On a hot April afternoon in the Dominican Republic in 2014, Highland Park native Cory Fox sat next to Marialandi as they read the The Chronicles of Narnia. Marialandi was eleven-years-old and had lived all her life in Batey Libertad, a small, marginalized community of Dominicans and Haitians. As she and Cory read through the third chapter of Narnia, Cory asked questions about the characters’ motivations, and Marialandi responded with keen observations and predictions about the lion, the witch, and their companions. Her level of comprehension was no small accomplishment. When Cory had arrived just a year before, Marialandi read slowly and, like many children in her community, struggled to understand the content of basic picture books.
“Every child can learn to read complex texts when provided with targeted, effective instruction and a safe environment. When I arrived in Batey Libertad, I met dozens of intelligent young people whose school was failing them. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but with the right resources and people, I was sure that we could build education programs that addressed the academic gaps of the youth living there, ” Ms. Fox said.
Cory Fox moved to the Dominican Republic in 2013 and began teaching with Yspaniola, an education non-profit. She had always been passionate about education and international development, which she traces, in part, to her 8th grade Highland Park Middle School Global Issues teacher, Michael Lassiter. Now the principal of Highland Park High School, Mr. Lassiter encouraged Cory and her classmates to think about social justice globally, and, with his guidance, Cory participated in Model UN throughout high school. Cory spent two years as a teacher through Teach for America in New York City’s public schools after graduating from The College of Wooster in 2008. She received a Master in Special Education from Hunter College and Master in International Affairs from Columbia University in 2013.
Yspaniola, the education organization Cory joined in the Dominican Republic, works to empower communities called bateys. Many people who live in bateys have limited access to basic government services. Furthermore, Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent that live in these communities are often further denied civil and human rights, such as due process and citizenship because of their Haitian ancestry. Despite many obstacles, Cory quickly set to work developing Yspaniola’s Learning Center in Batey Libertad. Her dedication in creating a rigorous, integrated phonics curriculum transformed the Learning Center from a place for unstructured tutoring and reading into a comprehensive and integral part of Yspaniola’s programming.
Under Cory’s direction, the Learning Center began by teaching four classes of Spanish literacy to fifty children from Batey Libertad, ages five through fourteen. Now in its fourth year, the Learning Center has 133 students enrolled in seven different classes. Additionally, Cory introduced various assessment tools to the Learning Center to track students progress, including the internationally recognized Early Grade Reading Assessment and the Reading A to Z system.
Cory and Yspaniola’s work has taken on heightened importance in the face of the Dominican Republic’s ongoing human rights crisis. In 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal retroactively stripped citizenship from residents whose parents were immigrants, even if they themselves were born in the country. Since the court’s decision, Dominican’s of Haitian descent in Batey Libertad and elsewhere have had to contend with a complex bureaucratic procedure to re-apply for citizenship. For many of Batey Libertad’s residents, time, resources and illiteracy make this process insurmountable, but Yspaniola partnered with local civil society organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help community members complete their applications. Yspaniola also successfully intervened to help Wilson Sentimo, a Dominican citizen and employee of Yspaniola, return to the Dominican Republic after he was illegally deported to Haiti. The improper use of force by the military and the visibility of Wilson’s case helped bring international attention to the Dominican Republic’s documentation crisis. While there are many ways to confront crises like this one, Yspaniola believes that quality education is essential to incorporate the Dominican Republic’s most marginalized communities into civil society.
As Cory explained, “The Dominican Republic consistently ranks as having one of the worst public education systems in the world. One of the key long-term solutions to the citizenship crisis in the country is quality education. This is important not only in order to give Dominicans of Haitian descent the ability to advocate on behalf of their communities, but also in order to ensure that all Dominicans are being equipped with the academic skills needed to make informed choices about how they want to participate in society and hopefully in a constructive national conversation about citizenship.”
After returning to the U.S., Cory joined Yspaniola’s Board of Directors to help guide the organization’s long-term strategy and support its education programs’ growth. As a board member, Cory also does much-needed fundraising and helps with outreach: Yspaniola is always looking to include more Dominicans and Americans in its work by hosting service-learning trips and summer camp volunteers.
Even though Cory has left the Dominican Republic as a staff member, she still visits Batey Libertad several times a year. When she does, she finds Marialandi and other former students at Yspaniola’s Learning Center, on the soccer field, and throughout the community; they are always eager to tell her about their latest achievements.