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Belize: A Nation at Risk

By Gustavo A. Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /

My favorite and most often used Chinese proverb reminds us simply that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Thirty years ago the Education Department of the United States of America published a report, “A Nation at Risk”, to urge an overhaul of how/what their young people were taught in schools. Why? Data gathered over many years showed that young students in that country were “behind” where they should be in Education. The Report was a “wake-up call” for the country. As of today, educators in that country are still working to keep the spark alive of that school reform movement. It has been more than 30 years since Belize achieved its Independence. What has Belize (Education Department) done to make its schools its own – instead of keeping the exact system of Education used under Colonial Masters before 1981?

Recently published scores of 2013 PSE proficiency examinations for Belize Primary school students show that more than 50% of the students are lagging way behind (failing) in English/Reading and Math. Moreover, at this point in time Belize has such a high rate of unemployment, and so many of our people are poor, it’s a given that a large part of our young people are NOT adept at using 21st Century technology. This is because only the wealthy (at least the working class) could possibly afford to buy computers, and pay expensive internet hook-ups! So, what are we Belizeans going to do after this dire warning (that literary wise our young people are far behind where they should be) that has just exploded in our faces? Most Primary and Secondary school students in Belize are now on summer vacation. This is a good time for Belizean Education policymakers (government and church), school administrators, teachers and parents throughout the entire country, to join together and take those first few steps on the long, difficult, and “necessary” journey to reinvent, reform, and strengthen schools in Belize.

Previous studies carried out in Belize show that the high dropout rate of students, especially males, in Belize is connected to the extremely high crime rate throughout the country. Are our young male students “bored” at school everyday? Why? Are our schools today even adequately staffed and funded to serve our youth and the nation? Why does government give cash vouchers to students who are entering high school, but the vouchers are not good for another six months – until December 2013? Should we be referring to our country as a “jewel” when we cannot even educate our children to reach acceptable literary standards?

I have pointed out in several of my previous articles that, based on numerous studies done throughout the developed world, a country’s economy suffers greatly when Primary and Secondary schools do not step up to the plate, and help young students to move up when they are lagging way behind their international rivals. But, regardless if anyone agrees with anything that I write, do those who are in control of managing our schools and Education Systems in Belize even care about our future? How are they showing it? I dare the government (ruling political party) and churches in Belize to take those first important steps to signal to our people, and to the world, that schools in Belize can today and will, effectively respond to the rapidly changing world around us today, and will successfully educate young Belizeans to live and “fit” in this new Century in Belize!

First of all, though, government and church policymakers of our Education Systems in Belize must take their heads from deep in the sands, and stop insisting on remaining embedded in antiquated Colonial Systems of Education. Belize is now an Independent country, with needs of her own, and is no longer a British colonial territory. Stop focusing on the British or Commonwealth systems of Education, and create a Belizean system of Education! Policymakers, administrators, teachers, and parents: you are the leaders of our children. Stop following someone else’s Systems of Education, and start creating your very own visions of where Belize needs to be. Then, translate those visions into solid Education Reform that will aim to meet Belize’s goals, not the goals of another country. Change and recharge yourselves to make teaching/educating our young people today successful and less frustrating because it’s not meeting another country’s standards. Overhaul and replace your old Colonial habits with new ones, and create “working” classrooms in schools, where students are encouraged to develop “critical thinking skills” instead of trying to learn by rote memorization to score well in external examinations.


Step 1.) To create the best Education Systems in Belize that will prepare our young people for today and tomorrow we must want it first! Even that, though, is not enough to start our journey to create, update and continuously improve schools in this country. We must try to replace the all-encompassing indifference on the part of most parents and those who are “in charge” of managing and developing schools today. We simply cannot “cave in” to those who keep screaming that we must run schools the same way as “when they were there”. Additionally, unlike how it was done in the past, any new vision for schools in Belize cannot be kept buried under some powerful leader’s “Classified” documents! Any new vision for our schools needs to be SHARED with the entire country, especially with our teachers, students, parents, and business communities!

Step 2.) To make Education in Belize successful, bring teachers’ salaries up to 21st Century standards of living! Students are not the only ones who need motivation, encouragement, and incentive to “learn” and make the education process successful; so do teachers! A “livable” salary for teachers (financial stability) will provide incentives for them to want to grow and develop in their profession. Let’s not “let sleeping dogs lie” in the field of Education and continue to hire whoever is willing to teach in our schools at unrealistic salaries. We get what we pay for! No matter what level a school, Primary or Secondary, it is of paramount importance that our school leaders develop a faculty culture that is always focused on professional growth and development. That, however, will never be easy as long as the complaining and bickering by overworked and underpaid teachers drown out the voices of those devoted to learning, sharing and supporting each other.”

Step 3.) Unlike how Primary and Secondary schools were managed in past Colonial days, today we must let each teacher know and feel everyday all day, that he/she counts! Our teachers, not their employers, are the ones who are ultimately responsible for helping students “to learn”. Principals, Headmasters, Managers: let teachers know and feel that you regard them as “significant” to your school! Financial recompense (salary) alone does not provide the “motivation/impetus” to encourage a teacher to want to keep improving constantly – feeling “needed” and appreciated does!

Belize: A Nation at Risk

Step 4.) Parents: make every effort to “keep up” with your children today! You may not be able to stop them from being exposed to very realistic but violent video games, or from watching adult TV, or from participating in 24/7 interactive websites where the entire world (cyberspace) participates, or from sending and receiving emails – good, bad, ugly, and everything in between. However, your “I don’t know how to work a computer!” is no excuse! Whether you are computer literate or not, you have great influence on your children — use it! Listen to them, answer their questions, try to guide them, and by all means LEARN from them. (Whenever I am “stuck” on the computer, I rely on my teenage son to “come to the rescue”. In today’s world a 60 year old can learn so very much from a teenager!) Participate in their education! Screaming at them that you work your # off to be able to pay for their education is not participation. Being one of the 400 (out of 450) parents who do not bother to show up to school to see your child being honored publicly for good grades, sports participation, or other school activity is not participation. Merely providing money for your son’s/daughter’s education (school fees, books, uniforms etc.) is not participation. If your parents did not participate in your education that does not mean that, in turn, you can do the same today with your child. This is 2013! Spending money on your children without providing emotional support is worthless and meaningless.

Step 5.) School Managers (government and church) and Boards of Directors: do you know what Belizean business communities and leaders want/need our schools to produce? Find out! What literacy skills do employers today need in order to make our Belizean business communities grow and develop on a world competitive basis? No school should assume that what they produce is good enough for today’s business operations or offices. We now have such a wide variety of business industries in Belize. We are now preparing to have world-class medical centers, hospitals, and shopping centers. Educators should not work hard to produce high-performing students to make schools “look good”; today our ultimate goal is to educate young people so they can “fit” successfully into our communities, and help them become productive.

Belize: A Nation at Risk

Step 6.) School Principals and Headmasters: “prioritize” things that need to be addressed at school every day. Things that may seem insignificant to you may be of vital importance to our students today. If we keep insisting on managing schools the way it was done 25 or 50 years ago, we are inviting trouble and failure. “Your” important meetings and deadlines should not always come first. Many of our (male) students today cannot read at their class level, or are “lost” in gangs and drug use/abuse, or have many “negative” close/family influences in their lives, and live in abject poverty and desperation. Addressing these issues first is far more important than only attending bureaucratic meetings or trying to get the most and highest CXC passes for your school.

Finally, I encourage all Belizean adults, especially parents and educators, to keep modeling positive behaviors, especially “patience”, everyday to send powerful and positive messages to our young people today. Belize’s high crime/murder/gang involvement rate today is tied to the fact that our youth have become totally engulfed and swallowed up in the FAST rate at which everything moves today — thanks to technology. So many young people today simply do not or cannot comprehend the need for, importance, and beauty of “patience”. Let us show them “how” patience works! A direct quote from a previous commentary to one of my early articles: “The best way to raise upstanding citizens is to lead by example – show the students love, hope, compassion, respect, honesty, diligence and ambition (to name only a few of lessons.” Yes, we want well-behaved, motivated, and high performing young Belizeans in schools today; more important though, we want “happy” Belizean students.


Author’s Note:
These articles are not intended to be comprehensive or complete. They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, and the community. If we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, then we can learn from our mistakes as well as success. Way to go, fellow educators!


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