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Room to Read is an international charity that promotes literacy and gender equality through better education in developing countries. Founded in 2000, Room to Read has maintained a four-star rating with the watchdog organisation, Charity Navigator, since 2007 and is in the top one percent of stable charities. Eighty-four cents of each US dollar donated goes toward programs that help children.

The majority of the organisation’s international directors team come from the same countries where Room to Read operates: South Africa, Tanzania, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India to name only a few. Meanwhile, the board of directors is made up of a group of prominent professionals from all over the world. Board chair, Scott Kapnick, is managing partner at Highbridge Capital Management and CEO of HPS Investment Partners, whilst board member Yusuf Alireza worked as CEO of Noble Group, a Hong-Kong based supply chain, for four years and previously spent twenty years as president of Goldman Sachs’ Asian branch. The collective experience of all members of the organisation means that Room to Read can attract high-level donations and put the money to work on the ground at a local level.

yusuf alireza

What Does It Take to Achieve Success?

Room to Read uses multi-tiered efforts to make a lasting difference in children’s educational habits. A recent project in Cambodia worked with local businesses to translate titles from Scholastic’s ‘Question and Answer’ series into the Khmer language and make them relevant to Cambodian culture. The Q&A books focus on real-world science queries such as, ‘How Do Bats See in the Dark?’ or ‘Can You Hear a Shout in Space?’ and answer these questions in a way that children can understand.

Yet even after 480,000 copies of the books were printed and distributed among school libraries and classrooms throughout Cambodia, circulation remained limited. The science books were largely left on the shelves in favour of fiction and storybooks that the children found more interesting.

In response, Room to Read organised a second phase of the project; an intervention aimed at awakening interest. Several methods were tried in rural Kampong Thom Province. The first approach saw a librarian read two of the Q&A books aloud during library period, encouraging children to ask questions and gain further insight into the science behind the problem. In another appeal, fifth grade science teachers used the books as a means for in-class research.

After a 12-week period, 40 percent of the children in the first trial remembered and liked the books versus 62 percent in the second; however, both methods proved successful in that the children continued to borrow the Q&A books to read at home. One sixth grader at Phoum Khmer’s Primary School read all 40 books in the series, while another preferred the scientific picture books of the sun and the moon to other storybooks. The children said they read the books to their younger siblings at home, as well as older family members who are often illiterate themselves.

Promoting Equal Education Everywhere

In Phoum Khmer and similar villages in Cambodia, the majority of the population still lives by traditional methods of farming and fishing. Few villagers have time to learn how to read and write, let alone worry about science. This is why Cambodia ranks 118th in scientific research out of 140 countries studied by the World Economic Forum and has a literacy rate of only 77.2 percent as measured by UNESCO in 2015.

In Sri Lanka, the literacy rate is much higher (92 percent), yet there is a vast difference in the level of instruction children receive in different parts of the country. In rural areas, teachers are poorly trained and lack adequate materials. A Room to Read program in Kumbukwewa, a disadvantaged district in Sri Lanka, has helped to train teachers in how to gain children’s interest and make reading fun. As a result, children who were having difficulty with basic skills have turned into avid readers in only a year’s time. One child in Kumbukwewa clocked a reading speed of 134 words per minute at only seven years old, more than double the average for that age group.

Breaking Gender Stereotypes

In many parts of the world, cultural norms still make it harder for girls to receive an education. To address this issue, Room to Read has developed an international Girls Education Program which assists girls throughout their time in school, particularly during the crucial transition to secondary education when many young women fall by the wayside. Ara is one such girl in rural Sri Lanka who became the first female in her family to complete secondary education thanks to the encouragement she received from Room to Read mentors. Ara placed 2nd in her district on an advanced level exam and earned herself a spot at the University of Colombo; one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country.

Evaluating Success

Room to Read uses rigorous methods to measure its own success. This year, work continues on a tool which can measure the life skills being taught to young women in the Girl’s Education Program. Life skills such as critical-thinking, decision-making and perseverance are crucial qualities that will enable young women to navigate their lives successfully, even in the face of prejudice and low expectations for women. “This is an ongoing process” says Interim Director Julie Elis, however, she hopes the tool could eventually become a standard way to assess girls’ skills before and during the program. Room to Read aims to go beyond just improving test scores and statistics and hopes to make a real different in the lives of underprivileged children.