We live in a country of immense privilege.

There’s no denying inequities still exist, but when a country’s conversations around education can turn to topics of charter schools, testing standards and affordability of college it says something about just how fortunate we really are. In the United States, it’s a foregone conclusion that every child has access to a free K-12 education. We ended that conversation around the turn of the 20th century. Spurred by the extreme inequities of the Gilded Age when industrial barons like the Carnegies and Rockefellers amassed huge fortunes while the majority of the country suffered in impoverished conditions, the Progressive Movement began to address issues such as child labor and fair wages. Along with this came grassroots efforts to increase access to schools and levels of education. There was an explosion of high school construction throughout the country, particularly in rural areas.

 Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by almost one year per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about eight years of schooling, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years (Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology). This education boom not only minimized some of the disparity between social classes within our country, but it also helped to propel us towards global economic leadership.

But let’s not forget the privileged place from which we see the world. Let me take you to a corner of the globe where the majority of students drop out of school before the sixth grade and youth still lack access to free secondary education. In the rugged highlands of Guatemala only 10% of students attend high school because it costs half a family’s annual income to send one child to school for just one year. The average number of years of education in the country is just four (The United Nations’ Human Development Report), even fewer than the US average in 1870!

Free high school matters.

I founded Reading Village ( in 2007 in part to offer full high school scholarships and high quality mentorship to students in rural Guatemala. In doing so, my organization and others like it are giving children of uneducated parents the opportunity to attend and graduate from high school. This is no small feat. Working in countries where education is a privilege only for the most elite, where teachers lack resources and students lack books, poses significant challenge. More often than not, in the communities where we work schools are ill-equipped, teachers are poorly educated and parents are illiterate. But if you truly believe that every child deserves the chance to fulfill his or her potential, if you believe – like I do – that education is a human right, then none of these challenges is too great to overcome.

Free access to high school education really does pay off. In the case of Reading Village, 78% of our high school graduates have professional jobs that pay a solid living wage, and 40% are reaching even further by taking university classes. Two of our program graduates decided they wanted to open a high quality and accessible school for their community. They are now in their second year of a three-year fellowship with the innovative K-12 Asturias Academy in Guatemala. They are learning to be master teachers, administrators and social entrepreneurs. When their fellowship is over they will begin the work of opening the first ever branch of Asturias, and two new Reading Village graduates will fill their spots in the fellowship to start building this grassroots movement towards education for all.

Education is so important because it is not only an end in and of itself, but it is the means to other more transformative ends. Education impacts a multitude of important factors in the health and well-being of a population. Increased education levels lead to increased job opportunities and faster economic growth, concern about the environment and a more tolerant society, reduce early births and child marriages, and save the lives of mothers and children (UNESCO, Education Transforms Lives).

But the scholarships that Reading Village and its peer organizations are able to deliver will never be enough. These programs are proving the impact of high school education on community development, but they will only be truly successful if they are seen as a stepping stone to universal access to free high school all around the world.

What was possible in grassroots America in 1870 is surely possible in Guatemala in 2015.

 By Linda Smith, Founder & Executive Director of Reading Village, CO – a nonprofit that combines scholarship, leadership, and literacy to alleviate poverty in rural Guatemala.

This article was published on 5th December 2015, for the International Volunteer Day at Global Education Magazine.

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