Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russian was the predominant second language offered in Polish schools, leaving tens of thousands of Polish emigrants without the English skills they needed.
That has changed over the last 25 years. English proficiency drastically improved after the government reformed its education system in 1991. The country overhauled its teaching curriculum and materials and introduced English as the primary foreign language. As of 2013, Poland ranks 8th in the world in English proficiency.
However, one segment of the population isn’t reaping the benefits of the improved curriculum. Thousands of students in poor rural villages attend schools that don’t have the adequate resources or well trained personnel to properly teach English, putting them at a disadvantage in today’s global economy and labor market, says Anna Wieczorek, a Rotary Club of Warszawa City member and author of Poland’s English curriculum for grades 1-3.
“The budgets of state schools in rural areas are limited compared to those in the cities and private schools,” Wieczorek says. “Teachers in these schools are often underpaid and undertrained. Consequently, the level of teaching English is far from meeting the appropriate standards.”
Added to that, she says, their students face social exclusion. “They lack the self-confidence and communication skills that students in the city, who have access to modern technology, might have,” she says. “The inability to learn English -- let alone acquire an appropriate education -- early on in their lives makes it difficult for them to evolve and develop further in life.”
Many of the students come from homes where unemployment and alcoholism are common, according to a report by the CASE Foundation, prepared for the Warsaw Delegation of the European Commission. Many turn their attention to the streets and crime instead of education, the report says.
Rotary gives rural communities support
The Warszawa City members the Rotary Club of Berlin-Luftbrücke, Germany, and the Rotary Club of Milano Nord, Italy, are trying to change this trend. A $45,000 Rotary global grant project is supporting English and other foreign language education for more than 1,200 underprivileged students in 10 rural communities. The clubs collaborated with Good Start, a program that provides equipment, software, and an interactive e-learning platform for afterschool education centers, as well as training for tutors.
Eleven centers are now equipped with computers, interactive white boards, projectors, multimedia, and printed learning materials. The three clubs, along with the Rotary Club of Edmonton Downtown, Alberta, Canada, have furnished 12 other afterschool centers over the last three years in conjunction with previous Rotary Foundation grants, bringing the total to 23. Each dayroom is supervised by a local Rotary member.
Before the project, the centers would generally be empty after school. They only provided desks and chairs. With the new technology, interactive classes, and motivated instructors, the students now have an “attractive way to learn,” Wieczorek says.
Wieczorek, who also authors children’s books, writes the e-learning software and curriculum. “We are not only teaching English, but we’re improving their reading, writing, and computer skills,” she says. “They have a safe place to spend their free time after school. This makes a big difference in their daily lives and will help them define their future.”
According to a 2013 global language study from Education First, countries with higher levels of English proficiency also have stronger economies and their citizens have higher per capita income levels and quality of life. More and more multinational companies are mandating English as their common corporate language.
The study also suggests that because English is the predominant language in business, higher education, and politics, English proficiency is important to succeeding in a globalized society. And low proficiency in English may be connected with weak integration into the global economy.
Gerhart Ernst, a Berlin-Luftbrücke Rotary member, says since his club was chartered in 1979, members have focused their efforts on supporting young people from disadvantaged homes. Their partnership with the Polish club is something they are especially proud of.
Ernst says his club wants to mimic this project in areas in Germany with a large number of refugees from Syria and Lebanon.
In March, members of the Warszawa City club visited one of the centers while an English class was in session. “It brought tears to my eyes to see these children so happy and engaged,” says Wieczorek. “These kids have dreams about getting away from the poverty and affliction. We’re doing all we can to make these dreams come true.”