San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Coastal Growth Feeds Private Schools

James Felhofer, a financial manager on the central Pacific coast, could not find a good nearby school for his two young girls. So he opened his own.

Felhofer’s FalconInternationalSchool is one of several new private schools popping up along the coast to meet growing demand from families of workers and managers at hotels, real estate firms, construction companies, restaurants and other businesses.

Of the seven new private schools registered with the Education Ministry since January, three are on the Pacific coast, where booming development has created wealth and attracted foreigners. Registration with the ministry is not mandatory, but it gives schools credibility and allows them to administer national tests.

Within the past eight years, two well-known English-language schools based in the Central Valley – CountryDay School and the InternationalChristianSchool – have also opened campuses near the coast.

Blue ValleySchool, based in the San José suburb of Escazú, may follow suit, said director María Cristina Gutiérrez. Parents have called BlueValley repeatedly in recent years, asking the school to open a branch in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

With public schools in the region overcrowded and underfunded, foreigners and Ticos working in real estate and tourism are willing to cough up private-school tuition, which can run from $1,500 to $8,500 a year, depending on the grade and school.

English-language schools are especially attractive given the increasing demand for bilingual workers.

The InternationalChristianSchool has sprinted to keep up with parent interest.

Enrollment at the school’s branch in Liberia, Guanacaste’s capital, has jumped to 725 students from about 100 since the campus opened in 2004.

“There’s been huge growth in business,” said Wendy Tayler, the school’s director, who attributes much of the development to the DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia. “And people come with their businesses and they bring their children.”

Felhofer, who works at Los Sueños Resort and Marina at Playa Herradura on the central Pacific coast, fretted over where to educate his children, now ages 10 and 12. In 2003, his wife and daughters moved to San José so the children could attend private school. But the family was unhappy living apart, and they moved back after six months.

Next, Felhofer looked at private schools in the coastal area, but he worried that a long commute over shoddy roads would be dangerous in the rainy season. He then tried homeschooling, but decided the kids needed company.

Felhofer opened Falcon in November 2004 with five students in a small cabin. Today, the school has 50 students and a 1.7-acre property.

The parents – a mix of Costa Ricans, North Americans, Mexicans, Colombians and Canadians – work at hotels, restaurants and real estate and construction companies.Nearly all classes are taught in English.

Felhofer expects enrollment to increase in the next three years, once developers finish the Caldera highway between San José and the central Pacific coast (TT, Jan. 18, May 30). Then families will be able to more easily live on the coast – and send their kids to school there – while a parent commutes to work in the Central Valley, now dotted with multinational companies.

“(The highway) will create much greater demand for us to continue expanding, or for other international schools to open in the area,” Felhofer said.

Development also feeds La Paz Community School, which opened last fall in Guanacaste’s Playa Flamingo. Enrollment will jump from 57 students in the 2007- 2008 school year to 85 students beginning this fall. Some 30 more are on the waiting list, said Abel McClennen, one of six founding teachers.

Many of the students come from nearby Playa Tamarindo, the country’s third most popular tourist destination, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT). Flamingo is set to grow, too, as developers look to revamp and reopen a marina there (see sidebar on Page 11).

With about 20 percent of the student body on scholarships, La Paz aims to attract families from all rungs of the social ladder. The parents – Tico and foreign – range from real estate agents and hotel managers to maids and secretaries.

“It’s hard to get people of different socioeconomic (statuses) and ethnicities to interact, but that’s what the school is here for, and Guanacaste is an area where it has to happen,” said McClennen, a U.S. citizen. “If it doesn’t, we’re going to end up with another Cancun or something, where it’s just big hotels and the poor people are pushed to the outside.”

Troubled by rapid, unplanned development in the area, McClennen also aims to raise awareness about the environment.

Students and community members bring recyclable trash to the school, and students weigh and measure it in class to learn about mass and volume. The school also has a chicken coop to teach students about waste and the cycle of life.

While the bilingual La Paz school focuses on integration into the community, just a few kilometers down the beach sprawls Country Day, a North American-style school with a high turnover rate, according to director Robert Trent. With its main campus in the Central Valley’s Escazú (see separate story above), Country Day opened a Guanacaste branch in 2000 to tap into the region’s expected growth.

With 155 students and a 35-acre property, the school both feeds off development and promotes it, Trent said.

“People want to settle where there’s a school,” he said. “It’s a catalyst for growth.”


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