San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Students: Community Service a Learning Opportunity

The school year is almost at an end for approximately 70,000 11th-grade students in 800 high schools across the country, who will be looking forward to vacation and their final year of colegio, or high school. It’s been another year of studying, exams, sports, parties and community work.

Servicio comunal estudiantil (student community service) has been part of the high school curriculum since 2002, although a similar program began in 1995. Both public and private schools are part of this program to help shape students into better citizens.

About 30 hours of community service are required to graduate. Students work in small groups or individually, helping in schools, clinics, homes for older adults, day care programs, parks and reserves. They play games, teach English, paint benches, decorate classrooms, plant trees and clean waterways, to mention just a few of the jobs they take on.

The work begins with students seeking out community needs and ways they can help. Francisco Víquez, a social studies teacher and adviser to the program at the Liceo de Poás in San Pedro de Poás, Alajuela, northwest of the capital, said the program helps students develop their creativity, leadership skills and activism while learning about the needs in a community.

Though the school may have a list of suggestions, it is up to the students to look into the various work projects and get “contracts” with the sponsoring institutions.

Students also have to raise money to finance their projects and must write a collective report when they finish.

Local agencies, government or nongovernment, are likely choices for many students.

Schools always need helpers to fix up, repaint, plant, clean up and do other types of chores. Local governments need students to help with recycling, cleaning up and planting.

Some students work in nature reserves and parks, fixing trails and bridges. Health clinics, day care centers, orphanages and civic and environmental organizations can also place students.

The Liceo de Poás is in a rural recreational area, and most of the teachers live nearby and help scout out community service projects. Rural areas such as Poás offer more environmental opportunities because of their proximity to national parks and reserves. Students can help fix up trails and build structures, plant trees or clean up waterways. Students are not permitted to work at anything dangerous or for profit, according to Rigoberto Corrales, the Education Ministry’s director for upper grades.

Helena Blanco, Nicole Villalobos, Priscilla Salas, Melisa Chavarrías and Laura Rodríguez are 11th-graders at the private New HopeSchool in Santa Bárbara de Heredia, north of San José. They worked as a team painting benches and railings and planting flowers around the grade school near their own school. They also helped second-graders with English through games and activities. The students were fortunate enough to get a donation to buy paint, brushes and other supplies. In their final report, they wrote that, rather than an obligation, their project was “an opportunity for learning and experiencing, to help others and to improve the environment.”

Their work consisted of 34 hours total. Because their classes ended early, they were able to fulfill their community service in the afternoons during May and June. Rain on some days forced delays, but the girls said they learned to work under pressure and to finish what they promised to do. And there were rewards: the school looked so much better, and there were notes of appreciation and small gifts from some of the children.

Adriana Vargas, who graduated last year from the Liceo de Poás, considered her community service work a way to give back to the community and the country. She and seven classmates spent 30 hours fixing up, sanding and painting the furniture in a kindergarten.

They raised the necessary money through raffles and food sales and worked on Saturdays when the school was empty.

“It was also an educational opportunity; we learned to work together as a team,” she said. They also felt they were making the room more cheerful for the children.

Some students do their community service right in their own schools. Luis Morales, 17, is a student at the technical and professional high school in Heredia. He worked with other students fixing windows and desks right at the school. They felt it was a way to learn things they didn’t learn in the classroom.

University students can find ways to complete the 300 hours of community service required to graduate simply by going online. The Web page for Trabajo Comunal Universitario (TCU) at lists projects looking for student help, and students can work in their chosen field. For example, TCU 504 helps communities develop self-sufficiency in food production and marketing, especially in organic production. This project seeks students in agronomy, nutrition and animal management. TCU 374 at the regional museum in San Ramón, northwest of the capital, allows students at the University of Costa Rica’s San Ramón campus to help as tour guides, mount exhibits, do historical and anthropological research and help expand the museum’s Web page.


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