A young teacher’s first year on the job: hard. Making it through that first year in a thatched classroom where your 55 students huddle in corners to keep dry during near-daily rains, where there are no books or supplies, where the nearest outpost lies a seven-hour hike away through the jungle: a minor miracle.Yorleni Leiva wouldn’t call it that, of course. She says she’s just doing her job as director and teacher at the school in China Kichá, a small riverside village in the Chirripó Indigenous Reserve in south-central Costa Rica. However, Leiva, now 30 and a few months from completing her second year at the school, is not afraid to speak out against what she calls the abandonment of her students by a country that rates its public education system among its top achievements.She’s not alone in that criticism. From the Public Education Ministry (MEP) to international organizations, observers say improving indigenous education is one of Costa Rica’s greatest challenges.THE numbers speak for themselves: the illiteracy rate in Costa Rican indigenous areas (26.6%) is more than five times the national rate (4.8%), according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In addition, indigenous students stay in school for an average of 3.4 years, half the national average of 7.6 years.According to Leiva and others familiar with indigenous education in Costa Rica, geography is the single greatest obstacle for the country’s 211 indigenous schools.These schools, according to MEP, serve 12,000 children – although, according to the 2000 census, approximately 24,000 of the country’s 64,000 indigenous are children or teenagers.When the schools are out of sight, tucked away in the jungle, they are out of mind for the central government, Leiva argues.“The ministry doesn’t give anything,” she told The Tico Times on one of her rare trips out of the jungle to run errands and visit her family and boyfriend. “People in the government forget that while they have a program on a national level, places like Chirripó are different.”Students who arrive at their schools each morning in a bus or taxi have very different needs than those who walk an hour through the jungle and have never even seen a car, she added. SEVERIANO Fernández, head of MEP’s Indigenous Education Department, said the problem is especially severe in Chirripó because the area is so isolated.“Chirripó is the region most difficult to access,” he told The Tico Times. “Animals don’t even get through (on some routes)… Those who visit would have to do so in a helicopter. Chirripó is the greatest weakness we have.”These conditions result in low numbers of college graduates among the Cabécar – one of eight indigenous groups in the country – who live there, creating a vicious cycle, Fernández said. Indigenous students in some regions can look up to teachers with college degrees who share their backgrounds, but “there are no Cabécar teachers (from Chirripó) who’ve graduated from college.”Differences between the background of a teacher and his or her students can create communication problems, he said.LEYLA Garro, founder of the Kan Tan Project to protect the culture of the Boruca indigenous group in the Southern Zone, agreed, adding that indigenous students may learn and view the world very differently than non-indigenous students.“I have used drawings to teach children who don’t know how to read, but, for example, if I have a drawing of hands under a sink, neither attached to anything, they ask: why are the hands cut? Where does the water come from?” said Garro, who has worked with indigenous children and adults for more than a decade.She said MEP has made efforts to bridge the gap – such as printing indigenous faces to represent mothers and indigenous-style dwellings to represent home – but there is much more work to do, including special training for teachers in indigenous schools.A report by the Ombudsman’s Office, which has championed indigenous education in recent years, also concludes that MEP must pay particular attention to naming highly qualified and appropriate teachers to indigenous schools.LEIVA, who is Boruca, was assigned to her school in March 2004, approximately one month after the start of the February-December school year. She said she received no training, no curriculum, no materials from the ministry – just notification that she was needed in China Kichá, since the first teacher hired never showed up for work.There had never been a school in the village before. However, when the parents of Leiva’s future students heard the ministry would be sending them a teacher, they joined forces to build a small thatched hut, or ranchito, as well as a similar structure in which Leiva would live.The first months were difficult ones, partly because of the frequent aguaceros, when rain poured through the classroom’s roof and walls; even if Leiva and her students huddled in corners or under tarps until the rain let up, they returned to the lesson in “a virtual mud puddle” and sometimes had to cancel class.SHE began with 20 kindergarten and primary students, although the total quickly grew to 36, then 55. (Her staff has grown as well; her three colleagues include a Cabécar language teacher.) Leiva and other community members have had to scramble to find funds for the students’ most basic necessities, such as their midday meal. The government gives her ¢120 ($0.20) for each student’s lunch per day.“At least it’s something, but ¢120 doesn’t cover it,” she said. “We knock on doors of non-governmental organizations or organize fundraisers. They’re little tiny (efforts) that are like grains of sand.”China Kichá and other schools receive little funding from MEP beyond the teachers’ salaries, Fernández said. The Child Welfare Office (PANI) provides the school lunch funds, which are even lower (¢85, or about $0.18) at schools not deemed underprivileged.Other funds include ¢8,000-¢10,000 ($16.50-20.66) monthly grants and ¢13,000 ($26.86) yearly scholarships students can receive for materials. However, such funds are worth little when students have nowhere to buy supplies.Teachers can request materials from MEP once every two years, but reception of those materials is often extensively delayed, according to Fernández.LOCAL efforts and private donations are one solution, Fernández said. While indigenous zones are given priority for school construction funds in the government’s proposed 2006 budget, he said the bureaucratic processes involved in getting projects approved are simply inaccessible for rural communities.Leiva has benefited from private funds, receiving a boost this year in the form of a just-completed school building, made possible by a donation from the government of Japan. According to Goshi Tsukamoto, Cabécar project coordinator for the Japanese Embassy in San José, Japan donated $90,000 in February to the Association for Integral Indigenous Attention, a Costa Rican non-governmental organization.The group used the funds to build nine Cabécar schools at sites including China Kichá, he said.HOWEVER, Tsukamoto emphasized that private donations aren’t enough – government cooperation is essential.“Building the school isn’t the most important thing,” he said. “We need the support of each ministry.”Ahmed Tabash, spokesman for the Ombudsman’s Office, which has solicited and received help from various embassies for construction of indigenous schools, supported this assertion.“The Ombudsman’s Office has always thought both internal and external support are necessary,” he said.UNICEF official Rodolfo Osorio told The Tico Times foreign cooperation should only be used for special projects, to push infrastructure and technology; it’s the state’s responsibility to make resources sustainable for indigenous education.He said the founding of MEP’s indigenous department in 1995 was a step in the right direction. The department has allowed those working with indigenous education access to MEP’s central leadership, according to its leader, Fernández.It has spearheaded efforts to improve the teacher preparation programs for indigenous schools by forming agreements with Costa Rica’s universities and developing texts in indigenous languages, he added.AT China Kichá, as at many schools throughout the country, there is still much to be done. Leiva says she still lacks funds for the school’s needs, including agricultural projects to combat her students’ malnutrition.And according to Fernández, there are scores of other Chirripó schools still lacking adequate buildings.“Of the 56 schools in Chirripó, only six have a wooden structure,” as opposed to thatch, he said. “There aren’t stable conditions… much less blackboards.”He said indigenous schools in other areas of the country usually feature MEP’s standard concrete construction.In March, Leiva – who speaks with a mix of sturdy optimism and frustration with her students’ plight – wrote an open letter to Education Minister Manuel Antonio Bolaños, asking for support and for a ministry official to visit the school.Although her plea was published in the daily La Nación, she’s still waiting for an answer.“I believe that the government, if the will existed, is fully capable of attending to and resolving such high-priority necessities,” she wrote. “Indigenous people… are still unacceptably marginalized in Costa Rica… What sector of the nation’s people could be more ‘Tico’ than the indigenous peoples, (who do) not receive such basic and vital assistance?”Communities are ready to make the most of any support that’s provided, according to Leiva.“I like it a lot in China Kichá,” she said. “The willingness of the people, the parents, to help… they just need a little aid to come out on top.”FOR more information on the China Kichá school and others in Chirripó, contact Yorleni Leiva at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Indigenous Education Program of the Public Education Ministry can be reached at 256-2564.-Tico Times reporter Rebecca Kimitch contributed to this report. “Focus on Schools” is a new, occasional series of profiles of schools in Costa Rica. Next: a look at plans to open Latin America’s first United World College.