Charting a New Course
The 33 teenagers who walked across a makeshift stage to receive their diplomas at the Experimental Bilingual School of Palmares last week weren’t just any high-school graduates.
Though they had spent the last two years cramming for math tests, studying images of cells in biology class and perusing English texts (like many of their peers across the country), they also had been transforming a school, a community and, perhaps, Costa Rica’s education system.
These 33 students overcame financial barriers, faced a somewhat skeptical community and navigated a new course to become the first public school graduates of the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program, not just in Costa Rica, but in all of Central America.
Lilliana Lloyd, who was part of the team that brought the IB program to the country’s public schools, said at the time of graduation ceremonies, “A success as great as was achieved in Palmares shows that if we give the best instruments, with well-trained teachers, improved infrastructure and access to a better international curriculum, young Costa Ricans will take advantage of the opportunity.”
For Palmares program coordinator Denis Gutiérrez, the accomplishment wasn’t so much about being “the first” as it was about witnessing the change that took place in his students.
The 14-year math teacher said, “We saw students who couldn’t speak in front of audiences (early on) give engaging and articulate presentations two years later.”
The students went to service projects and immediately impressed the community with their problem-solving abilities, motivation and responsibility, Gutiérrez said. In
class, their answers were more analytical and thought provoking.
“The transformation is not debatable,” he said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.”
Even before the results of the IB final exam – which also serves to measure the success of Costa Rica’s students in relation to their peers around the world-were released, Gutiérrez was pleased.
“We had accomplished what we set out to accomplish and I knew the work we did was excellent,” he said. “The parents gave 100 percent, the students gave 100 percent and the teachers gave 100 percent.
“As far as the exam? I thought, ‘What happens, happens.’”
But Gutiérrez was in for a surprise.
When he peeled back the fold of the envelope containing the tests results, he learned that 33 of the 34 students had achieved the International Baccalaureate diploma. The magnitude of this accomplishment became apparent when Gutiérrez attended an international conference.
“People were seeking me out to congratulate the school,” he said. “They told me what Palmares had accomplished was unprecedented.”
He said that worldwide statistics show that 80 percent of students typically pass the exam but, in the first year, the rate is closer to 67 percent, not even close to Palmares’ 97 percent.
The Birth of IB in Public Schools
Palmares is the first public school to graduate students from the IB program, but the aim is to introduce the curriculum to 19 more public schools within the next few years.
Spearheaded by leaders within the private school system, the initiative was launched in February 2008 by the Association of IB Schools of Costa Rica (ASOBITICO) as a way of offering the same opportunities to those enrolled in public school.
“We started to realize there was a widening gap between the public school education and education in private schools,” said Daniel Samper, executive director at ASOBITICO. “The IB program is the gold standard of international education, and the only ones who could access it in Costa Rica were those able to spend $15,000 a year in tuition.”
The fundamental obstacle in extending the program to the country’s public schools is the cost of implementing the curriculum. Along with infrastructure improvement, schools must undergo an extensive certification process, train their teachers and purchase appropriate learning material, requiring a total investment of approximately $60,000. Beyond the initial start-up costs, it currently costs an additional $60,000 a year to sustain the program.
By partnering with local businesses and through a pledge by the private, Costa Rica-based CR-USA Foundation for Cooperation to match gifts of other donors, ASOBITICO began programs in two public schools: Liceo de Costa Rica and PalmaresBilingualHigh School.
“(ASOBITICO) helps give economic stability,” Gutiérrez said. “So all we have to do is work to give the students the best education possible.”
According to Samper, schools are selected based on the interest and motivation of the community, the school administrators and the students. He said the association is currently looking to partner with schools in Siquirres, a Caribbean slope agricultural town just off the highway to Limón, and in Bagaces, another rural town in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
The goal is to make the curriculum available to 20 schools and reach close to 1,000 students within the country’s seven provinces by the year 2014.
How Is the IB Program Different?
For Samper, a graduate of the IB program at The European School in Heredia, the curriculum offered by the program “is the cure for educational bulimia.”
Too often, students are taught to memorize information only to regurgitate it in the same form on an exam, he said, adding that there are no critical thinking, analysis or problem-solving activities.
“Students get an outline of exam topics, spend 24 hours memorizing, only to forget it when they walk away from the test,” he said. “They leave it in the room and they don’t learn anything. Like bulimia, the material doesn’t nourish.”
In the IB program, students are taught to think for themselves and to fully understand the information that’s being taught. As an example of the difference, Samper said that an IB geography test would ask students to choose where they would build a ski resort based on their knowledge of regional climates and geography and to defend their responses. Students in the mainstream program, he said, would be given a list of capitals and would be asked to place them on a blank map.
“It’s a completely different level of education,” he said. “Students become problem solvers and are better prepared for today’s job market.”
Additionally, the IB program facilitates learning abroad because it is recognized by universities worldwide.
The IB program was introduced with the full support of the country’s education leadership, Samper said.
“The ministry is our key partner,” he said. “We couldn’t do this without them.”
By sharing teachers, infrastructure and other resources, the ministry saw this as a gain for mainstream students, also.
“It has a waterfall effect,” said Gutiérrez, who has watched how IB teacher practices have flowed into other classrooms.
Yet, when the program was first introduced to the community of Palmares, people were somewhat resistant to the idea.
“There were some people who said it was too ambitious,” Gutiérrez said, “and others worried the program would only be available to students with resources. It took a while to convince them of the benefit this would bring to the school and that it would include students from all social backgrounds.”
Palmares: A New Community
Enthusiasm emanated from Karen Barquero, a parent and a coordinator for the IB program, when she described the transformation she saw in the children.
“The education system in Costa Rica has a ceiling,” she said. “But, in the IB program, there is no ceiling. Students can continue to learn, to explore and to dig into the material presented to them.”
Her excitement was reflected in IB graduate Jonathan García,
who was visiting his alma mater on a recent Wednesday morning.
“Our education went beyond academics,” said the 18-year-old, who is studying chemistry at the University of Costa Rica. It included service work, real-life problem solving and hands-on experiments. “I was looking for a change in my education, and that’s what I found.”
Gutiérrez sees the program’s impact beyond the four walls of the school, as parents and community members undertake fundraising drives and bake sales to improve certain aspects of their school. They are no longer waiting for the state or the school director to take responsibility for needed changes.
“We have teachers who are motivated, who want to improve themselves, who never say no. It’s been the same with students,” he said. “And it doesn’t just have an impact on the protagonists of this effort. It has an impact on the community.
“When someone reads this, he said, they might respond, ‘Well, this looks great, but how does it function in practice?’ I can say, as a witness, this is a program that works.”