The first day of school

Trip Start Feb 08, 2008
Trip End Mar 26, 2008

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Flag of Costa Rica  ,
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

" 'The beginning of the school year for the Education Ministry (in Costa Rica) is an exercise in how to control Murphy's Law.' "

- Minister Leonardo Garnier (as quoted in the Feb. 8, 2008 Tico Times, Costa Rica's English language newspaper)

Unbeknownst to me when I booked my trip in December, I planned my arrival in the small town of Orosi (population roughly 11,000) on the evening of the last day of summer vacation. School began yesterday for all Costa Rican public school students.

Upon learning this fact Sunday during dinner, I was even more astounded that my homestay family had welcomed me into their home with roughly five minutes notice. (Though I had called a week ago to request a change in my reservation from hostel to homestay family for my first week--in addition to the second and third weeks--that message never seemed to make it to the person responsible for securing those arrangements.)

Yesterday was a big day in my new temporary home. Dylan, age 5, began kindergarten. Dressed in his uniform -- a sky blue short-sleeve shirt and navy blue shorts, with a bumble bee nametag -- Dylan left the house with his mother at 6:50 a.m. for the short walk to school. He cried, his mother told me, when he had to say goodbye, but once he saw the "beautiful teacher" and the other kids, he ran happily inside to play.

Yesterday was a big day, too, for Jahaira (pronounced Ya-hai-da), age 12, who, as a sixth grader, had to wear a tie with her uniform for the first time. Getting the tie tied was an event. Her mother didn't know how to do it, nor did I (I tried). Dad already had left for work. Reaching up, Dylan tried to do it. Jahaira even hailed a young woman driving by on a moped -- who presumably once tied her own ties in school -- but she could not remember how to tie it even on herself. So Jahaira, Dylan, their mother and I walked to school with a loose tie.

The kids in Orosi's public elementary school attend for half day. Half the week, the K-3rd graders attend in the mornings, and the other half of the week they attend in the afternoons. The 4th-6th graders attend school at the opposite times of day, in essence making the school used all day long. For example, yesterday Jahaira started school at 12:30 and finished some time after 5:00. Today she went at 7:00 a.m. and finished a little after 12:00. (I don't yet know how middle and high school work.)

Orosi's public schools are in the top three in the country, according to my Spanish teacher (who did not cite her sources). I'm not sure what the criteria are for such a distinction, but I do know that Jahaira had a teacher when she showed up to her class, and a desk, as did the rest of her classmates.

That's not the case in all of Costa Rica where 1 million students are enrolled in public schools. In a country with 60,000 public school teachers (if I read today's Spanish language newspaper correctly), the Ministry of Education had yet to fill some 2,800 teaching positions as of last week, according to the Tico times. This morning's Spanish language newspaper reported (again, if I read it correctly) that school began yesterday lacking 700 teachers nationally. Both papers reported a fair number of makeshift classrooms (about 4,680) and classrooms lacking desks -- or unbroken desks -- for all students.

Costa Rica was one of the first countries in the world to institute free public education (according to my travel guide book). Students must pay for their own supplies and uniforms, though poor students are granted $18 each for that purpose (supplies/uniforms are estimated to cost $80 for elementary school students according to the Tico Times).

The kids start learning English in elementary school. On Thursday, I get to visit Jahaira's English class to see what they do. I'm excited about that.

I will update this entry soon with a picture of an Orosi classroom of students.

I'm off to see if they need assistance teaching community English classes tonight. (Yesterday they told me they may be "full" with "teachers" right now. The organization of the classes seems a tad on the loose side.) My next entry will be more "journal-like," sharing what I'm eating, what I'm doing, etc. Suffice it to say, I'm eating and sleeping well and am very happy with the journey thus far.
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