A distance of not quite 1,900 miles separates Pittsburgh from Honduras. But in terms of haves vs. have-nots, the distance might seem like light years.
That was pretty much the perception of a group of Bethel Park High School students as they embarked on the assigned task of filming a tour of their spacious building to send to a class of counterparts in Central America.
“Right off the bat, our students felt that they couldn’t share their video,” English teacher Charles Youngs recalled. “We forced them, anyway.”
Far from taking any kind offense, the students in Honduras replied with a video of their own, showing off their two-room school.
“Our students realized that, while they might not have the building,” Youngs said about the small size, “they have paradise. They have this beautiful cloud mountain that they go to school on, and they do these wonderful farming projects, and they’re out in nature.”
And so developed one of the many lessons that Bethel Park students have learned – the same holds true on the other end – since a pair of Neil Armstrong Middle School teachers embarked on a successful endeavor in 2005.
Maria Leonard, who teaches introduction to foreign languages, is a native of Honduras who maintains a strong connection with her home country, which happens to produce some delicious coffee.
Fifth-grade teacher Kristen Rylander happened to be looking for a good idea for a student council fundraiser, and ¡ahí está! The students started selling El Merendón, named after the region in western Honduras where the coffee is grown.
The teachers subsequently founded the Coffee Arabica Foundation for Education, a nonprofit that uses proceeds from coffee sales to provide scholarship money for Honduran students to be able to afford to remain in school.
“In the rural area, once you finish sixth grade, you have a graduation and you are ready for the world,” Leonard explained with more than a hint of irony. “Being from that same background and having had the opportunity to continue in school, I do appreciate what people go through to get to sixth grade. And then it’s almost impossible to go beyond sixth grade if you have to pay tuition.”
Beyond coffee, Bethel Park’s Honduras partnership has paid off in various educational opportunities, especially with regard to high school marketing classes and to the district’s Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics approach.
“When we started the STEAM program, our principals were challenging us to come up with interdisciplinary projects,” Youngs said. “I traveled to Honduras with Maria on one occasion, so I was familiar with what she was about.”
He drew on the experience to formulate a collaborative project during the 2015-16 school year with science teacher Jason Mickey, in which students in Bethel Park and Honduras worked on testing soil samples and comparing the results.
“They don’t speak English in Honduras, so we would need translators. That brings in world languages classes,” Youngs explained, with the resulting involvement of Spanish teacher Alyssa D’Allessandro.
The effort continued into 2016-17, when the students examined water quality in their respective locations by counting the number of stream invertebrates. The plan is to apply more statistic analysis to findings this year.
In the meantime, Youngs hopes that such exercises help prepare Bethel Park students for the future.
“They’re going to be working for firms that have partnerships around the world,” he said, “and we hope that our students will be that much more prepared to engage and to lead their companies and their work teams based on this experience.”
For more information and to order coffee, visit www.coffeecoop.org.