were established as communication platforms to ensure weekly contact and strengthen
the digital divide. Scheduling time to Skype was also difficult due to different time
zones, but with open communication, the St. Martin and Saint Louis University teams
were able to find common times to communicate.
Archbishop Carlson, John James, Ed.D., Joy Voss, Ph.D., and Jessica Leonard, Ph.D., helped facilitate momentum, motivation, and maintain a constant support system, allowing the collaboration to flourish. The partnership strengthened due to the respect of values, norms, and beliefs. Both sides of the partnership learned much from each other and each provided support to make the partnership successful.
“We look forward to continuing our prosperous partnership with our colleagues from both St. Martin's and St. John's," Leonard said. "Our main goal is to provide the knowledge of teaching and best practices and watch as our colleagues take flight and soar with new strategies and activities they can instill into their classrooms.”