San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

School Gets Fairy-Tale Ending Just in Time

As vacation ends for students across the nation Monday, the kids at BuenaventuraCorralesSchool will perhaps be most happy to go back.

The much-loved, 112-year-old school was almost closed for two years after a June study showed that columns holding up the ceilings were deteriorating.

But a second report said the danger was minimal. The school hired a construction company to repair the columns during the two-week vacation, and local school officials deemed the school safe to reopen.

“I started to sleep again. At lunchtime, I can eat again,” said first-grade teacher Grettel Alvarez. “I feel great joy, great satisfaction” that the school will reopen.

Buenaventura Corrales, dubbed the “MetalBuilding” for its yellow iron walls, is one of about 335 buildings the Culture Ministry has designated as part of the country’s “national heritage,” based on historical, architectural or cultural value.

Purchased from Belgium in the late 19th century, the K-6 school sprawls majestically near Parque España in downtown San José.

Its graduates include four former presidents and dozens of ministers and lawmakers, said local school board director Carlos Ulate.

“It’s a national emblem. It’s a sanctuary for learning,” said Ulate, whose four children attended Buenaventura Corrales. “The education is very good quality … and the kids are really fond of the school.”

Earlier this year, a Culture Ministry architect and engineer began studying the building to identify repairs required to keep it safe and intact.

In June, while only part way through the several months-long study, the team shared some alarming news: The blue columns holding up the second floor were decaying.

The team said some corridors on that floor should be closed and access to others limited. They did not call for the school to be closed entirely.

Better safe than sorry, said Education Minister Leonardo Garnier, who announced the school’s closure on July 1.

“I’d rather apologize for the inconvenience (the closure) could cause than apologize for the death of a child because a piece of hallway fell on her,” he said.

He told parents to apply for spots at other schools for the second semester.

Garnier’s decision surprised Sandra Quirós, head of the Culture Ministry office that conducted the study. And it angered and saddened parents, students and teachers, who learned the news from the daily La Nación on the day of a school-wide social studies exam.

On July 4, about 200 parents, students and teachers protested outside the Education Ministry to urge Garnier to keep the school open. If the building were truly unsafe, they said, he should find another space big enough to accommodate all 1,280 students and 62 teachers.

They sang and chanted in the rain, and the soaked school band played their drums and brass.

“(The students) are accustomed to their teachers and their programs. Moving to another school would be like starting from zero,” said Gina Salazar, who has three children at the school. “If we have to move, we are going to move together.”

Alvarez noted the oddity of fighting against a safety measure.

“We were criticized for wanting the school to fall and our kids to die,” she said. But teachers and parents who had read the Culture Ministry’s preliminary report were convinced repairs would be minor.

Roy Acuña, of architects and engineers association, agreed. In a report released July 7, he said 17 of the school’s 30 columns were indeed deteriorating – they had lost a millimeter in girth over the last century – but they could be patched up easily with a slab of cement around the middle.

The question remains as to where to find the funds. If the school used public money, it would have to hold a bid to choose a construction firm, then allow the losing firms to appeal. The process could have taken months, school-board president Ulate said.

Unwilling to wait, a board of parents loaned the school $9,000 to hire the construction company Hermanos Jimenez CHJ del Sur, which was set to finish work Thursday.

The school is now collecting money from families and alumni to repay the board. While all has ended well, some parents  and teachers still say they feel wounded. The Education Ministry, Alvarez said, should have met with the school community to talk about closing the school, rather than announcing the decision in the press.

“That annoyed us, and we still feel bad about it,” she said.

Asked if he made a mistake, Garnier said, “When security is at stake, the word ‘premature’ does not exist.”

A damning report last year by the Comptroller General’s Office, which concluded school buildings “do not ensure … the minimum conditions to protect the life and health of their occupants,” likely made the ministry more cautious.

A full analysis of risks at Buenaventura Corrales is expected in a few months. The Culture Ministry has yet to study the building’s vulnerability in the event of an earthquake.


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