San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Schools Start in Shoddy Shape

Josette Obando spent her first day of seventh-grade Monday in the cramped, windowless room of a church. The 13-year-old’s teacher, Grace Castillo, had to find somewhere to put the six students who didn’t have desks.


The principal, Guido Zárate, runs the school under a metaphorical sword because his post is temporary, and his replacement could arrive any day.


Against this backdrop of uncertainty and inadequacy, San Nicolás de Tolentino High School in Cartago, east of San José, is one of many public schools that opened this week without sufficient desks, teachers or classrooms.


As nearly 1 million students returned to school after summer break, the Education Ministry still had to hire 45 teachers and  procure 13,000 desks. About 4,000 teachers likely will retire or take sick leave this month, leaving their classrooms with no instructor for up to three weeks until a replacement is found, said Education Minister Leonardo Garnier.


Some schools will hold lessons all year in makeshift or crumbling buildings, as the ministry tackles a shortage of more than 4,600 classrooms.


President Oscar Arias has repeatedly called education a priority for his administration, but the Education Ministry is still struggling to smooth bureaucratic glitches, as well as solve long-term infrastructure problems at the country’s more than 5,000 elementary and high schools.


San Nicolás de Tolentino was founded two years ago, but its 400 students are still learning in a church, a community center and two dilapidated single-room houses while they wait for the ministry to construct buildings.


Floor plans for the three buildings, costing $1.8 million, are pasted proudly on the wall of a former storage room, where Zárate holds office hours. Construction should start by May, he said, and end in October, ready for the 2009 school year.


For now, things are in limbo. A 300-desk shortage prevented classes from taking place simultaneously early this week. Seventhgraders had class Monday, while eighth- and ninth-graders attended Tuesday.


The school now has enough desks but is missing an art instructor and a French teacher.


Up to 35 students squish into classrooms that can comfortably fit 25, Zárate said. The school had to turn away 250 students seeking admission Monday for lack of space.


Most of the school’s personnel, including Zárate, have one-year appointments. The Education Ministry could replace them midyear with a tenured hire.


“It’s hard. One feels unstable,” Zárate said. “These are terrible conditions.”


In a testimony to the tough learning climate, some 37% of students failed or dropped out last year.


Josette Obando’s two brothers dropped out of high school to grow potatoes and onions on the family’s land. But Obando wants to get her high school diploma and perhaps become a professional haircutter. She enrolled in seventh-grade for the second time Monday after failing her classes last year.


“It’s uncomfortable because the classrooms are really small, and it’s hard to concentrate,” she said. “Sometimes other students get out early and they make noise.”


Students at San Nicolás cannot afford to buy books, which can cost $50, so teachers write their own materials and distribute photocopies.


About a mile away, Occidental High School is perhaps in worse shape. The school opened last year in a series of rundown rooms with broken windows and doors, holes in the bare walls, and dilapidated desks and chalkboards.


One side of the complex is patched together with metal slabs, and the recreational area is about 10 meters square, with a pile of concrete rubble in the corner.


“Students aren’t learning in the best of conditions,” said Occidental’s director, María Rosa Rivas.


Occidental relies heavily on charity from a neighboring community college, which donates the rooms, some desks and a security guard. The Education Ministry and the local school board are planning to construct a new $200,000 building on land where the Cartago municipality now stores trucks and machinery. But the building likely won’t be ready for a few years, Rivas said.


Meanwhile, the school has a more immediate problem, said the local school board director, José Joaquín Soto. The community college needs the classrooms by April 30, and Soto must move Occidental’s 180 students to another space.


“Where are we going to put ourselves in April?” Soto asked. “That is the 1 million colón question…We still have not sat down to analyze the possibilities.”


School administrators, the press and the public have questioned the Education Ministry’s practice of opening schools before constructing buildings. Garnier said the ministry is simply responding to demand.


“What am I supposed to say to students: That they can’t go to high school this year, or that they can take classes in uncomfortable conditions while we build a high school? I think the second option is better, although it’s not ideal,” Garnier said.


Across the street from Occidental is San Luis Gonzaga High School, a towering reminder of inequalities within the public school system.


Founded 166 years ago, San Luis Gonzaga has a 50-square-meter plaza lined with columns. The classrooms, while not luxurious, are adequate, with intact chalkboards, high ceilings and wide windows. The school has 60 computers and an entire building for sports.


Students must take a test to be admitted to San Luis Gonzaga, and more than 20% of applicants are turned away each year, said Principal Flora Matilde Vargas.


The school has a $240,000 annual budget, thanks to donations from a local cement company and revenue from renting out school property. Occidental and San Nicolás have budgets of about $6,000 each.


“I would like to have more technology. More space for recreation,”Vargas said. “But our shortcomings are minimal compared with schools that don’t have classrooms.”


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