USAID awards $8 million to Notre Dame to expand early literacy, learning programs

Recognizing the impact of the University of Notre Dame’s efforts to improve childhood literacy in Haiti, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has awarded an $8 million grant to the University to expand its early-grade literacy and social-emotional learning programs and improve early childhood development.

With USAID’s support, Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Haiti and Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child (GC-DWC), in partnership with the Pulte Institute for Global Development, have begun work on Strong Beginnings: Leveraging the home, school and church to develop the whole child in Haiti. Notre Dame is working with Catholic Relief Services and the national office for Catholic schools in Haiti to serve more than 25,000 students and their families in three departments — similar to provinces — in Haiti over the next four years. USAID support will allow Strong Beginnings to address developmental and learning needs of children by leveraging the systems that most directly affect their lives: the home, the school and the church.

“USAID believes education is transformational for individuals and societies. That is why we continue to invest in early-grade education to help give Haitian students the best possible start on their path to learning,” said Christopher Cushing, the Haiti mission director for USAID. “We look forward to our continued partnership with University of Notre Dame and partners in the USAID Strong Beginnings project to expand early-grade literacy and social-emotional learning programs for Haitian students.” 

USAID ACE Haiti GC-DWC $8 Million GrantStrong Beginnings also allowed ACE Haiti and the GC-DWC to create pre-K and parent programming for radio delivery. This radio programming provides backing for social and emotional learning, interactive activities for younger students and strategies for parents to support young learners at home. Programming for pre-K students and parents was broadcast beginning in June on 14 radio stations in five departments in Haiti, providing families and children with opportunities to learn and grow while schools were closed due to the pandemic.

“The radio program is very important for my child,” said Wana Mercier, whose daughter Woodley is in first grade. “Thanks to this program, many gaps in reading and writing are filled during the period of quarantine. The program’s presenters are very clear and it’s as if the students are back in the classroom.”

John Staud, the acting director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives and the executive director of ACE, said, “The ACE Haiti team has consistently shown it can dramatically impact children’s lives by improving their literacy skills. Combined with the new GC-DWC’s expertise in creating pathways out of adversity, Notre Dame has the opportunity to profoundly enrich the lives of thousands of children and their families.”

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. More than a fifth of children enter school malnourished, while the vast majority of Haiti’s primary school teachers lack the training and materials needed to teach students to read and write in early grades. As a result of the low levels of teacher training and lack of first-language reading instruction in early grades, 49 percent of Haitian students cannot read a single word when they enter the third grade, and almost 50 percent of the adult population is illiterate.

“Education is one of the most powerful tools to reduce inequality,” said Michael Sweikar, the executive director of the Pulte Institute for Global Development, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs. “The Pulte Institute is proud to once again be partnering with ACE and GC-DWC on a project that will further our mission to bring human dignity to people across the globe.” 

ACE Haiti’s Read Haiti program, begun in 2016 with the support of USAID, Porticus and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has demonstrated marked success in improving first- and second-grade literacy through a scripted curriculum that included textbooks, class libraries and structured reading teacher guides to improve children’s writing and reading in Creole and French. Yet children enter first grade unprepared for school, and early years of life are crucial for academic and social development. Families and school communities in Haiti face significant and multi-layered obstacles that prevent children from thriving.

Strong Beginnings continues Notre Dame’s early-grade literacy efforts and includes early-childhood programming to ensure that children between 3 and 6 years old have a nurturing, developmental environment and are ready for school. Partners will create pre-literacy materials for early childhood development facilitators and parents, parenting education for parents of pre-primary school children, and training for local church leaders on early childhood development. Strong Beginnings also includes an innovative learning lab that works with community partners to identify intractable issues that affect child development and learning, develop community-driven solutions to these issues and test these solutions before scaling them up in other areas.

“This award allows Notre Dame to build on our long-term partnerships in Haiti with new innovations and a recognition that we have to prepare young children so that their brains are strong, healthy and ready to learn once they enter school,” said Kate Schuenke-Lucien, the director of ACE Haiti Initiatives. “School-based work is necessary, but not sufficient, if we want to set the children we serve on a path to success.”

“The challenges Haitian children face are complex and cannot be resolved solely through a single intervention,” said Neil Boothby, the founding director of the GC-DWC. “We use school-based programs as a point of entry to promote children’s resilience through academic learning and by meeting basic needs, nurturing positive relationships, developing social-emotional and play-based skills and fostering civic engagement.”