San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nation’s Schools Differ Greatly

First in a series about the challenges facing the country’s public-education system.


Greivin, Ariana and Steven are in the second grade. They share, as do many kids their age, an uncanny ability to morph from studious angels into screaming streaks of joy at the sound of a recess bell, and are driven by a profound, obsessive love for colored pencils and markers. What’s more, they all go to school less than an hour from the capital of Costa Rica, a nation known for focusing on schools instead of warfare and for its extraordinary literacy rate.

The lives of these three eager kids are significantly different as well, and their experiences when they head to school each day reflect the challenges facing their country’s vaunted education system. They live and study, respectively, in a crowded shantytown, bustling downtown San José, and a tranquil mountain farming community. The quality of their instruction varies depending on those locations, and on how much their families can afford to contribute to their “free” education. According to national data, only one of them will finish high school; staff members’ comments indicate two of the three are statistically unlikely to stay in school past age 12.

Proposals to improve the country’s schools were a crucial element of the recent presidential campaigns, and President Oscar Arias has made education one of his top priorities.

Issues being debated among Cabinet ministers, legislators, educators, journalists and parents include education funding, infrastructure, curricular design, teacher training and standardized test results.

The ongoing adult conversations make one wonder: what do the schools look like from the students’ point of view?

The Tico Times spent a day with each of these three second-graders during the past few months, following them from the first bell to the commute home – a stretch of time that, in some cases, proved to be relatively short.

Greivin Cruz, 8, attends Escuela Finca La Caja in La Carpio, an impoverished neighborhood in western San José; he walks to school each day along bumpy dirt paths through a community where Costa Ricans and Nicaraguan immigrants live in often-improvised dwellings, until he reaches a school crammed with more than 2,000 students.

A comfortable minibus takes Ariana Solano, 7, from her home in northern San José to the Escuela Buenaventura Corrales, better known as the Escuela Metálica, a downtown landmark next to the lush Parque España. Renowned for its architecture and for the quality of its instruction, its alumni include ex-Presidents, Cabinet ministers and other illustrious Ticos.

Steven Montenegro, 8, walks past cow pastures and potato fields – if he’s lucky, he might catch a ride on an oxcart – to Escuela Llano Grande de Pacayas in a town of the same name. One of 12 children, he wants to grow up to be an administrator at the dairy cooperative Dos Pinos.

A day spent with each student provided hints as to the significant achievements Costa Rica has made in terms of bringing education to hard-to-reach areas, as well as the problems still to be faced.


‘The Two Costa Ricas’

Greivin has a new watch today, or at least a watch that’s new to him. He lets his friends gaze at it as they wait in line for lunch, or scamper through their small concrete courtyard during recess.He has slicked and spiked his hair, and he’s meticulous with his possessions, locking and unlocking a padlock on his backpack every time he takes anything out. His mother later tells The Tico Times he’s had problems with theft at the school.

Escuela Finca La Caja is a deafening place. It’s far too small for its 2,200 students despite two smaller annexes built to provide more space, so the kids come to class in three shifts, a solution used by overcrowded schools throughout the country; Greivin’s shift today is from 10:45 a.m. to 2:20 in the afternoon.

Even so, the main building’s 15 classrooms seem filled to bursting.When Dennis Alvarez, Greivin’s teacher, calls on students to read out loud, none of them can hear their classmates’ voices over the uproar coming through the too-thin walls.He scolds them, telling them to pay closer attention or to speak up, and has to read the entire passage again at the end so they can hear. (School and community leaders are working to gain government and private-sector support to build a new, bigger school – see upcoming editions of The Tico Times for more information.)

Greivin has 32 classmates, 28 of whom are in class this March day. His classroom is equipped with a whiteboard, two blackboards, a file cabinet and set of lockers, but it’s dim and hot. The photocopied story Alvarez has students read is about a bet between the sun and wind regarding who can get a human to take off his cape, a contest the sun wins handily by shining hotter and hotter until the unsuspecting victim relents. It’s an ironic choice: as the temperature rises in the stuffy room, kids fold up the photocopies to fan themselves.

The class is amazingly quiet and focused at the start of the day considering the noise and heat, to which they’re obviously accustomed, but as the hours wear on they get warm and restless, and Alvarez, in his second year of teaching, struggles to keep them in control.

A minute-by-minute record of what’s going on in the classroom reveals that by 12:20, 95 minutes into Greivin’s school day, he’s received only 43 minutes of actual instruction, thanks to interruptions, lunch and recess. By the end of the day, he’s received approximately 2 hours 45 minutes.To make up for the short shifts, the students attend school Saturdays, although Alvarez tells the class that this week’s Saturday session will be used to clean the classroom.

Greivin’s classmates revel in their visitors. At the beginning of one recess, a shy girl named Jenny runs up to present this reporter with a gift. Closer inspection shows it’s a page out of a German dictionary. “Is it in English?” she asks, and is vaguely confused when told it’s German. Asked where she got the page, she replies she doesn’t know.

Another girl offers me her pink pencil, but I can’t quite bring myself to accept it. As at all public schools in Costa Rica, the students’ families must pay for the kids’ uniforms, school supplies and transportation, and even chip in to help teachers pay for photocopies. Ask a teacher or parent how much those costs add up to per year and you’ll get a wide array of responses; the father of Steven, the student from Llano Grande, said he pays as much as $400 per month to cover the public education costs of his 12 children, and $100 for the three who are in primary school. Whatever the costs are, however, they certainly exceed the amount the government provides in bonos and becas, yearly and monthly scholarships for qualifying public school students, generally ranging from ¢6,000-13,000 (approximately $12-25).

Asked about the challenges facing the school, principal Miguel Aguilar, who, interestingly, worked at Buenaventura Corrales before being assigned to La Carpio’s school, argues that a proactive principal can make a significant difference. For example, by getting student data to the Education Ministry in a timely manner, he minimized logistical problems such as lack of desks that make headlines at other schools, he says.

But Italo Fera, the school’s sociologist –the ministry appoints sociologists to certain schools with particularly at-risk populations, he tells me – doesn’t appear to share Aguilar’s attitude. Fera is mad.

“This shows the two Costa Ricas,” he says in the school’s small cafeteria (which, with its 52 plastic chairs and three pleasant cooks, seems far too small to feed more than 2,000 kids, until one realizes how quickly second graders eat). “Here in La Carpio, we’re the last stand…we’re in the basement… it’s educational terrorism. The people with the most instructional needs are the least prepared people.Unfortunately, we’re reproducing the cycle of poverty.”

Greivin’s mother, Hortensia Ramírez, went to Escuela La Caja as well, but left after fourth grade. She’s been married for three years and has three children – Greivin, José Miguel (5) and Jordan (3). Sitting in her house, which sits atop a hill laced with labyrinthine paths and is filled with memorabilia from the Saprissa club soccer team, she admits high school may not be in the cards for her sons, either. There’s no high school in La Carpio, so for kids to stay in school, parents must pay at least $9-12 per month for transportation to other schools. This cost might be too much for the family to handle, she says.

“My husband works to barely cover the (cost of) food,” she says, adding that little gifts, such as a donation of notebooks from the Comedor San Martin in the shantytown, help them squeak by. She’s happy with her children’s teachers, though she says she wishes they would keep a closer eye on the kids.


In the Footsteps of Presidents

Across town, Ariana loves the camera. She and her friends run, giggle and pose as they wait for class to begin.

The girls and their schoolmates must be the only kids in the country whose playtime backdrop was imported from Belgium, the source of the school’s detailed metal panels. Buenaventura has high ceilings, open-air courtyards and a gorgeous spiral staircase connecting its two stories, though like Finca La Caja, it too suffers from overcrowding. Ariana arrives for the school’s second shift of the day, 12:30-5:40 p.m.

Buenaventura is not your average city school. Miguel Aguilar, the La Carpio principal who used to work here, explained that because of urban flight, the neighborhoods around Buenaventura don’t have enough kids to fill the seats. Therefore, many of its students come from eastern suburbs as much as an hour’s bus ride away – and, because the public school system doesn’t provide transportation, the students are from families who can afford this luxury. In addition, parents pay a “voluntary” fee for materials and building maintenance that can total ¢25,000 (approximately $50) per month, according to Ariana’s mother, Grace Monge, who works at the National Insurance Institute (INS).

The extra resources certainly show. The students wear the blue-and-white uniforms of other public schools, but with plaid vests, ties and pleated skirts. Greivin may have his mother to accompany him through La Carpio’s dirt paths, but Ariana has devoted bus driver Minor Castro, who, when his eight charges arrive at school before the bell, watches over them as they play in the Peace Garden, a park in front of the school. Also keeping watch: a statue of former President Daniel Oduber (1974-1978), another of the school’s famous alumni.

Inside, the building is as loud and chaotic as the La Carpio school, with a few staff members wearing intimidated expressions as the kids sprint up and down the spiral stairs. However, when Ariana eventually finds her way to her classroom, it proves to be a peaceful and orderly place. Teacher Guiselle Quirós, who has a master’s degree in education, treats her class with a firm but affectionate maternal air, aided perhaps by the fact that she is five months pregnant.

The high-ceilinged room is not lavishly equipped with books and materials, but it does have colorful posters, a TV/VCR, a phone and flowers, and when Quirós wants copies of the daily La Nación for a group activity she sends a student to the library to get some.

Unlike Greivin, who sat in his seat listening, reading or copying throughout almost all of his 2 hours 45 minutes of instructional time, compared to about 4 hours 30 minutes for Ariana, Quirós keeps her group busy with a variety of activities. They’re up in two lines for a spelling lesson, sitting in groups to look for examples in the newspaper, in rows to read a handout about mental health.

Halfway through the day she turns out the light, instructs the kids to put their heads down, and tells them to listen to their breathing, to the beating of their hearts. A massive thump disturbs the silence, though the kids don’t stir – it’s a little boy in the front row, so relaxed that he falls right out of his chair onto the ground. He shakes his head groggily and settles himself back at his desk as Quirós suppresses a chuckle.

Students here take Spanish, English, math, religion, social studies, art, computer lab, language lab and agriculture. Ariana also participates in a folkloric dance group, “La Villita.” Gabriela Piedra, a Buenaventura music teacher and parent who rides the minibus with Ariana, says the curriculum “is very full, but they learn a lot.”

Ariana shows a different side of her personality when she attends English class. Having finished their brief assignment, the kids, bored, misbehave, and Ariana takes advantage of the chaos to slip her phone number to a friend a few rows away and whisper with the kids nearby.

I ask her if she ever speaks English during the class. “Más o menos,” she says with a smile.

But the kids are filled with enthusiasm about their school. Students in the other two schools I visited also had only positive things to say, but here, particularly in the exuberance of having little work to do in English class, the kids can’t get the words out fast enough when asked what their favorite part of school is. “Learning!” “Studying!” “Reading!” “Everything!”


An Hour Away, A World Apart

In the mountains east of the capital, Steven is in science class, and he couldn’t be happier. When his teacher, Gerardo Mata, tells him to rub a ruler against the long locks of his classmate Vivian, then use the ruler to pick up scraps of paper as a demonstration of static electricity, the 8-year-old can’t quite believe his ears. But he gets right to it. After a lengthy Spanish lesson that involved copying lots of synonyms into his notebook, he had been getting restless.

“Experiment, experiment!” another kid shouts.

Mata helps the kids along when some of them can’t get the paper to lift off their desks.

“It didn’t work on some of your heads because of the soap or gel you use,” he says, looking at Steven’s head – a sculpted masterpiece over wire-rimmed glasses.

Escuela Llano Grande de Pacayas, where Steven and 51 other elementary students study in the foothills of Irazú Volcano, is only about an hour east of San José, but it feels like a different world. The air is crisp and cool at 7 a.m. as the first shift heads to class.

Most of them are the children of farmers who grow potatoes, cabbage and other crops on the hills above.

The school received a visit last year from then-Public Education Minister Manuel Antonio Bolaños, and it’s easy to see why: it is an example of Costa Rica’s success in establishing educational infrastructure in small towns, though a day spent here also reveals the struggles still to be faced. It features a patio for soccer, a cafeteria that serves up a complete meal for each child, neat classrooms, shiny ceramic floors, and a well equipped preschool.

A talk with Steven’s parents, potato farmer Oscar Montenegro, 47, and Vera Montenegro, 46, reveal some similarities with Greivin’s family in La Carpio. Like Greivin’s parents, Steven’s went to the same school their son now attends, dropping out after elementary school in part because there’s no high school in their town. They’d have had to walk or pay for transportation to the larger town of Pacayas, where there’s a technical school. However, they’ve ensured their own kids go farther: four of their children are at the technical school now, and two study at the State University at a Distance (UNED) campus in Cartago, half an hour away.

Also like Greivin’s mother, who said she can remember when La Carpio students took their lessons at the bus station, the Montenegros are pleased with the improvements in their town school over the years.

Steven’s teacher, who’s a bit of a veteran after six years at the school – turnover can be high – says his job is a mix of financial juggling, such as collecting ¢150 (about $0.30) per week from each student to cover the cost of supplies, and dealing with the unique challenges of small-town life.

“Learning is the problem here,” he tells me, citing “closed families” as the cause.

When asked to clarify, he says many students have learning disabilities and other problems because some of their parents are first cousins. Principal Ana Cristina Madrigal, in a separate conversation, also mentions this factor as a challenge for the school.

The bell rings at 10:15 and the kids jump up, stack their chairs on top of their desks and leave the room. I’m a little confused at first – it’s only three hours and 15 minutes since the school day began, and subtracting time spent on logistics, recess and lunch, the kids have spent only 2.5 hours on schoolwork.

But Mata confirms that it’s true – the day is over. Steven received only 15 minutes less of instructional time than Greivin but a whopping 2 hours less than Ariana. And even taking into account Saturday classes held to make up for the shortage, Steven gets about 15 hours a week, compared to approximately 23 hours for Ariana.

Oxcart driver Miguel Masis happens to be passing by the school gates as Steven leaves, and offers him – and his entourage –a ride up the steep hill that leads to his home. Steven keeps his eyes fixed on the straining oxen and the road ahead, reluctant to talk, ready to get home and out of his uniform.

What’s next for this little boy, whose parents describe him as smart and industrious? Given his parents’ success in getting his older siblings through high school and on to higher education, Steven’s chances seem good. However, Madrigal says only 30% of Llano Grande’s students make it past sixth grade.

Vera says she wishes her son had the chance to take English or learn about computers.

“There’s something missing, I imagine,”she says. “The school is too poor.”


Next: A look at how the country distributes its education funds.


*Finca La Caja has 2,200 students total, but figures given are for the main building only, where Greivin Cruz attends class (two smaller annexes were built to accommodate some of the overflow).

**Tico Times estimate made by subtracting time spent on recess, lunch, logistics and transitions.

Source: School principals




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