My last post was a downer. I didn’t enjoy writing it, and I’m sure reading about such serious problems didn’t bring a big smile to your face, either. Today, I want to share some better news on the education front. We’ve been here almost a month, and from day one we’ve had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know the students and teachers of Volunteer Peten’s School of Natural Resources. The school, which is now finishing up its second year, is run by Volunteer Peten’s director, Mateo, and offers a three-year high school (diversificado) education. (3 years is normal for diversificado, though some programs are shorter and some are longer.)
The School of Natural Resources (SNR), as the name suggests, focuses on the natural sciences, but the students, who range in age from 16-26, take a variety of classes. School begins at 7 and runs until 2, five days a week. Extracurriculars (like the marching band!) take place after school. Monday through Thursday are spent in the classroom, while Friday the students either do field work in El Parque Nueva Juventud (Volunteer Peten’s ecological park, just a few minutes walk from the school), or work on projects in the library. One day out of the classroom every week might seem like a pretty sweet deal to American students, but many schools in San Andres have Fridays off, and 3 day weeks aren’t unusual. Many cancel large chunks of academic class time for teacher meetings, or to practice for dances or parades. Compared to them, SNR students spend a LOT of time in class.
The difference between the School of Natural Resources and other schools in San Andres is noticeable the moment you walk onto the grounds. I was scheduled to observe the first few classes of the day, and when I arrived at 7:01, I turned into the courtyard to find it deserted. I was a little confused, until I realized that class had started, and the students—all of them—were in the classroom, seated, silent, notebooks out, eyes on Mateo as he introduced the day’s lesson. To the left of the main white board, a smaller board hung, neatly charting the day’s schedule. One side of the larger board was dedicated to reminders about upcoming exams, projects, and events. [If none of this strikes you as particularly remarkable, please read my last post.]
I listened to the economics lesson, thoroughly impressed. Production can happen when natural resources, mechanical/human resources, and capital come together, Mateo explained, using Peten’s wood industry as an example. The class was taking notes, but he suspected they were just transcribing his words, so he paused. “Como pueden dibujarlo?” he asked, “How can you draw it?” After a brief hesitation, a diagram was on the board. Asking students to transfer a concept from a verbal medium to a visual one is just one of the tools the SoNR uses to encourage students to internalize ideas, rather than just memorize definitions.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that Mateo and Miriam (a biology teacher from Argentina who is currently the school’s second maestra) assign homework. Their students spend many evenings in the library, working on their tarea or getting extra help from their teachers, at least one of whom is always available. We’ve seen them working on creative writing projects, searching through old issues of Prensa Libre (a national newspaper) for an econ essay, and collecting and cataloging some of Peten’s crazy looking insects for their class on fauna. Students from other schools are sometimes assigned homework, but it usually involves copying out of a textbook or dictionary.
The school is free for any student who maintains passing grades—scholarships are paid for by donations. Still, the extra time and effort that the School of Natural Resources demands has been a deal-breaker for many students. The first class (class of 2011) has lost several students (it now has 18), and only four students enrolled in the school’s second year (class of 2012). Though Mateo says he was a little disappointed by the low enrollment, he is obviously passionate about the class he has. This group signed up knowing they’d have to work hard, he says, and “they’re just flying through material, which is really cool to see.”
We’re proud to support a program that provides kids, regardless of income, with the chance to choose a challenging education. Special thanks to the 8th and 9th graders at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, who have already pledged to provide two scholarships for next year! We have lots to tell you about the students we’ve met, and about our trip to Livingston and Rio Dulce with some of them, but that will have to wait for another post.