Literacy for Dominican-Haitian Youth in the Batey

by Yspaniola Incorporated
Volunteers, Summer Camp 2016
Volunteers, Summer Camp 2016

Last year Yspaniola won second place in Global Giving’s “Fail Forward” contest after sharing our experiences balancing (or failing to) high-quality programming and inclusivity in our 2015 Summer Camp Program.

 On Monday, July 11, Yspaniola officially launched Summer Camp 2016. After learning from our mistakes in last year's programming, we took the time to revamp our camp structure in 2016. This year we reduced the number of positions per camper group and activity to keep volunteers engaged, devoted more time to professional training and lesson plan development, extended Summer Camp to a three week program, and introduced a Kinder Summer Camp Class for younger students in the community, all to make sure Summer Camp 2016 is a success for volunteers and students alike. While only a few days into this year’s camp, we can already see the improvements for our volunteers and the over 125 participating campers, and we look forward to spending the next few weeks living up to this year’s camp slogan: ¡Todos somos súperheroes! (We are all superheros!).

While July in Batey Libertad is typically focused on Summer Camp, this year we will also be celebrating a graduating University Scholar. Mayra Rodríguez has spent the past four years studying Education and Natural Sciences at the Santiago University of Technology (UTESA), and will graduate this coming Saturday, July 16th. Recently, Mayra received the highest grade available on her senior thesis, and will graduate with over a 3.3 GPA. A dedicated student and incredible educator (she has worked with Yspaniola in the Batey Libertad Learning Center!), Mayra will pursue a teaching career after graduating. Mayra is the third Yspaniola University Scholar to graduate from university through our University Scholarship Program, preceded by Federico Charle in 2016 and Julio Louis in 2012. 

Students in Health Class, Summer Camp 2016
Students in Health Class, Summer Camp 2016
USP Graduate Mayra Rodriguez (3rd from right)
USP Graduate Mayra Rodriguez (3rd from right)
Local LC Teacher Ronny works with Pre-K students
Local LC Teacher Ronny works with Pre-K students

      Since re-opening our doors for the Spring 2016 semester, the Learning Center has continued to grow and improve. Students and teachers alike are enjoying extended instructional time, and the Learning Center’s Food Program continues to provide healthy snacks to students prior to classes Monday through Thursday. 

       In our last update we shared some of the successes from last semester’s Reading A-Z testing. February marked a new round of testing for students in the Learning Center, and out of the 56 students tested, 48 increased their reading comprehension levels. Seeing this consistent progress is extremely important for us here at Yspaniola, and we are thrilled to see student success like that of Jonel, who, since his last round of A-Z testing, has jumped from a level C to a level G reader, bringing him closer to reading at grade level.

       2016 also marks the addition of a Pre-Kindergarten class in the Learning Center. Out of the 126 students our Learning Center serves, our Pre-K class caters to 21 students, allowing teachers and assistants to work closely and in small-groups with the community’s youngest learners. Additionally, we have integrated music into the Pre-k curriculum, using different musical tools to support literacy learning for many young students who come from Haitian Creole speaking households and know very limited Spanish. Yspaniola is thrilled about this addition to our Learning Center, as Pre-kindergarten programs are proven to help build a fundamental educational base for children and support their success when they enter the formal school system.

       Additionally, with the collaboration of Ani Yanachkova, Yspaniola’s new Executive Director, Sabrina Grille, the Director of the Learning Center, and Emma Compton, the Local Program Manager, Yspaniola has been able to integrate multiple programs and better support current staff. In the fall, Mayra, an Yspaniola University Scholar, chose to complete her university internship in Yspaniola’s Learning Center. This collaboration is an important example of Yspaniola’s goals to provide quality education from pre-k through university and to support community members as they themselves work for the improvement of their community. With similar goals to support the work of community members, Yspaniola has implemented monthly teacher trainings and professional development meetings, which have focused on topics such as lesson planning and reading strategies. Increasing quality education means focusing on empowering local teachers; Yspaniola currently has 7 local teachers and assistants, and these monthly trainings aim to provide local staff with important resources and experience to help ensure the sustainability of Yspaniola’s education programs in Batey Libertad.

      Stay tuned for Yspaniola’s next update as we celebrate summer vacation in the Learning Center and prepare for another fun-filled Summer Camp in Batey Libertad!

University Scholar Mayra tutors Ketrina, Class 4.
University Scholar Mayra tutors Ketrina, Class 4.

The doors to the Learning Center will open to students on Monday, when the Spring Semester begins. For the first time, the Learning Centers’ teachers are preparing to hold classes five-days a week, which will add one day of instruction to the weekly schedule followed in previous semesters. All seven of the Learning Center’s classes will be taught Mondays through Thursdays, with guided Reading Hours and homework help available on Fridays. The Learning Center’s calendar has also been adjusted to accommodate more overall days of instruction, which brings it in-line with the Dominican Republic’s public school schedule. We hope this reinforces concepts that students learn in school, and, with more class time, students will have the opportunity to review material frequently and advance rapidly.

The Food Program, which began in September, will be extended to accommodate these changes, so that students will be provided with a nutritious snack, such as hard boiled eggs, sandwiches and bananas, before each class. We hope this gives students the energy they need to focus during the extra day of instruction. Many students in Batey Libertad do not have access to regular or healthy meal options, and the Food Program will continue to pursue its goal of ensuring that no student arrives to class on an empty stomach.

Before the winter recess, teachers evaluated students’ progress using the internationally recognized Reading A-Z and Early Grade Reading Assessment systems. Improvements were noted across-the-board, with all but two students scoring higher and demonstrating increased phonemic awareness when compared with testing done over the summer. By continuing to use an array of teaching tools, such as phonics games, dictations, guided reading, arts-and-crafts, and music-based lessons, we hope the Learning Center’s students will gain even more confidence and fluency in their reading and writing over the course of the upcoming semester.

Yspaniola has been working to provide access to quality education in Batey Libertad since 2010. In over five years of community-based education initiatives, and with extensive community feedback, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to fail and learn from our mistakes. For the “fail forward” contest, we’d like to share one such failure from the past year.

Yspaniola works year-round with over 120 children from Batey Libertad providing supplementary literacy education in our Learning Center, with the goal of providing comprehensive and holistic education from pre-school through university. By teaching students to read and write effectively as well as think critically, we seek to not only increase access to social and economic opportunity, but also to provide students with the skills they will need to advocate for themselves and their community.

Children in Batey Libertad face manifold barriers to education—work and responsibilities inside and out of the home, lack of proper nutrition and healthcare, lack of documentation, and institutional racism. Yspaniola seeks to address and counteract these obstacles through community education programs. But these barriers also mean that children in Batey Libertad have few opportunities to play and explore new interests in a supportive environment. With this in mind, Yspaniola staff and community members put their heads together to design the Batey Libertad Summer Camp.

Yspaniola’s Summer Camp first took place in 2012, and has been a much-anticipated event every year since. In addition to providing a fun, encouraging environment for our students during the summer months, the Summer Camp’s goal is to empower young adults in Batey Libertad. Through summer camp, young people not formally involved in Yspaniola programming—adolescents who are too old for our Learning Center, which enrolls 117 children ages 4 to 15—can gain much-needed work experience and practice leadership skills. After training in effective teamwork, professional etiquette, and classroom and behavior management, Summer Camp Volunteers are ready! Guided by Summer Camp young-adult volunteers, children learn about HIV/AIDS prevention and positive self-esteem, play fútbol and complete obstacle courses, dance Dominican bachata and make their own maracas, take on new personas in theatrical skits, and construct and paint Carnaval masks.

Summer Camp has been very popular in Batey Libertad, generating positive feedback from both volunteers and children. Students now begin to ask about Camp early in the spring and argue throughout the year about who really won the end-of-camp competition between camper groups. Most impressive has been the continued growth in enthusiasm from young adults in the community. When we opened the application process in May 2015, over 40 adolescents and young adults in the community expressed interest in participating as counselors, activity leaders, or assistants. Eager to support young people’s initiative to help their community, we found a way for everyone interested to participate. We added more counselors to each group, more assistants, and more activities. Since behavior management had been one of the most difficult tasks for counselors in the past, it seemed like having more committed adults involved in each activity could be a big help and our young-adult-to-child ratio was fantastic—almost 1-3!

As Summer Camp kicked off, however, it became clear our large and enthusiastic team was too much for our capacity. We had set out to provide work and leadership experience to young adults in the community, but found that we were simply unable to provide the kind of tailored support that our camp volunteers needed to excel and hone their own professional skills. Our training, designed to allow volunteers to think about and practice for potentially difficult situations during camp, became unmanageable with over 40 volunteers. During camp, with an excess of volunteers, many young adults became distracted and did not motivate themselves to remain engaged with students during camp activities. Discord emerged in various sub-teams as some volunteers saw their colleagues not pulling their weight. Our camp directors supervised, gave feedback, and intervened where necessary, but there was not the time or capacity to actively address every problem and teaching moment.

Summer Camp still accomplished many of its original goals: children arrived early each morning, eager and attentive, and left each day exhausted and happy. Certain volunteers stood out within a large team as shining stars—committed to the task, infectious in their enthusiasm, and consistently professional. But others seemedto grow little if at all from the Summer Camp counselor experience, falling through the cracks of a large group.

Ultimately, we recognized that in Summer Camp we had failed our young-adult volunteers by trying to include as many people as possible, and we were therefore unable to provide a well-structured, positive learning experience for all of the counselors. We realized that for volunteers to truly learn and employ the complex host of professional and educational skills required by Summer Camp, more is not necessarily better. Rather than providing opportunities to as many young people as possible, we could better serve the community by putting more resources into fewer volunteers.

In 2015, we’ve resolved to realign Batey Libertad Summer Camp with Yspaniola’s goals.In the coming year, we will partner with community members to make the difficult choices about who is best qualified to participate in Summer Camp and devote more organizational resources to training and support before, during, and after camp to ensure that our Summer Camp volunteers have the opportunity for learning and growth they deserve.

Our failure this past year in Summer Camp has taught us a lesson that will also guide the rest of our programming. While we strive for inclusivity in our programs and hope to serve as many people as possible, we recognize that our resources cannot reach everyone effectively. When there is a choice between adding more to our programs or improving current initiatives, we are better off creating excellent opportunities and later expanding them rather than stretching our resources thin for the sake of inclusivity. This year, Yspaniola looks forward to more growth, learning, fun—and even failure!

This September marks the official inauguration of the Learning Center’s new Food Program! In Batey Libertad, many of our students suffer from a lack of consistent and healthy nutrition. The Food Program provides students with vitamins and energy to help them focus and perform to the best of their ability in the classroom, and increases motivation for parents to consistently send their children to classes in the Learning Center.


Yspaniola introduced the pilot Food Program last spring, and after feedback and adjustments, the program is now fully operational for the coming academic year. Currently, we provide students with nutritious snacks, including sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, bananas, and crackers. In addition, through a capital gift Yspaniola has purchased the building adjacent to the center to house the Food Program. With additional space, we are able to simultaneously hold classes and the Food Program, and commit to a long-term goal of providing healthy food to our students.


September saw more than the addition of the Food Program! Through a grant from Better World Books, Yspaniola has hired a third full-time local teacher from Batey Libertad: Marisela Peña. Marisela grew up and lives in Batey Libertad, and she is pursuing a degree in education at UASD in Mao. She will teach four classes in the Learning Center starting on October 13th


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Organization Information

Yspaniola Incorporated

Location: North Haven, CT - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Jonathan DiMaio
North Haven, CT United States

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