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How one Rotary project narrows the digital divide by training teachers



In Panama, a seemingly simple backpack drive led to extraordinary changes in the country’s education system. The Rotary Club of Panamá Norte initiated this backpack drive, a classic Rotary service project, and distributed essential supplies to grade schools throughout Panama. However, what they witnessed during these visits about a decade ago ignited a spark for change.


A Digital Gap Discovered

The Rotary members delivering backpacks were alarmed by the lack of technology and digital resources in these schools. Many computers were either destroyed or unused. Upon further inquiry and assessments, the club learned that teachers were unfamiliar with using the computers, which meant they were left unused by the students. This discovery exposed a significant digital gap between urban and rural schools.


Taking Action

The Rotary Club of Panamá Norte didn’t stop at distributing backpacks. They decided to address the high-tech gaps they had encountered by focusing on two grade schools in Veracruz, a remote community about 10 miles from Panama City. With the support of the Rotary Club of Westchester (Los Angeles, USA) and funding from The Rotary Foundation, District 5280 (California, USA), and other sources, they launched a project to provide modern technology and training to these schools.


Empowering Teachers and Students

The project, launched in 2018, equipped schools with 30 laptops for students, interactive whiteboards, and all the necessary hardware. But even more importantly, the project included extensive training for school staff and community leaders, empowering teachers to use technology effectively and develop engaging lesson plans.



Success and Unexpected Challenges

The project was a success, with teachers and students enthusiastically embracing the new opportunities for learning. However, a new challenge emerged when the trained teachers were rotated out to a different school, a common practice in Panama’s public schools. The new teachers lacked technology skills, prompting the Rotary club to seek a more permanent solution.


Enter Enedelsy (Nelly) Escobar-King

Nelly Escobar-King, a member of the Rotary Club of Panamá Norte and a former UNICEF worker, was determined to improve education in Panama. She recognized the dire state of primary education, as evidenced by low international rankings in subjects like science, math, and reading. “My main thing,” she says, “was that I wanted to make sure that kids learn to read and write properly — and that they understand what they’re reading.”


To address these challenges, the Rotary Club of Panamá Norte, in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Kansas City-Plaza and other partners, secured a global grant of over US$230,000 for the “Paul Harris Interactive Digital Classrooms.” These classrooms would be established at the Normal School in Santiago, the main teaching college in Panama, and nearby grade schools where apprentice teachers would receive training.


Focusing on Innovative Teaching

The emphasis of this project was not only on providing technology but also on teaching innovative methodologies that leverage technology to enhance student learning. Collaborative efforts with various organizations, including the Ministry of Education, ensured the project’s success.


Escobar-King also singled out the Basic Education and Literacy Rotary Action Group (whose board she serves on) and The Rotary Foundation Cadre of Technical Advisers. “They are valuable Rotary resources,” says Escobar-King, “and we have a very close working relationship with them.”


A Promising Future

The impact of the Paul Harris Interactive Digital Classrooms project extends beyond the Normal School. Graduated teachers will influence up to 2,500 students each year, and they will pass on their knowledge to other teachers in their schools. Panama’s Ministry of Education will oversee this ongoing training process, promoting professional development among educators.


Expanding the Reach

Building on the success of this project, the Rotary Club of Panamá Norte aims to expand the interactive digital classroom model to eight of Panama’s ten provinces, reaching 230 schools, 7,500 teachers, and 112,000 students.


The dedication of the Rotary Club of Panamá Norte to improving education in Panama, particularly by narrowing the digital divide through empowering teachers, is transforming classrooms and shaping the future of the country. This story demonstrates the significant impact that individual acts of service can have and emphasizes how Rotary clubs can drive sustainable change by identifying local needs, mobilizing resources, and collaborating with various stakeholders. Together, we can transform lives, one project at a time, and contribute to building stronger, more vibrant communities.


This post is adapted from an article featured in the September 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

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