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My Journey to Teach Colombian Kids to Compete Globally

By:  Maureen Orth May 8, 2014
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Kids with laptops

The Marina Orth Foundation operates five schools in Medellin and the nearby rural town of El Carmen de Viboral with computers for each student and an emphasis on technology, English and leadership.

I first fell in love with Colombia as a young Peace Corps volunteer many moons ago. I was assigned to Medellin, “the City of Eternal Spring”, and after two years had helped build a school high up in the mountains above the city that the community named for me: Escuela Marina Orth.

Maureen Orth in a classroom

Maureen Orth in the Colombian school she helped build as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1966.

For years, I could not visit because of the violence perpetrated by the drug wars and the fact that the notorious drug trafficker, Pablo Escobar, was actually hiding out right down the road from my school! For all the danger and bloodshed that occurred during that time, my school was never touched, because, as one Colombia official told me years later, “You created an island of peace.”

In late 2004, I was asked by the newly installed Secretary of Education of Medellin to help them once again.

“Marina,” he told me, “these kids have no chance to compete in the twenty-first century unless they know technology and English. Will you help us make your school the first public bilingual school?”

Of course I said yes, not knowing exactly how this would occur, but I trusted my journalistic reporting and research skills to find out for myself. In 2005, I began a foundation both in the U.S. and in Colombia to make that dream happen. Today, the Marina Orth Foundation operates in five schools in Medellin and the nearby rural town of El Carmen de Viboral with computers for each student and an emphasis on technology, English and leadership. We operate by public-private partnership with the Colombian government and private entities in both the U.S. and Colombia. We were especially thrilled in November 2012, when our school, Campo Alegre, in El Carmen won the grand prize of best rural school in the state of Antioquia!

Recently, not only did I get to participate in the recent UN World Urban Forum (WUF) hosted by Medellin for 20,000 participants from 162 countries, I also got to see the wonderful progress the Marina Orth Foundation is making and also to visit our gorgeous new fifth school. Our partners, the Golondrinas Foundation, constructed the school with private donations. It now serves 500 pre-schoolers enrolled in Buen Comienzo, the Colombian version of Head Start, plus 500 more K-11 students who are not only learning technology, English and leadership, but also planting an organic garden. These children, who are among the poorest in the city, are receiving hot meals at school and are able to learn in fully equipped and beautiful facilities that would be the envy of private schools anywhere in the world. (The positive results of early childhood intervention and learning are now being measured in Latin America by the Inter-American Development Bank, which cited research where two large groups of kids have been studied for the last 25 years. Those who had the advantage of a head start now earn 42 percent more than their counterparts.)

Golondrinas Foundation's new Camino de Paz School building in Caicedo, Medellin.

The Golondrinas Foundation's new Camino de Paz School building in Caicedo, Medellin.

At a journalism forum sponsored by the Mario Santo Domingo Foundation that kindly invited me to participate in the UN forum, I learned that by 2034, approximately 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban. The challenge to make cities vibrant, livable and equal was the subject of literally hundreds of roundtables, panels and discussions attended by ministers, mayors, heads of foundations, corporations, non-profits and universities from all over the world. And host Medellin was the star! Voted last year as the most innovative city in the world, the city had plenty of opportunity to show off its unique solutions to urban problems.

The gondolas of its metro system transport the residents of what was once one of the most isolated and violence-ridden areas of the city to what is now a neighborhood of pride that boasts a huge modern library. Another once-challenging comuna built high up a mountain now boasts the world’s longest escalators that also serve as public transport.

Campo Alegre and El Progreso Schools students displaying their dog-robots in Robotics Club.

Campo Alegre and El Progreso students display their dog-robots in Robotics Club.

At the foundation we, too, have been focused on innovation. We have our students learn how to take apart their computers and put them back together from the age of seven. We have girls who code and our robotics club is currently participating in a state-wide contest among public schools to build the best robot.

We started at No. 600 two months ago, but today we have moved up to No. 31. Roberto the Robot was shown to a group of journalists and WUF participants whom I brought to see our work. I was so proud that when we popped into a third grade classroom, the teacher was having her students learn how to construct a calculator. Our wonderful U.S. English volunteers are also helping Colombian English teachers in the classroom, as well as in our English clubs and parents clubs. We have a contract with the city of Medellin to help their teachers learn better ways to teach English. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has declared it a national goal to have Colombia bilingual by 2019. That is a formidable challenge. Colombia also wants to become a major tourist destination, and the country certainly has all the natural attributes — two oceans, rich biodiversity and sophisticated cities. But it needs a lot more people at ease with English.

I believe our foundation’s emphasis on teaching the "Big Three" of technology, English and leadership is preparing the way for Colombia to go forward and to reach its promise. I always say that what the Marina Orth Foundation does has nothing to do with charity but everything to do with the development of these great kids to help not only themselves but also their country’s progress.

Please visit us online at www.marinaorthfoundation.org and consider making a donation so we can help give more children in Colombia the chance to compete globally.


Maureen Orth is founder of the Marina Orth Foundation, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine and the mother of Luke Russert of NBC News. Read her latest article on the Choco region of Colombia here.