In September 2016, the world will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The UN System, governments, international organizations, businesses, non-state actors, and individuals have committed to achieve zero poverty, ensure universal quality education, and leave no-one behind through 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. These are ambitious goals considering that despite significant progress on Millennium Development Goal 2 (achieve universal primary education), there are still 60 million primary school-age children around the world who are not attending school.
Sustainable Development Goal 4 moves from merely seeking to ensure all children are able to attend school, to ensuring that all people have access to inclusive and equitable quality education as well as lifelong learning opportunities. But how do we determine what constitutes “quality education” and how do we encourage “lifelong learning opportunities?” Moreover, how do we achieve SDG 4 in the most unequal region in the world?
In Latin America children and young people attend school for 4.5 hours per day on average, and nearly 70% of youth abandon their education before entering high school. Additionally, many children and young people who do stay in school, leave without learning very much. Around the world, some 38% of children leave primary school without learning how to read, write, and do basic math. Latin America is also home to approximately 20 million young people - almost 1 in 5 in the region - between the ages of 15 and 24 years old who neither work nor are in school (referred to as Ninis, short for the Spanish phrase ni estudian ni trabajan).
In Central America, the issue is even more acute, as the sub-region carries the unenviable title of the most violent non-war zone in the world. Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) face tremendous challenges of extreme poverty, high rates of violence and insecurity, as well as a migration crisis. These intersecting issues clearly contribute to the high dropout rates and further perpetuate the vicious cycles of inequality and poverty.
Despite this bleak reality, education continues to be one of the most reliable ways of securing a brighter future for young people and their families. Access to quality education that instills a desire for lifelong learning is key to curbing dropout rates and ensuring that young people graduate from school with the skills they need to enter the workforce and the socio-emotional skills necessary to be productive members of their communities. In order to achieve SDG 4, all sectors of society must come together to guarantee that all boys and girls have access to early childhood education opportunities, quality primary and secondary education, while also prioritizing effective learning outcomes. Global Goal 4 also includes the promotion of sustainable development, which includes educating all people on gender equality, promoting a culture of peace and nonviolence, as well as global citizenship, in its targets.
In Central America, community driven approaches in partnership with state and non-state actors are embracing new, innovative ways to address these tough issues. In order to address current education deficits and promote a lifetime of learning, cross-sector partnerships are being forged by organizations such as Glasswing International that aim to empower individuals to actively participate in the communities’ schools and create effective learning environments that promote learning beyond the classroom. In Latin America, Glasswing provides over 20,000 children and young people with access to quality education every year through the Community Schools model, an approach where multiple sectors of society, including businesses, NGOs, local and national governments across the region, and other partners such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, collaborate to provide opportunities to children and young people, keep them away from violence, and enable them to thrive.
Community Schools are public schools that share a commitment with Glasswing, associated partners, and its surrounding community, to provide students with a safe, supportive, and stimulating environment in which to learn and belong. They are the center of community pride and activity, providing young people with opportunities, positive role models, critical skills, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of hope. This approach envisions that quality education for children and their communities can reverse the impact of poverty and violence.
By extending the 4.5-hour public school day, the model offers full-time school opportunities for children and young people, increased interactions with their peers, and positive role models from the community. Students are encouraged to stay in school and are provided with a positive alternative to the street gangs perpetrating crime and violence that are so widespread in the region. These interconnected aspects of the model have proven to improve life skills, including self-esteem, communication, critical thinking, creativity, and empathy, improve school performance and enrich inter-personal and family relationships, as well as reduce risk and vulnerability to violence. In fact, our students are three times less likely to drop out of school.
As the world looks to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, it is evident that quality education sets the stage for better students, better citizens, and in turn, better communities. Research, though limited, already indicates that approaches like the Community School model increase perceptions of safe environments, reliable enrollment rates, and other positive outcomes, suggesting that this approach offers a platform for positive community transformation. If we want to eliminate extreme poverty and alleviate inequality around the world by 2030, we must invest in education not only making sure that kids attend school but that they learn, acquire life skills, and are equipped to contribute to their community, country, and the world. It is possible to achieve quality education for all, but in order to do that we must first empower young people, our people, and our communities.