Education Revolution Underway

February 1, 2008
MANAGUA – The privatization of the national education system was killing Nicaragua, says Education Minister Miguel De Castilla.
“There was a neoliberal model. Students had to pay to study,” he said. Most students, he said, couldn’t afford enrollment fees of up to $40 a year.
That is why as soon as De Castilla took over the reigns of the Education Ministry last year, the state coughed up $6 million a year so students wouldn’t have to. The ministry also eliminated the dress code and started offering basic food staples to families who enrolled their kids, rewarding children who attended class with a bag of beans or corn.
According to official statistics, 100,000 new students are enrolled for this year. And that’s just the beginning for De Castilla, who is hoping to get more than 160,000 new kids back into public schools in 2008, to bring the total number to 1.37 million.
Though enrollment is up, and dropout rates have nearly been cut in half due to the Sandinista government’s policies, the ministry still faces sizeable obstacles in increasing enrollment and providing quality education, the minister said.
Afternoon enrollment is still low, mainly because parents say they fear for their children’s safety when they walk home from school at 5 p.m. or later in the evening.
“It’s dangerous at night,” said Donald Giovanni García, director of the Carlos A. Bravo elementary in Granada.
The Education Ministry is asking for more police presence around schools to make parents feel more secure about sending their children off to afternoon classes.
As parents and students gear up for class MANAGUA – The privatization of the national education system was killing Nicaragua, says Education Minister Miguel De Castilla.
“There was a neoliberal model. Students had to pay to study,” he said. Most students, he said, couldn’t afford enrollment fees of up to $40 a year.
That is why as soon as De Castilla took over the reigns of the Education Ministry last year, the state coughed up $6 million a year so students wouldn’t have to. The ministry also eliminated the dress code and started offering basic food staples to families who enrolled their kids, rewarding children who attended class with a bag of beans or corn.
According to official statistics, 100,000 new students are enrolled for this year. And that’s just the beginning for De Castilla, who is hoping to get more than 160,000 new kids back into public schools in 2008, to bring the total number to 1.37 million.
Though enrollment is up, and dropout rates have nearly been cut in half due to the Sandinista government’s policies, the ministry still faces sizeable obstacles in increasing enrollment and providing quality education, the minister said.
Afternoon enrollment is still low, mainly because parents say they fear for their children’s safety when they walk home from school at 5 p.m. or later in the evening.
“It’s dangerous at night,” said Donald Giovanni García, director of the Carlos A. Bravo elementary in Granada.
The Education Ministry is asking for more police presence around schools to make parents feel more secure about sending their children off to afternoon classes.
As parents and students gear up for class es to start Feb. 4, chaos seemed to dominate this year’s registration process, with long lines of parents trying to get their kids enrolled for the morning session.
Most parents want their kids to work in the afternoon and attend class in the morning, putting an additional strain on the school system. The Carlos A. Bravo’s 16 classrooms are packed each morning with up to 50 kids per teacher in some cases, while only 11 classes are running in the afternoon, with as few as 15 kids per teacher.
A stroll through the school grounds, with a broken basketball hoop, dilapidated desks, a busted electrical system and lack of computer equipment, speaks to the lack of investment in education in past years.
Teachers’ salaries – starting at $130 a month – have also been cause of protests, which are expected to continue this year.
At the Carlos A. Bravo School, 34 teachers have a total 1,100 students.
Enrollment here, which remained the same as last year, doesn’t exactly reflect the nationwide increase. García said he’s hoping for a 10% increase in enrollment this year, though that’s unlikely unless he can figure out a way to get students to come to classes in the afternoon. And without more resources, that could be an unlikely prospect, he said.
The school director sighs as he looks at the school’s lone computer, which is tucked under a cloth to protect it from dust. He doesn’t even know how to use it.
“We have a lot of needs,” García said.
“Investing in education is the only way out of underdevelopment.”
Revolutionary Change
Education was a hallmark of the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, and this government appears equally determined to achieve success with limited resources.
The Education Ministry this year plans to hire 1,500 new teachers, and train 10,000 more.
The government also expects to build 184 new classrooms and repair 220 more around the country, while delivering 120,000 new desks and distribute nearly 400,000 backpacks and school supplies to students, as well as 186,000 school uniforms.
Minister De Castilla, whose austere face is framed by a trimmed, bleach-white beard, said he’s up to the challenge and is serious about increasing enrollment. The bookish educator will oversee a massive push to teach more than 500,000 Nicaraguans to read and write this year.
While in exile in Costa Rica after he fled the Somoza dictatorship here in the 1970s, De Castilla buried himself in books and ended up with a doctorate in education from the University of Costa Rica.
De Castilla – who proudly announces that he’s written 23 books and whose resume is so long it may as well count as one of them – said his favorite thinkers are Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara. Paintings of Nicaraguan revolutionary Gen. Augusto C. Sandino decorate his office walls in Managua.
The lifelong Sandinista, who served as vice-minister of education in the 1980s, said Marxist thinking won’t necessarily be inculcated into the Nicaraguan curriculum, which is currently up for revision. The ministry is wrapping up an exhaustive, nationwide “popular” consultation in which officials gathered opinions from all different sectors of society, including online opinions logged through the ministry’s Web site.
The results will be used to propose curriculum changes as soon as March, De Castilla said.
The minister admitted, however, that he wants to introduce economics, philosophy and sociology courses into secondary education courses.
“I want students to interpret the reality in which they live,” he said. De Castilla laughed when asked why he’s a Sandinista, as if the question were too ridiculous to ask.
“It’s a basic ethical problem, because poverty afflicts,” he said. “Only together, in a revolutionary party, is it possible to think about getting out of poverty.”
The revolutionary educator never actually took up arms, but nonetheless refers to himself as a militant.
“A militant doesn’t have to have weapons,” he said.
 

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