While the walls of the spacious St. Augustine Preparatory School are lined with common kindergarten decor, including various shapes, colors, and animal images, visitors are hard-pressed to find a single Spanish word in the room.
The names above the shapes read “rhombus” and “square,” the colors are “pink” and “yellow,” and the lesson on the chalkboard about forming sentences is entirely in English.
“I would say that by second grade the students here are already completely fluent in English,” said María Isabel Rivas, the school’s co-founder and a member of the board.
“In kindergarten they understand almost everything in English. They might not be able to communicate 100 percent of what they want to say in English yet, but they understand almost all of it,” she said.
The Nicaraguan school is located on a hill in a wooded area of Managua, and was opened in 2001 with the objective to become one of Nicaragua’s premier English academies and college preparatory programs. Curriculum is designed by Core Knowledge Foundation, an educational program and a philosophy rooted in the teachings of St. Augustine, the storied Catholic saint and theologian.
“Saint Augustine is recognized as one of the great philosophers of Western thought, and his theory was that you aren’t born perfect. But through the grace of God you can improve yourself,” Rivas said. “It is the philosophy that we have tried to instill in the lives of our students.”
In its 10th year, the school’s philosophy of improvement after humble origins appears to be producing results. Beginning in 2001 with only 11 teachers and 75 students in pre-kindergarten to 4th grade, enrollment has grown to 450 students aged four to 17 and a staff of 60 teachers.
A Decade of Growth
The campus, which was a group of three classrooms housed in rented buildings 10 years ago, has expanded to include 10 newly constructed buildings, a science lab and a large sports complex surrounded by trees at the base of the hill.
In 2010, the school’s first graduating class moved the tassels of their mortarboard caps from right to left.
Of the eight students that graduated, several headed to prestigious schools in the U.S. and Canada, including Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia.
In 2011, a class of nine students graduated and is now heading off to top-tier U.S. universities in the fall.
According to Rivas, the 17 students that graduated in the last two years were accepted to more than 30 U.S. and Canadian universities.
“It’s been a joy to have been a part of this since the beginning, to watch it grow,” said Alejandra Bolaños, a teacher that has been with the school for nine years. “It has been fun to put together a talented staff and to try to mold the school into what we hoped it could become. The school is still small, but as we start to see the individual accomplishments of the students, it feels nice to think you were a part of it.”
Bolaños, who taught religion for five years, said she feels the religious component of the school model provides students a deeper understanding of the teachings of St. Augustine and the value of living with good intentions. All students take catechism classes and are offered the option to be confirmed Catholic in 9th grade. They take their first communion with the school.
In addition to religion, Bolaños said she feels the Core Knowledge curriculum, which was designed by University of Virginia professor E. D. Hirsch in 1986, allows students to cultivate their own interests given the broad scope of classes offered.
Hirsch’s philosophy encourages intensive reading along several subject areas to expand the scope of students’ knowledge base and assist them in unearthing their true interests.
“The school is enriching in a way that I have never seen at other schools. The curriculum is so broad that there is a little bit of something for everyone,” said Bolaños, who taught for several years prior to coming to St. Augustine. “I am always surprised to see that a student is very bad at math, for example, but knows everything about Egyptian history. The curriculum gives them a chance to show off and succeed in the areas they are interested in.”
Striving to Improve
While St. Augustine’s has reached great heights in its first 10 years, the school directors continue to design programs to further enrich the students.
In August, for example, Bolaños and eight students will attend World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain.
Pope Benedict XVI will preside over the event, which includes youth groups from around the globe and of all different religious denominations.
Several students will also soon make a visit to Germany where they will practice and learn German, the school’s official third language, which is taught from seventh grade through graduation.
From a service standpoint, students from the school take part in “Operation Smile,” a national health and well-being program where they serve as translators between U.S. doctors and Nicaraguan patients. St. Augustine students also participate in “Techo Para Mi País,” a program to build houses for families in need.
In the spring of 2012, the certification board from the prestigious New England Association of Schools and Colleges will visit the school to evaluate St. Augustine for possible accreditation.
“We are still a relatively young school though we are confident that if we keep our mission in mind, we will continue to see successes,” Rivas said.
According to Rivas, the “ideal student” at St. Augustine is one that thinks with clarity, acts with integrity and loves with generosity.