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Berhanu Habtemariam points out a shark to West Decatur Elementary student Angel Manuel at the Wetland Edge Environmental Center. Habtenariam heads curriculum development in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Berhanu Habtemariam points out a shark to West Decatur Elementary student Angel Manuel at the Wetland Edge Environmental Center. Habtenariam heads curriculum development in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education.

Decatur educators helping Ethiopian schools
Officials from Africa visit classes here; A&M writes English textbooks

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com · 340-2432

Ethiopian diplomat Berhanu Habtemariam watches and listens to Wetlands Edge Environmental Center teacher Susan Estes almost as closely as her young students do.

Estes is showing the group a shark hidden under seaweed in the center’s saltwater aquarium.

Meanwhile, Wetlands Edge teacher Marc Slate briefs another Ethiopian diplomat, Tizazu Asare, about the corporate-public partnership Decatur City Schools has with BP Corp. to build and operate the center.

The two members of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education later visit Woodmeade Elementary School and watch just as closely as fourth-grade teacher Eveythe Cargill gives a lesson on fractions.

Education initiative

Habtemariam and Asare are trying to improve their country’s education, and they’re getting help from Decatur residents through Alabama A&M University as part of President Bush’s $600 million African Education Initiative. The U.S. Agency for International Development provided the funding.

Alabama A&M is one of six minority institutions to receive a three-year, $3 million grant. Professor Mary Spor, coordinator of A&M’s reading and literacy doctoral program, is director of the program to write English-language textbooks. Frances Nungester Elementary Principal Cheryl Boman and former Woodmeade Principal Reba Wadsworth are also working on the project. All three are Decatur residents.

In the first two years of the project, Alabama A&M produced and distributed about 810,000 textbooks to teach English to Ethiopian sixth- and seventh-graders.

Habtemariam said Ethiopian children begin learning English in first grade. In fifth grade and middle school, English becomes part of the math, science and social sciences classes. When they reach high school, all classes are taught in English.

Ethiopia has 84 languages, but he said his country views English as the language of international commerce and its way to compete globally. Before the 1940s, French was the country’s second language. English took that spot during World War II.

Poverty solution

Poverty and malnutrition are the country’s biggest problems. Habtemariam said everyone can get at least one meal a day, but the question is how nutritious the meal is.

“We view education as one of the solutions to this problem,” he said.

With 1 million children in each of the first eight grades, he said, the country has one textbook for every eight children, and many are produced from cheap paper.

“We want to make sure every child gets a book.”

He said the best way to get quality English textbooks is from native English speakers.

Spor said the Alabama A&M group is writing the books in English and using the familiar instruction methods found in local school systems. They have to know the Ethiopian cultures. They work closely with Ethiopian educators to make sure the books take into account regional differences.

“We have to represent all nine regions of the country, and use names from each of those regions,” Spor said.

Wadsworth, Boman and Spor traveled to Ethiopia in November with an eight-member delegation. Wadsworth, who retired in May and is writing her third book, said they realized how lucky they were to teach in the U.S.

She said they saw a teacher with her students huddled under the shade of a tree. She quickly noticed the lack of textbooks.

“She was using a radio to teach them English,” Wadsworth said. “Three different students asked us to help them get a textbook.

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