BSU, Belize and the Future

News Feature

News & Events

May 30, 2014

Though many people in the United States think of Belize as a vacation destination, the picture isn’t so rosy for many of its citizens. For starters, the impoverished country has serious issues in its schools: according to studies, 50 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls will drop out by 8th grade.

To address this problem and others, Dr. Theresa Coogan has been working with Carol Crosby, BSU assistant director of career services, and developed a career development program.

In April, Dr. Coogan, BSU associate professor of counselor education, had a chance to visit some of the schools in Belize firsthand, building on a longstanding partnership that BSU has with the Central American nation.

“It was a phenomenal experience,” said Dr. Coogan, who met with teachers, principals and students during her visit. “I was so excited to have conversations with the principals because they are so dedicated and so hands on and it was so great to meet with them and talk with them.”

The career program will begin this summer and into the academic year in four or five 6th-grade schools in Belize.

With the boots-on-the-ground help from Collin Estrada, coordinator of the Counseling and Care Unit for the Belize Ministry of Education and a Bridgewater graduate, the program is a three-year curriculum for career education. In coordination with Dr. Lisa Battaglino, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies, they hope the program offers a chance for students to stay in school longer and find gainful employment.

“I’m very much excited,” said Mr. Estrada, 34, who earned his master’s degree in education from Bridgewater State in 2012. “If we're able to let children understand their strengths, then they should be able to remain in the classroom.”

Employment in Belize means work in tourism, agriculture (often bananas or citrus), aquaculture, small businesses, and teaching, said Ms. Crosby. If students drop out, many won’t have the training necessary to succeed. The Ministry of Education tries to address the problem with a skills-training center and with apprenticeships, Mr. Estrada said, but that only helps students who have dropped out.

The BSU-Belize program hopes to encourage students to stay in school and guide students into these fields and other areas of interest, said Ms. Crosby. “I have been to Belize City and I had seen some of the issues in the school system and on the streets and the problems and the gangs, and I had a sense of what we were working with,” said Ms. Crosby. 

The career education program is an offshoot of an academic partnership that began at least nine years ago between Bridgewater State and the tropical nation. Since then, more than 100 BSU students, along with faculty and administrators have traveled there, aiming to teach and improve its educational facilities, and 24 students from Belize have come to Bridgewater State on scholarships, said Dr. Battaglino. In some cases, the stories of those affected have become quite personal.

Belize is a country in which the school system lacks sufficient numbers of social workers, psychologists, school guidance counselors and special education directors, Dr. Coogan said, adding that many of those positions are either non-existent or handled by teachers or principals, many of whom have no formal training for these roles. 

The project’s goal would be to recognize the lack of school counselors in the primary and secondary schools and to specifically address the area of career development. Using existing resources, the program will feature a module per month on particular subjects, from self-discovery to career exploration or career development, Dr. Coogan said. In the future, she adds, they hope to expand the program to Belize’s equivalent of grades six through eight.

The teaching modules, which are essentially month-by-month lessons, are designed to build on one another, explains Dr. Coogan. Things like basic organization and time management are essential life skills that students will need to learn in order to succeed, she said. Ms. Crosby adds that the program includes pre- and post-testing to assess its progress.

Mr. Estrada notes also that focusing on reading early on and then recognizing student strengths will help to keep them in school. “Once we start them out from an early age, whereby we’re able to plant those seeds, then students will be able to dream the American dream or to dream their own dreams that anything is possible in this world,” he said. “I just need to be able to develop a plan so I am able to move forward with what it is I want to accomplish.”

The Career Development Program will begin in earnest this summer with the delivery of supplies and teacher training. By October, it will become part of the academic program at an estimated four or five 6th grade schools, including schools Dr. Coogan visited in early April, like Hummingbird Elementary and St. John’s Anglican Primary School. In the first year, the program aims to provide life skills. Eventually it will guide students along a constructive educational and vocational path, say Dr. Coogan and Ms. Crosby. The first year will end with a “celebration” in May.

Dr. Coogan’s trip to Belize was made possible by a $1,000 award from the Massachusetts Women in Public Higher Education. Although she penned the curriculum for the Career Development Program, the need for the program began in January 2012 when Ms. Crosby went to Belize on a BSU community service project with Dr. Battaglino and David Ostroth, former Vice President of Student Affairs. 

While there, Ms. Crosby also met Mr. Estrada, who brought the needs of Belizean students to the attention of the BSU team. By February 2013, after Ministry of Education officials visited BSU, the need for career development was further defined, and by that spring, the concept for the project was further enhanced. In June 2013, Ms. Crosby asked Dr. Coogan to work with her, with support from Dean Battaglino, to develop a program and its curriculum, and by the fall the curriculum was being refined. By October, a focus group of Belizean graduate and undergraduate exchange students met on the BSU campus. In April 2014, specific teaching modules and teachers’ manuals were developed.

Teachers, principals and school counselors will play a key role in the success of the program, Dr. Coogan said. But in Belize “the role of the school guidance counselor doesn’t exist in the way we know it here in the American school systems,” she said. School counselors, who in the United States might guide a student toward higher education or a career goal, serve many roles in Belize, and there are too few to go around. 

“When people refer to ‘school counselors’ in Belize, the role actually encompasses what American schools have served by several roles: the school psychologist, the school guidance counselor, the school social worker/school adjustment counselor, the school nurse and a special education director,” Dr. Coogan said. To fit the American model, means making substantial changes, she added. “It means hiring new people, new training. It means a new educational program at the university to be able to provide a higher educational degree,” Dr. Coogan said. (Story and photo by Steve Ide, University News; Belize photos by Theresa Coogan)

Students at St. John’s primary school, Belize City, Belize
Students and their teacher at St. John’s
Hummingbird Elementary School, one of the schools in the project
Dr. Theresa Coogan (left) and Carol Crosby