How a Christian School Launched a Movement
In Guatemala, the historic, economic, cultural, and religious characteristics of its people have birthed a wide range of educational options, but homeschooling is only recently gaining ground. The awareness of this option there is due largely to the work of one Christian school, Colegio Hebron—and, as the school wholeheartedly affirms, the grace of God.
School coordinator Angela Barahona (left) and school director
Josefina Machado (right) work diligently to
provide Latin-American families with the Christian curriculum they need to homeschool.
The Birth of Hebron School
Founded by Hebron Church in 1987 with an initial enrollment of 50 students, Colegio Hebron, or Hebron School, was one of many brick-and-mortar Christian private schools in Guatemala. Its vision was high: school administrators strove to lead their students to a greater knowledge of God alongside academic instruction. Like any institution, administrators faced the challenges of group learning, class management, and student peer pressure. “I don’t know of anyone who has tried harder to keep a Christian environment of love and discipline,” says Hebron Ministries President Marvin Byers.
After 13 years, the student body topped 300 students, and administrators realized their mission could not be fully attained through institutional school methods. Ideally, students needed individual attention through which their own parents could lead them to Christ. Could parents instruct their children from home?
Byers prayed for wisdom as he realized that finding Christian homeschool curriculum in Spanish was next to impossible at the time. Then he called school administrator Josefina Machado (also a former professor of international and constitutional law and a former justice of the Guatemala Supreme Court), asking if the school staff could possibly develop a full homeschool curriculum—14 years’ worth of classes. She agreed to try.
Since becoming a homeschool program, Hebron School has acquired equipment allowing them to operate their own press and print textbooks, record audiovisual lessons, and reproduce their material.
“We had no idea what it would involve,” remembers Byers. “We had 50 people on the verge of a nervous breakdown for the next year and a half!”
Machado, who is now the director of Hebron School, headed the daunting new project. “Even though they were all good teachers, not one had ever written anything significant before,&rdquio; Machado says. “On top of this, we had only two small printers that could barely print four pages per minute.” She herself spent the next year and a half working from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., drafting, revising, rewriting, and editing.
Through faith and perseverance, the material came together page by page, revision after revision, prayer by prayer. Finally, the stage was set to inform parents that Hebron’s traditional school would close—to be replaced by home education.
Parents Respond to Homeschooling
To this day, Hebron School staff acknowledge that only God’s grace made the project successful. In a third-world country where resources were scarce, public education the norm, and homeschooling—at that time—unheard of, the idea was startling to say the least. One graduate recalls, “Since it was so new, it was difficult for our parents to believe that it was possible for parents to teach or for the kids to learn at home.” But most accepted the challenge and began homeschooling.
“For me, it was exciting,” comments a young lady who is now part of Hebron School staff. “I could stay home, get up a little later, and be with my siblings!”
Another graduate recalls being struck by the developing relationship with his parents. As he struggled with chemistry, “[My father] came that morning, picked up the topic, and explained it to me himself. That experience stuck with me, that he would explain in one way and another, and that I trusted him enough to tell him what I didn’t understand. It made me confident.”
Even families who encountered crises found that homeschooling was ideal for them. Susana Avila de Donis first heard about homeschooling through her missionary neighbors who homeschooled their 6-year-old. As a schoolteacher who witnessed the shortcomings of institutional learning, Susana desired to homeschool her own children. So when Hebron School transitioned to the new method, she was eager to begin.
During the first year of homeschooling, Susana became ill, paralyzed from the waist down for three years. While in a traditional school this family crisis could have caused her children to miss classes and fall behind, homeschooling allowed the Donis children to continue learning and help their mother at home.
costumes and cameras, school staff record a dramatized story to be used in a video class.
While families adjusted to a new homeschooling lifestyle, Hebron School administrators worked for legal acceptance of the homeschool program. School coordinator Angela Barahona explains that the only version of homeschooling previously known in Guatemala was government-directed distance learning: “Children 12 years and up, with special circumstances such as living very far away from a school, can study through distance learning.”
But private homeschooling was unknown in Guatemala. When school administrators filed paperwork for the government to authorize Hebron School as a homeschool, government authorities were baffled. “They had never heard that it was even possible for parents without academic training to teach their children,” Angela says.
In time, Hebron School was able to present the school plan and the curriculum to the government, and obtained a three-year accord allowing the school to operate as an “experimental project.” After the three years, the government, in 2003, granted the program authority to operate as a “special kind of school” under Guatemalan law.
But the legality of the school program has not been without subsequent challenges. As recently as 2011, the Guatemala Ministry of Education informed Hebron that unless all its textbooks were rewritten within 30 days to match the government”s formatting requirements and humanist objectives, the school would be shut down.
Prior to this, Hebron Church member Emilio Gomez (name changed to protect privacy) had, through a series of unexpected events, become the Guatemalan president’s attorney. When Hebron School was informed of its imminent closing, Emilio realized that he had been placed in his position “for such a time as this.” He requested two things from the president: permission for the school to operate permanently and two years to adjust the curriculum’s formatting only. The requests were granted.
In addition to the challenges of establishing the legality of their choice, homeschooling families have faced opposition from neighbors, relatives, and government officials unfamiliar with homeschooling and uninformed about its effectiveness. In general, the government takes a neutral position towards families who use their own homeschool curriculum, separate from Hebron School’s program: though not openly opposed to independent forms of education, officials will not back the education or recognize parent-signed diplomas.
10 YEARS AGO AND
WATERED PRAYER BY
PRAYER ARE GROWING
AND BEGINNING TO
Homeschooling mother Gracia Bela (name changed to protect privacy) is one victim of a culture’s unfamiliarity with home education. Although homeschooling helped Gracia’s children develop character, confidence, faith, and family unity, in 2008 her mother-in-law filed a lawsuit against the family, accusing them of child abuse and educational neglect.
“They began forcing us to participate in investigations, interrogations with judges, evaluations with psychologists, examinations with forensic physicians, and six months of parenting school,” Gracia says. “Then, they forced me to pay for all these services myself.”
On top of that, no attorney was willing to help or represent the Bela family. “One of our first lawyers changed his mind in the middle of the court hearing, and began accusing us!” remembers Gracia.
The family lost the case and the court ordered Gracia to send her child back to school. The Belas appealed the decision, continued homeschooling, and prayed for a homeschool-friendly attorney.
The answer came in a much bigger way than they expected. “Our current attorney is not only homeschool friendly, but a homeschooling father himself and a judge, with lots of contacts,” Gracia says.
When their next court hearing came, “there were four magistrates, a pedagogue, and more people,” says Gracia. “The attorney stood up and introduced himself. And he told the court, ‘I am here today to defend the family, and it is an honor to do so because I am doing it for God.’ And he took out his Bible and placed it before him—in the court!”
When the appeal for the reversal of the original court decision was denied, the family appealed the decision to Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice and the Central American Court, neither of which took up the case. Now the Belas have taken it before the Latin American Court of Human Rights and are awaiting a decision.
“They told me that there’s a 90% chance we will win the case, and that I may receive compensation for damages,” Gracia says. “It would help to cover all the costs, but all I want is to be able to homeschool my children.”
Like the Belas, other homeschooling families and alumni are blessing others by taking a stand for their convictions. Many Spanish-speaking families in Guatemala and around the globe are now homeschooling through the Hebron School program. Hebron School alumni are now investing in the lives of others—some starting families of their own and intending to homeschool their children, others working in professional fields, serving in ministry, and attending universities as far away as Taiwan. The seeds administrators planted 10 years ago and watered prayer by prayer are growing and beginning to bear fruit. And the work continues.