A handful of university students were watching extra carefully when high school seniors got their national exam scores this week.
“Oh, gosh. Son of a bitch,” groaned university student Mauricio Chacón, when he learned that just one of 42 seniors passed the test at a high school in the Caribbean region of Talamanca.
Chacón and 17 other university students taught test-prep classes in four indigenous communities for two months this fall. Run by the state universities, the initiative tries to level the playing field for students whose schools are understaffed and underfunded.
All high school seniors – whether they attend pricey private schools or impoverished rural public schools – must take the same exams to graduate.
Some 63% of high school students nationwide passed the exams, given in early November. While two of the indigenous schools outperformed the national average – with rates of 83% and 69% – the other two schools came up short, with rates of 36% and 2.3%, at the school where Chacón taught.
“We have to be realistic. We can’t solve in two months problems that have existed for years,” said Diana Segura, a social worker at the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), who organized the initiative this year.
These problems include scanty resources and high teacher turnover at schools in rural communities, government and school officials said. Henry González, an administrator at the high school in Boruca, said students did not have Internet access or up-to-date books.
Qualified teachers, who have more leeway in choosing where they work, opt for schools in cities in the Central Valley, rather than rural areas. That means teachers with less experience – often without even a college degree – are assigned to schools in indigenous communities, González said. Many leave once they can get a more central job.
“There’s a constant rotation of teachers.
That hurts students because a more permanent teacher knows how things work, knows what students know,” said René Rocha, a Ministry of Education official who works on indigenous issues in Limón.
Teachers often lack the training to work in rural areas with few resources, Chacón said. He was initially shocked by his classroom in the town of Suretka, where a small chalkboard was the only teaching tool. The university students brought their own books, chalk, markers, maps, videos and other resources.
“In the university, they don’t prepare you for this reality,” said Chacón, who is studying to be a social science teacher. “The system teaches (high school students) at one level, and tests them at another.”
The exams are a formidable week-long affair at the beginning of November. They test six subjects: literature, math, social studies, science, a language (English or French) and civic education. Students received their scores this week, and those who passed and meet academic requirements will graduate in the days before Christmas.
Costa Rica’s four state universities started the test-prep program in fall of 2006, then expanded it this fall with a two-year grant. The students spent every weekend in September and October in one of the four communities.
They slept at the Red Cross or in private houses and taught math, English, biology, and social sciences to groups of about 25 students.
“This help was really important for our students who are so limited…It would be really good to have a little more coverage and funding,” said Leonel Maroto, director of Boruca high school, where 19 out of 23 students passed the test.
Still, such high numbers might be misleading.
Only 21% of indigenous teenagers attend high school, according to a report by the National University (UNA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Juan Carlos Santa Cruz, an adviser at the Education Ministry’s office of indigenous affairs, also questions the value of a high school degree if the student never goes to college. And many don’t. Of the 28 students who graduated from the Boruca high school last year, just 10 went to universities.
Cost is the biggest obstacle for students in indigenous or rural communities, Santa Cruz said. Students often live hundreds of miles away from the university campuses, and they cannot afford to relocate.He said most indigenous students either go to private universities or none at all. That has sapped diversity from the state universities, where less than 1% of the student body is indigenous, estimates Lidiethe Maddem, a psychologist at UNA.
For students like Chacón, who had never been to an indigenous town before this year, the program was as much about cultural exchange as test prep. Daniel Rojas, an anthropology professor at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) who has done research in Boruca since 2001, spent some weekends there with the university students. He taught them about indigenous mythical figures, introduced them to town personalities, and bought them chichada, a corn-based alcoholic drink.
“From the very beginning, I wanted them to know about the indigenous culture,” he said.
Report: Little Awareness of Indigenous
Non-indigenous Costa Ricans know little about their indigenous neighbors, according to a study released last week by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José.
“We’ve created the stereotype of an indigenous person with a spear and a loincloth,” said university researcher Irma Sandoval.
Indigenous people make up 1.7% of the total population, according to the 2000 census. Some 42.2% of them live within 24 “indigenous territories,” while the rest live on the periphery or are dispersed throughout the country. Most live in rural areas in the provinces of Limón and Puntarenas.
Researchers conducted 1,800 telephone and inperson interviews in 2006 and 2007 to gauge perceptions of the indigenous. In a question about indigenous peoples’ principal trait, 27% of respondents said they were “different,” and 20% said they were “humble and shy.” Some 94% of respondents said they know “nothing” or “little” about indigenous people.
“It’s a stereotype of someone who is really far away, who doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the population,” Sandoval said.