09/20/2011 09:32 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

An Education Takes Kids From Slums to Schools


Jaime Palacios was four-years-old when his mother, widowed and destitute, abandoned him in his small Salvadoran village.

By chance, Jaime's paternal grandmother found him in the street and took him in. The old woman was bitter and mean, and wielded what Jaime calls her "special tool to hit me": an electrical cable wound several times.

As a teen, Jaime was sucked into a world of gangs, drugs and violence that threatened to lure him away from school, which in El Salvador is only offered in half days. He was a smart kid, but also lonely and full of hate, so his future was precarious.

Jaime tells us he'd have wound up selling drugs, or possibly even dead, if an after-school program called Superate hadn't saved him. Now Jaime is attending university with aspirations to become a graphic designer.

Superate (which roughly translated from Spanish means "improve yourself") targets at-risk teens aged 14 to 17, in those crucial last years of high school before university. Besides teaching English as a second language, computer skills and ethics, Superate offers a chance to earn university scholarships. A recent donation-matching agreement with the U.S. Agency of International Development will supplement funds from local sponsors. Two new Superate centres are set to open next year, for a total of nine across El Salvador.

Volunteering to build homes for underprivileged families, field trips to archaeological dig sites and museums are all part of the curriculum -- all things that poor kids from gang-controlled slums couldn't even imagine, let alone dream about.

When we walked through Superate's white stucco hallways and sat in on classes, we met bright and hopeful students like Jaime.

Programs like Superate inspire a re-evaluation of the definition of education. Why not focus on the quality of learning instead of just the number of students attending school? Maybe a new benchmark for success is called for, since the world is failing its young people by current measures.

We're already in danger of missing the second Millennium Development Goal, which is universal access to primary education by 2015, according to a recent United Nations report.

Andrea Méndez is the career and scholarship coordinator at Superate's Kriete centre in San Salvador. With 275 students, it's the largest of seven centres across the country. She told us she's seen the consequences of poor schooling.

Méndez likens the public school system in El Salvador to "Russian roulette." A student like Jaime is more likely to be recruited by a gang than head-hunted by a university.

Méndez beat the odds. After graduating from high school in El Salvador, she went on to earn degrees from Vanderbilt and Harvard universities. She could have done anything. She chose to return home to try to improve education, and to instill values in the students.

When the school day was cut in half by a cash-strapped government, a class called 'civics and morals' was dropped to favour core subjects like math. Community values fell even further "through the cracks."

El Salvador's government doesn't advertize this, but Méndez suspects that cutting half of the school day wasn't just a cost savings measure but a way to entice students to attend, since it leaves some daylight hours free in a country where agriculture is the backbone of the economy. The academic year caters to the cocoa harvest, breaking from October to December when most students work on plantations.

Most Superate graduates head to university.

Of the 130 students who graduated from Superate Kriete since it opened in 2007, 100 now attend university. That's more than the 70 per cent of American high school graduates who enrolled in college in 2009.

Superate provides safe after-school spaces, teaching morality as a life skill, and enticing at-risk youth with highly employable tools such as computer literacy. This could be a lesson for both developed and developing countries.

In Canada, just four per cent of First Nations people living on-reserve have a university degree. The national rate for non-Aboriginal Canadians is 23 per cent.

When governments in Sub-Saharan Africa abolished primary school fees, enrolment shot up in one of the poorest corners on Earth. And still, 30 per cent of students in the region don't finish primary school. Building a school and getting kids in the door is crucial, but it's just a start.

Not that infrastructure isn't important; it's just that so much more is needed to hook kids on learning. Education must be relevant to the unique challenges of students in order to break their cycle of poverty, and for some kids, their feelings of despair.

Before Superate, Jaime was angry at a world that seemed to have abandoned him. He tells us how his loneliness turned to thoughts of suicide in the weeks prior to starting the program. Superate actually saved his life.