San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

English Class Brings Social Classes Together

Nearly every week, two worlds collide in a posh private school classroom on the western outskirts of San José.

Teenagers from the impoverished, blighted neighborhood of Rincón Grande de Pavas are learning English from their peers at the BlueValleySchool in the upscale suburb of Escazú.

For teens from Rincón Grande, the classes are a ticket to a better job and, perhaps, a college education.

For the BlueValley students, it is a chance to learn how Costa Rica’s less fortunate live. Costa Rica Multilingual, an Oscar Arias administration initiative that works to promote English, is now looking to replicate these classes in private schools across the country. Directors and teachers from about 15 private schools recently attended a presentation by BlueValley teacher Heidi Romanish, who launched the project in August.

“Our kids are very spoiled. … They have a lot,” said Blue Valley Director María Cristina de Urbina. “Being in a private school isolates them. …We are educating future managers.

We want them to be managers with a social conscience.”

English is the subject that appears to illustrate most starkly the inequalities between public schools and bilingual private schools.

In Romanish’s class on Fridays, the BlueValley students, mostly native Costa Ricans, speak English effortlessly, while the Rincón Grande students struggled to remember words like “sister” and even “photo.”

At BlueValley, where high school tuition is about $7,130 a year, almost all instruction is in English. By contrast, public school students take just three 45-minute English classes a week in seventh through ninth grades and five classes a week in 10th and 11th grades.

Still, observers say, the problem is not the quantity but the quality of instruction.

“At public schools, the English instruction is bad, bad, bad, bad. Not even the English teachers speak English,” said Jessica Jiménez, who works in Rincón Grande as a consultant for the InternationalCenter for Human Development (CIDH).

Earlier this year, the Education Ministry tested 3,200 of the 3,600 English teachers in the public school system. Some 39 percent scored a beginners’ level of proficiency, 48 percent were intermediate, while only 13 percent were advanced.

The public school teachers who scored at a beginner proficiency level are now taking English lessons for 10 to 12 hours a week from public university professors.

“Sometimes (students) aren’t getting English classes, but if you think about it, they weren’t really getting English classes before” because the quality of instruction was so poor, said Marta Blanco, director of Costa Rica Multilingual.

The ministry will continue to offer the classes until all teachers achieve Level B2, the fourth of six levels used by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

Earlier this month, Costa Rica Multilingual became a foundation, which will allow the program to continue after Arias leaves office in May 2010.

The foundation brings together representatives from the Arias administration, the business sector, and public and private universities to design programs to promote English. One specific goal will be to emphasize conversation skills.

The foundation also hopes to encourage English-speaking expatriates to volunteer to teach. Between 30,000 and 50,000 U.S. citizens live here, and more than 700,000 visit annually, according to the U.S. State Department.

Renata Delgadillo, a high school senior in Rincón Grande, said the BlueValley classes helped her prepare for the English test required to graduate. She plans to attend college and study business administration.

Other Rincón Grande students have further to climb. Two of the 10 students in Romanish’s class were pregnant, and three had dropped out of school.

“I found it ridiculous that … there are people living so differently from us,” wrote Rebecca Sasso, a BlueValley student, after a visit to Rincón Grande. “It’s like another world.”


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