Seventeen-year-old Jennifer Morales is one of 141,000 kids across the country who receive government money to stay in school. With her parents separated and household finances stretched, the aspiring lawyer said she would not be able to complete her studies were it not for the ¢35,000 ($60) she receives each month through the government program Avancemos. Though it’s not much, the money pays for bus fares, school lunches and uniforms.
“It gives me the opportunity to be here,” she said, as she walked to class at the J.J.VargasCalvoSchool in San Pedro on the east side of San José.
The program Avancemos, or “Let’s Get Ahead,” was started in 2006 by President Oscar Arias at the beginning of his second term in office. It was a time during which more than 12 percent of high school students weren’t making it to graduation.
Educators and politicians alike say they consider the program to be successful and they point to students such as Morales as poster children for continued government funding for Avancemos. However, the program has suffered a few growing pains since its inception as responsibility for implementing the program was divided among different government agencies and as the program has further defined its mission.
Among the program’s shortcomings, according to some observers, is the length of time students must wait to receive their scholarships, minimal oversight and the lack of studies designed to statistically evaluate the success of the program.
In the three years since Avancemos was begun, 141,000 students from 115,000 families have received scholarships of between ¢15,000 and ¢50,000 per month merely for showing up at school.
The program, with the mission of preventing students from leaving school, has made inroads into hundreds of public schools in almost every region of the country. “It’s a good initiative,” said J.J. Vargas Calvo School Principal Antonio Bonilla. His school attracts students from the lower middle class, and nine percent of them drop out before graduation.
“(Avancemos) allows many of our poorer students, at risk for dropping out due to economic or social reasons, to continue with their studies,” he said, adding that 110 of the school’s 1,600 students are enrolled in the program.
Bonilla pointed out that Avancemos is unique in that its support crosses party lines – an important consideration in a presidential election year when the presidency is about to switch hands and the future of the program could hang in the balance.
A flagship initiative of the Arias administration, Avancemos began with a goal of reaching 150,000 students before Arias’ term ends in May of 2010.
It has since drawn support from leaders of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), as well as from many smaller political groups.
In an interview with The Tico Times, PAC presidential candidate Ottón Solís, who narrowly lost to Arias in the 2006 elections, called Avancemos one of the few positive initiatives of Arias’ second term as president. Former president and current Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) presidential candidate Rafael Angel Calderón also indicated his support for the program in an interview with the daily newspaper Diario Extra.
View From the Ground
Manuel Morera, principal of the Liceo de San Rafael, a 1,300-student high school in Alajuela northwest of San José, said Avancemos has helped his students stay in the classrooms.
“Avancemos is a very important and very necessary program,” he said. “Many students abandon their studies because they lack economic resources. There might be other strategies to keep students in school, but Avancemos directly tackles one of the most significant problems.”
But as with every program, he said, “it has its drawbacks.”
He said there have been cases of misuse of funds, such as students using Avancemos monies to buy expensive sneakers or – in rare cases – drugs rather than applying the money to any school-related need.
He also said that while the program may keep students in school, it doesn’t mean they are applying academic effort.
“We have students who are repeating and repeating (schoolwork) and remaining at school only to get the scholarship,” said Morera. “They aren’t using this scholarship to advance. They are using it for things they want.”
Another drawback, some educators have said, is that after three years in operation, the program still hasn’t collected data to determine if it’s making an impact in the dropout rates.
Statistics from the Education Ministry show that 4,000 fewer students abandoned their studies in 2008 than in 2006 (a 1.1 percent difference). But the program can’t claim that decrease in dropouts for itself as it hasn’t ruled out other possible causes.
“All we can say is that, anecdotally, this program has been a success for many families,” said Sonia Rodríguez, a social worker with Avancemos. “I don’t have specific numbers. It’s not documented. But many families have told us that, thanks to this program, they are able to keep their kids in school.”
A Dual Purpose
The program’s goal is not solely to keep students in school. It also is an attempt to address the nation’s stubborn levels of poverty.
The National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC) estimates that 931,767 Costa Ricans (or 17 percent of the population) live in extreme poverty, surviving on fewer than ¢39,755 (roughly $68) per month in urban areas or ¢26,616 ($45) in rural zones.
“There is an inverted relationship between poverty and education,” said Olga Vargas, Avancemos program coordinator. “With an investment in education, it is possible for families to leave poverty behind.”
According to the State of the Nation report for 2006, the same year that Avancemos began, the wealthiest 20 percent of Costa Ricans averaged 12.1 years of schooling while the poorest 20 percent averaged 5.2 years (TT, Nov. 17, 2006).
Vargas said that it doesn’t concern her that some families buy new sneakers or electronics with the scholarship funds. She said the important thing is that the students are given the opportunity to continue their studies. And, she said, if the monies go to things not directly related to education, “at least it will enhance the quality of life for the poor.”
Vargas added that Avancemos funds “help students achieve higher academic levels, better jobs and – perhaps – it gives them a ticket out of poverty.”
Not a New Idea
Using cash incentives to prevent students from dropping out of school is not unique to Costa Rica.
According to Jay Smink, executive director of the U.S.-based National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC/N), such incentives have long been employed in the United States, and – in recent years – more and more educators have relied on them to keep at-risk youth in school.
“Offering cash incentives to students to remain in school exists all over the place, but with some controversy,” Smink said. “The jury is still out on its impact but, anecdotally, there is good evidence that if it is managed right, it does have an impact.”
He pointed to a program in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in which the Chamber of Commerce provides a mentor for high-risk fourth graders, as well as depositing $400 per year for each student in a trust fund to finance postsecondary education. More money is added every year a student successfully completes his or her courses.
Smink, whose organization has outlined a list of the 15 most effective strategies for countering the dropout problem, said he is not opposed to cash incentive programs.
“Educators and community leaders are searching for every little advantage they can get,” he said. “If you look at the quality of life for a student who drops out of school, it’s significantly different (from the lives of those who stay in school). For many, offering payments to students often makes sense.”
Smink say those who oppose cash incentives say the expectation is that children attending school be self-motivated, with no need for external motivation. However, “Depending on the families, depending on where they come from, self-motivation may not be possible,” Smink said.
Yet, he said that of the 15 strategies his organization outlined, mentoring has proven to be one of the most effective dropout prevention methods.
“In exit interviews, eight out of 10 students reflect on the failure of schools to keep them engaged. This can be prevented by having one person look out for them and who acts as an advocate.” he said. “Though all 15 strategies should be addressed, mentoring is a good place to start.”
The 15 Most Effective Strategies for Preventing Dropouts, recommended by the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC/N), can be found at: www.dropoutprevention.org/effstrat/default.htm