A World of Learning: Study.com Speaks With the CEO of Room to Read

Room to Read promotes literacy and gender equality in education among children worldwide. The organization has built reading rooms throughout Asia and parts of Africa, with plans to expand African programming in 2011. Study.com recently spoke with Erin Ganju, CEO and co-founder of Room to Read, about literacy education as a basic human right.

By Megan Driscoll

Erin Ganju, CEO, Room to Read

Erin Ganju with students in Laos, photo by Room to Read

Study.com: Your bio notes that you co-founded Room to Read with John Wood. Can you tell us about how the organization got its start?

Erin Ganju: The seeds for Room to Read were planted back in 1998 when John Wood went on a trek in Nepal and witnessed firsthand the severe dearth of educational resources for kids, books in particular. He took action by starting a book drive which led to a larger commitment of establishing libraries. I met John through mutual friends in San Francisco a bit later. Having heard about his great work in Nepal, I offered to help him set up something similar in Vietnam, where I had worked as director of operations for Unilever in the mid-90s and knew firsthand the need for a greater focus on educational programs. And so it started - literally in John's living room with the two of us committing for a year in 2002 to see how far we could get with this fledgling organization. Fast forward a decade and Room to Read is now a US$30 million nonprofit organization enhancing education for millions of children across nine countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Study.com: Room to Read's mission statement notes that the organization 'seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education.' Can you tell us more about child literacy and education issues in the countries in which Room to Read operates, and what the organization is doing to address them?

EG: The reality for many children in the developing world when it comes to access to educational opportunities is still very dismal. On a macro level there are 759 million people in the world who cannot read or write, with 98% of them living in developing countries and two-thirds being women and girls. Even more distressing is that over 100 million school-aged children wake up every day and don't go to school - not out of choice, but because they don't have access to educational opportunities.

In most of the communities in which Room to Read works, the schools never had a library and the children never experienced the joy of flipping through colorful children's books in their own language. Overall, 60-70% of the children are not reading at grade-appropriate levels, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, only one out of every five girls ever makes it to secondary school. Needless to say, there is great need for what we do.

Increasingly, education is perceived to be a basic human right and key to human development, and, in the last decade, the international community has noticeably mobilized around this belief. As a result, hundreds of millions of previously out-of-school children are now participating in formal education. Nonetheless, rapidly expanding enrollments and scarce resources have meant that many children, especially in rural areas, still do not have access to a quality education. And, although significant awareness has been raised regarding gender disparities too, gender equality in education remains a significant challenge due to strong cultural bias against girls in many parts of the world.

These two overarching themes - basic literacy and gender equality - form the basis of Room to Read's new strategic plan, which we unveiled in 2010. Room to Read will focus on literacy as the foundation of all other learning by developing reading skills and the habit of reading among primary school children. To achieve this goal, we will work to increase access to culturally-relevant, age-appropriate and gender-sensitive reading materials, increase the effectiveness of teachers and librarians to teach literacy skills and develop the habit of reading among children, and improve the school environment to be more conducive to learning. Our hope is that the result will be more primary school children becoming independent readers.

Additionally, we will focus on equalizing the secondary school experience for girls as a means for improving gender equality in education and thus promoting quality education for all children. To achieve this goal, we will ensure that girls have equal opportunities to attend secondary school, have the support they need to continue in school and also have an opportunity to improve their life skills. As a result, girls in our program will complete secondary school and have the skills necessary to make key life decisions.

Study.com: Room to Read manages four core programs, with three focused on literacy: The Reading Room, the School Room and Local Language Publishing. Can you tell us more about each approach and how they all fit into the whole?

EG: In order for children - who are the focus of Room to Read's work - to acquire lifelong literacy skills, they need access to books and other reading materials, which are often scarce in many of the communities where Room to Read operates. Our Reading Room program was founded to fill this gap and give children the opportunity to explore, discover, learn, and imagine through stories and characters within books.

In stocking the libraries, Room to Read soon discovered a lack of adequate grade-, language-, gender- and culturally-appropriate books and other learning materials for children who access our libraries. The Local Language Publishing program was created to fill this need, and we now produce children's books in 22 different languages, and have printed and distributed more than 4 million copies of these colorful books to eager readers in seven countries. At the same time, we recognized that children often lack safe, child-friendly learning spaces. The School Room program was launched to improve the infrastructure of schools and address the need for better learning environments with adequate space.

Together, these three programs support the creation of a literate environment at school and home by surrounding children with relevant, creative and interesting print material to encourage and foster a joy of reading. Not to mention that these programs also provide teachers, facilitators and librarians with materials and strategies to engage children and nurture the habit of reading.

Study.com: Did you have any direct experience with the literacy programs? Can you tell us about a specific child or group with whom you worked in one of the Reading or School Rooms?

EG: The wonderful part about Room to Read's model is that we have strong country teams made up of local nationals that manage our programs on a regular basis. They understand the educational system in depth and how to support the schools we work with. What I enjoy most when I am visiting the countries Room to Read operates in is traveling with our local staff to visit our project sites and check on progress. This past summer I spent a great day in the Mekong Delta visiting one of our summer reading camps where students were invited back to school during their summer break to enhance their reading skills through fun, interactive activities. The school principle mentioned to me that she could really see improvement in some of the remedial students' reading skills because they were getting extra individualized help over the summer.

I was also recently in Nepal and had the opportunity to visit a school that is in its first year of being a part of our reading instruction pilot program. This is a program where we have developed a reading kit that includes materials to assist teachers in teaching children to read in Nepali - materials such as flash cards, workbooks and leveled early reader books. We provide additional teacher professional development as well to enhance teacher's skills in teaching reading and writing. The teacher I met told me that in her 15 years of teaching, she felt better prepared after our program than ever before to work with her students. Additionally, she noted that usually 30-40% of her grade 1 class was falling behind, but this year that number was reduced to under 10% after Room to Read's program. It was so exciting to see firsthand the impact that Room to Read was having in these very rural schools that so need the support.

Indian Classroom Room to Read

Student and teacher in an Indian Room to Read classroom, photo by Dana Smillie

Study.com: The second part of Room to Read's mission focuses on 'gender equality in education.' Can you describe the life of a girl growing up in a developing nation, and what challenges she may face in attaining education?

EG: In many developing countries, women and girls are at the bottom of the social rung. They are taught early on that they matter less than their male counterparts - their role in their communities is to produce and care for children, and consequently, they are often married at a very young age. If they have the opportunity to attend school, it's generally for a very limited time, as they are expected to stay home and help care for the family. It's a cycle that repeats itself, generation after generation.

Even where girls and boys are at school in roughly equal numbers, there is still gender bias against girls in many countries' curriculum, classroom dynamics and teaching methodologies. Girls must overcome a range of other hurdles to complete their schooling: lack of female teachers and other positive role models for girls; sexual harassment and even violence from male teachers and classmates; lack of toilet facilities, which hinders girls from attending school during menstruation for fear of embarrassment. Additionally, girls often risk their safety while walking to and from school, particularly secondary school which tends to be further away from a girl's home.

Studies show that these undereducated girls are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and other diseases, have higher child mortality rates, and lower income and employment rates. Unfortunately their fate is very likely to be passed forward to their children and their children's children, creating a very dangerous ripple effect for generations in the future.

Study.com: This brings us to Room to Read's fourth core program: Girls' Education. Can you give us the details of this approach, and what it's like in action? The website notes that you publish a Girls' Education Yearbook highlighting some of the participating girls. Can you tell us the story of one of these girls?

EG: In its early years, our Girls' Education program was a need-based, girls-only scholarship program focused on keeping girls enrolled through the completion of secondary school. Over the years, the program has evolved into a more holistic program that recognizes that the many barriers to girls' education cannot be overcome simply through financial support. Today, the program provides not only financial support but also life skills, including promoting girls' self-esteem, problem-solving skills and goal-setting. And there are opportunities for our girl scholars to broaden their horizons through field trips and exposure to new ideas. In addition, we have begun to focus on increasing parents' awareness of the value of sending their daughters to school and mentorship for the girls from older, local women in the community. The program has experienced a great deal of growth and success. In fact, in 2008, 98% of our Girls' Education program scholars successfully advanced to the next grade.

There are so many inspiring stories to share about our girl scholars. One that was featured in our 2009 Girls' Education Yearbook is about Hema, a young woman in Uttarakhand, India. She had just started high school when she was forced to quit because her parents, poor farmers with five children, were unable to pay her school fees. Room to Read stepped in and provided financial support as well as life skills training for Hema, and she graduated secondary school at the top end of her class. She loved learning and got a job as a tutor with Room to Read so she could pay for her university education. She's now a teacher in her home village, sharing the joy of education with children in her community.

Study.com: Room to Read has entered its second decade of operations, and your strategic vision notes that you hope to reach more than 10 million children by 2015. What initiatives are you developing to attain that goal? The program has already expanded into nine Asian and African countries - do you plan to extend further, or focus on existing operations?

EG: We're extremely proud that in one decade we've had a positive effect on the lives of over five million children in Asia and Africa. This year, as we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we look back on some major milestones: 10,000 libraries, 4 million local language children's books published, 1,128 schools and, by the end of this year, more than 10,000 girls receiving support to complete secondary school. But, being a group of overachievers, the team at Room to Read is never one to rest on our laurels. We've set several new goals for our second decade, one of them being to reach more than 10 million children with our programs by 2015.

Our new strategic vision builds on this great proven track record and also adds key areas that allow us to focus on the quality of education. We intend to make major investments in staff and teacher training so that children receive the quality of education they deserve. In order to support the future vision of Room to Read, we will need to scale our fundraising efforts to match our programmatic plans for growth. So while in-country factors will shape our program innovations, we are committed to retaining, expanding and diversifying our strong base of supporters and investments from individuals, corporations and foundations in order to fund our literacy work and girls' education program.

We're in the process of developing and refining literacy pilot programs in several countries - programs which take additional funding and programmatic expertise. We also plan to expand into two to three additional countries in Southern and Eastern Africa for the next few years, with our 10th country of operation, Tanzania, likely to launch in 2011. We will continue to invest in staff capacity building and professional development at all levels of the organization to ensure we have and retain the proper talent and systems to support our new vision, including our expansion in Africa.

Study.com: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us! We'd like to close by offering you the opportunity to share any further information you'd like about Room to Read, and tell our readers how they can get involved.

EG: The issue of improving educational opportunities for children is universal, and there are so many ways to play a role in helping Room to Read reach out to the millions of children around the globe. We are always looking to expand our network of volunteers and supporters - from students to business leaders to corporations and foundations. We invite your readers to check out our website at RoomtoRead.org and take the next step to make a difference in the lives of children worldwide. We need their help if we're going to reach 10 million children by 2015!

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