Getting Schooled

I mentioned here a while back that a portion of my recent visit in Nicaragua had been focused on the education initiative which Winds of Peace started last year.  Our agenda for the week permitted a lengthy visit to Roberto Clemente School in Ciudad Sandino, a 1400 student house of joy.  The school is one operated by Fe y Alegria, one of WPF’s partners in working on the education initiative.  By the end of our tour and conversations, it was very clear that the students weren’t the only ones getting schooled that day.  My own education became elevated that day in ways that I had not expected.

If I tell you that Nicaragua’s statistics on education reflect poor progress, that the average student only receives about five years of classroom participation, that a third of students don’t make it out of primary school, that the country dedicates only 3% of GDP to education funding (when 10% is considered the minimum necessary), that of the kids who start first grade only half will reach grade five, then you might reach the reasonable conclusion that Nica schools leave a lot to be desired.  But you’d only be partially correct, because the presence of Roberto Clemente School belies the truth of an educational system in dire need.

My education on tour day included the expected elements:  accompaniment by Leslie Gomez from Fe y Alegria, meeting Berta Vasquez, Director General ofthe school who seemed to know the name of every child there, a walk-around of the premises, peeking into classrooms, observing kids between classes, in a few instances actually visiting with some of the students, and generally being conspicuous amidst a sea of uniformed scholars.  It’s an experience that I’ve had previously, in U.S. schools, so I thought that I knew what to expect in terms of the pupils’ behaviors, demeanors, sounds and interactions with me.  It turns out that I was quite wrong.

First, I noted the sounds of the school.  An open courtyard surrounded by classrooms may have amplified what I heard, but there was no mistaking the nature of the noise: I can only characterize it as joyful, vibrant, excited.

And I’m not talking about the pre-school classrooms, where one might expect little kids to be having fun because they don’t yet recognize what they may eventually come to regard as the drudgery of school.  I’m including the classrooms of the middle and upper-age students, high schoolers whose Western peers frequently exude sardonic sarcasm and languid disaffection about their

time in the academy.  Here, though, only pride and school “ownership” were on display.  Everywhere we went, in each of the classrooms, the buzzing of true, energetic fun sounded all around the building; it is not a sound that can easily be faked, and the attentive faces behind the sounds attested to its reality.

Then there was the look and content of the classrooms themselves.  The uniforms which the students wear created a sense of organization in each class, uniformity that suggested the responsibility that each young person owed to the others; no visual outliers, no fashion statements here.  The walls reflected the learning being done, with bright colors and lessons and children’s names to be seen everywhere, tangible statements of “I can.”  Absent were the trappings of technology and modern distraction.  What mattered on these walls and in these rooms were the outputs of the kids.  The computers and the electronics were all housed elsewhere, and for another time of the day.

Despite what might be viewed as regimentation at the school, there is a large waiting list of families desiring for their children to attend; kids really want to be at this school.  There is also a cost for attending, as students have to cover the cost of their uniforms and some materials consumed.  Many families simply cannot afford the 80 Cordobas ($3.43) per month that is required for attending.   I was pleased to learn that the financial assistance provided by Winds of Peace via Fe y Alegria had covered scholarships for 68 students.  Wow!

When we dared to interrupt and enter several of the classrooms, the reactions were consistently stirring. Each time, the several dozen students rose to attention beside their desks, as if on cue, and the smiles directed at their visitors unequivocally affirmed the sounds and the sights described above.  I know the energy and vitality that young kids breathe into life (I’ve raised four of my own!), yet the impact of the collective energyand enthusiasm in these studentsstruck me in a way quite different from other school visits I’ve  had.  At one classroom stop we were privileged to meet William, the president of the school student body.  The conversation was eye-to-eye anddirect; he displayed great self-confidence in describing his responsibilities and his charge of leadership and role modeling.  As I stood transfixed by this young man’s bearing, the vice-president of the student body, Debora, emerged from the classroom to introduce herself and respond to more of our questions.

During the whole of our discussion, not once did I see a dropped gaze or a self-conscious stare at the ground.  By the time the third member of this student leadership trio, Danny, joined our impromptu lesson on student government, I had become completely disarmed by the poise and self-assurance being cultivated among the members of this school.  And as if to accentuate the fact thatour interaction had not been only for show, each of the three took my own notebook and entered their respective e-mail addresses and Facebook connections as a means for continued conversation.  I was as impressed and impacted as I could possibly have been.

As if this entire excursion had not amazed me beyond my expectations for the morning, as I approached the truck to depart I had the lovely encounter with little Yareli, described in my blog here of May 5.  Her sweet “blessing” was icing on a cake of immense meaning and proportion, and a treat that will stay with me, likely, forever.

If the state of education in Nicaragua is truly needy (and it is), such need is not comprised of youth who are without motivation or inherent capacities.  A short visit to Roberto Clemente School will quickly disabuse any skeptic of that notion.  Rather, the deficit is one caused by a lack of priority and discipline in facing the future needs of an entire nation.  In short, it’s the adults who are failing in the classrooms, in favor of other perceived primacies that are shorter-term and supported by louder lobbies.  As a result, the beautiful music of students having the opportunity to embrace the ownership of their own futures plays much too infrequently and softly.

Leaving the school grounds, students waved at us.  I remember mentally thanking Louise Nielsen for her special concern for kids and their education and for the work that we now do in this field in her name….

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