To empower our students to overcome adversity, we must first provide them with support, motivation, and life skills—resources they are often missing. Hanley, of course, knew this when she started Safe Passage 17 years ago.

For our students, staying in school is an uphill battle.

Attending public school in Guatemala means paying for uniforms, books, school supplies and even tuition. When your family of six earns less than $4 a day, school expenses quickly consume earned income. It’s no wonder students leave school to work in the dump to provide for their families.

In response, we have begun a pivotal shift from our original half-day reinforcement program to a full-day accredited school of our own. Our plan is to add one full-day grade (2 classes per grade) each year over the next several years.

Full-day education means more students positively impacted by our holistic program, and more students immersed in a thriving community from a very young age.

In January 2016, after months of research, training, and analysis, we implemented Expeditionary Learning (EL) as the guiding methodology for our program expansion.

EL asks students to move beyond the classroom and work together on relevant, engaging projects that involve investigating issues in their community and beyond. “Expeditions” weave together science, social studies, reading, math, technology and the arts, and show the students how their new skills and knowledge can be applied in the real world.


An essential component of EL is the system of advisory meetings involving 10-15 students—called “Crew”—who hold each other accountable and talk together about social issues they face at school or at home.

What better way to engage students in their own education than by making the content relevant to the students themselves?

At the end of each expedition, students present their work to peers and Safe Passage staff as part of an authentic assessment process. This process builds confidence, deeper understanding of subject material, and encourages students to actively lead their own learning.

EL promotes a school culture rooted in kindness, respect, responsibility, a sense of adventure, an ethic of service, and desire for excellence. All key pieces of our comprehensive program.


As a first step in bringing EL to Safe Passage, we hired four teachers who bonded quickly given their similar experience as the “strange ones” in previous schools because of their experiential approach to teaching.

Through EL, our students (and our teachers!) are learning how to work—and learn—together.

Before planning curriculum for our 3rd and 4th grade students, our teachers participated in their own expedition focused on the community we serve, and on Safe Passage as an organization. This expedition included:

  • Visits to student homes
  • Interviews with parents and our staff
  • Analysis of local markets
  • Reading a novel about families living in a dump in Costa Rica
  • Writing a history of Safe Passage

Immersing students (and teachers) in the learning process is an important part of what makes EL so engaging.

Our teachers then began making plans for 3rd and 4th grade that incorporated the Guatemalan national curriculum into classroom activities, and identified key values that would be the centerpiece of a school culture in line with EL.

Their work was presented to the Guatemalan Ministry of Education, which quickly provided official accreditation for Expeditionary Learning, noting that:

“it promotes the use of learning situations based on real situations that allow students to work collaboratively while reaching expected learning objectives…[and] is a valuable tool to develop the potential of students as well as teachers and the educational community.”

The implementation of Expeditionary Learning in 3rd and 4th grade, frankly, has been a process of adjustment for both our students and our teachers. For example, we are now asking students to “grapple” with questions or concepts before we present information or explain things.

One teacher commented that “at first, they just said ‘no, I can’t’ but after awhile they began to talk in their group and realized they do have ideas – they can do deeper thinking.”

In their small “Crew” groups students have been discussing issues such as trust and how to use words to address conflict. One teacher said, “They are slowly opening up and sharing more about themselves with the group.”


In our initial grading period last month, we rolled out the first student-led conferences with parents. Students used a portfolio of their work to explain to their parents what they have learned and show them what they have done.

By supporting students and engaging parents in the learning process, we can help foster a love of learning for entire families.

While we are pleased to see these important steps move us toward the vision of a full-day holistic educational experience for more of our students, we realize there is still much to do if we are to be successful in increasing the number of graduates and providing more meaningful jobs.

Choosing a path out of poverty requires enormous courage—and generous support from friends like you.

We are transforming the standard of education in Guatemala City, and our students are taking their first, empowered steps beyond poverty. As our students grow, so does Safe Passage.

Together we can empower our students to overcome adversity and choose a path out of poverty.