“Name?” the interviewer asks.
“I’m starting seventh grade tomorrow,” he replies, speaking, as she does, in Spanish.
“Date of birth?”
The earnest, pint-sized boy thinks for a minute, then purses his lips and gives a determined little nod. “I’d rather tell you in English,” he says, and proceeds to do just that, bravely pronouncing a word that trumps many English-language learners: February.
What’s remarkable about this exchange is that Armando has never studied English in school. He hails from La Trinidad, a town in Los Santos, south of San José. With a population of 190, La Trinidad is home to endless coffee plantations and breathtaking mountain views. Despite the fact that English instruction has been mandatory in Costa Rican elementary schools since 1994, La Trinidad’s one-room school can’t afford an English teacher, so its students aren’t exposed to the language until they head to a larger town for high school. This places them, along with students of 1,174 other Costa Rican schools without an English program, at a disadvantage when compared to peers who’ve had six years of instruction. It also makes their transition from rural schoolhouse to urban high school that much harder.
Armando is one of thousands of students across the country in this situation. But this year, he also became one of 25 students who participated in the first edition of JumpStart Costa Rica. This new program, an initiative of the nonprofit Costa Rica Multilingüe Foundation (CRML), brought together kids from La Trinidad and nearby towns during school vacation for a one-month English course delivered by volunteers Cameron and Seymour Smith, of Rockport, Massachusetts, in the United States.
By traveling to Costa Rica on their own dime and donating more than two months of full-time work to the project, the Smiths, both 70, allowed CRML to realize a long-cherished dream of intensive classes for incoming seventh-graders without previous English instruction.
The foundation covered the rest of the camp’s costs through donations, starting at $25, from friends and family in Costa Rica, the U.S. and Canada. This support, mostly tax-deductible donations made through the Amigos of Costa Rica Foundation in Washington, D.C., paid for the students’ transportation, snacks and materials. CRML continues seeking donations to support JumpStart’s first graduating class throughout their seventh-grade year, as well as to expand the program in 2013.
Costa Rica Multilingüe was launched as a presidential initiative by Oscar Arias in 2008 and continues to work out of Casa Presidencial. (The author of this article is the academic director.) The foundation seeks to improve the quality of Costa Ricans’ foreign-language skills through public-private partnerships, research, technology, volunteer programs and other projects.
“We call it JumpStart, but our other name for this project is Miracle Camp,” says CRML Executive Director Marta Blanco. “It’s incredible how it came together. We’ve always believed that the unequal access to English in primary school creates a wide range of problems, both for high school English teachers who have to deal with varying levels, and for seventh-graders themselves. But it took the Smiths, the commitment of the people of Los Santos, and donors from all over the world to make this a reality.”
Parents, teachers and community members who attended JumpStart’s graduation on Tuesday spoke of the Smiths’ kindness toward the kids who proudly marched across the patio of the Carrizal Elementary School to accept their certificates.
“The Smiths are now two more saints in this region of ‘The Saints,’” said Manolo Rojas, the Education Ministry’s pedagogic English adviser for Los Santos, who held community meetings in November and December to get the project off the ground. “They gave these kids a broader vision of what life can be.”
Decades in the Making
The Smiths have been globetrotters for years: first for work, and now in retirement, as a way to give back. Cameron’s career as a business manager moved the couple and their children to locations including Guatemala, Colombia and Thailand. It was during their time in Bangkok in the 1970s that Seymour, a former vice president for development at the American Cancer Society, found a new calling as an educator. Their local church was launching a program to help Cambodian refugee children, and despite the fact that she had no teaching background, she was asked to help out with English classes.
“That’s when I first got interested in learning how to teach,” she said. She received her teaching certificate from the British Institute. Once both she and Cameron had retired, they transformed themselves into a teaching duo, volunteering in Laos, Thailand and other locations, before deciding to use their Spanish skills in Costa Rica. Last year, they partnered with CRML to train teachers and students in public high schools.
When they decided to return for a second year, CRML launched JumpStart Costa Rica. According to Blanco, Los Santos was a natural choice because of the region’s many one-room schools and committed ministry staff. Thanks to the on-the-ground leadership of Rojas, the communities of the area stepped up to provide logistical support and provide room and board to the volunteers.
Veteran teacher María Isabel Jiménez of the Carrizal School hosted the Smiths at her home, up a steep hill from the school. She said the school has tried for years to get funding for an English teacher, and that the town’s efforts this January were well worth the wait.
“The kids are very happy, but I’m even happier,” she said at the graduation, mentioning one of her most economically disadvantaged students who attended the camp and, according to the Smiths, transformed over the month from a shy boy to star student. “He has learned so much. I would really like to see this in more communities.”
CRML, which is processing student assessment data to determine the camp’s immediate impact, is already working with potential partners including the Education Ministry, the Peace Corps, and credit union Coopemep on plans to expand JumpStart in 2013.
“In Costa Rica, English isn’t just a language; it’s an opportunity to improve one’s job prospects and quality of life,” Blanco said. “We can’t teach six years of English in four weeks, but we can make a real difference in the lives of kids around the country, and allow them to start high school with confidence and motivation.”
José Alexis Porras, 41, president of the local school board and also father of JumpStart student Luis, said the skills kids have gained will be a matter of survival once they get to high school.
“The students who’ve never had English, they go into high school like little lambs. They don’t even know what’s going to hit them,” he said. “Now these kids are much better prepared.”
The students who graduated Tuesday, having completed rigorous 3.5-hour daily lessons on everything from possessive pronouns to irregular past-tense verbs, had a near-perfect attendance record -– an achievement that represented not only kids giving up vacation time, but parents giving up the income the kids can earn picking coffee. Rojas estimated that students this age can earn up to $80 per week for their families. Some JumpStart students continued to pick coffee all morning and study all afternoon.
Twelve-year-old Noella expressed some more typical teenage concerns.
“At the beginning, I said, ‘I don’t feel like studying during vacation,’” she admitted. “But it turned out to be beautiful. I have learned so much. This is going to help me in school, in life, at work, with exams. And it was fun, we learned through games. Other kids should never, ever pass up this opportunity.”
During a phone conversation the day after graduation, Cameron Smith – enjoying a rare moment of rest before beginning another month of work supporting JumpStart students in their new seventh-grade classrooms – sounded wistful.
“We’ll see most of the students this month in San Pablo, but some are going off to other schools,” he said. “We miss them already.”
For more information on JumpStart Costa Rica or to make a donation, please visit jumpstartcostarica.blogspot.com, or contact the Costa Rica Multilingüe Foundation at email@example.com or 2207-9478.