Why we left the classrooms: by Pauline
One of the hazards of being here and involved in all that is happening is the tendency to forget that not everybody knows, and how important it is to effectively communicate what is going on to our supporters. I guess there have been bits and pieces in the newsletter, but not a full explanation, and especially not sufficient for someone like yourself who is out there gathering more supporters for La Esperanza Granada.
So I will try and explain in a concise fashion, and hopefully this will help both update your 'spiel' and offer answers to any questions that anyone may have.
Our move to the learning centers from the primary schools was planned, however it progressed more rapidly than we had expected as we had groups who came and built our third and fourth centers. The first small center in fact we were running for a couple of years, and had taken it over from another group called Amped who were unable to continue. We later, through Amped, received the funding to build our own first large center in Escudo which we opened in December 2016.
The center was an immediate success, with the children benefiting greatly. Right from day one children were requesting lessons and help with Math and Spanish, writing and reading, not only with learning with the computer, or taking part in arts and crafts. Not since the times when we were able to take individual children out of the classroom for tutoring, had we had such secess with the children. So much so that parents spoke to me in the street to comment on how much their children were advancing through spending time at the Center.
You are correct to say that attendance is optional, however the work that the children do in the centers is tied to their school curriculum, and is certainly not what might be expected from a similar center in our own countries. These are not drop in centers, nor after school care centers - but active Learning Centers teaching the basics and more, where children must arrive on time in order to enter (usually they are queueing outside when we open the doors), and come in and work for one hour sessions in each chosen subject. Their attendance is recorded, and there are definite codes of behavior.
These are children who have no resources at home, often no table to sit at, no crayons, no paper, no computer, no books, nothing. They are not allowed to 'play' with their precious school resources - they are guarded in their back packs and strictly reserved for when they are in school. These are children thirsty to learn and have the help of an adult to supervise and guide them. When they are in the centers they are totally engaged. They are learning.
When I first came to work with La Esperanza Granada, our volunteers would go into the schools and work directly with the children. They would take individual children or small groups out of the classroom and tutor them to try and help them learn the basics. Then we started to do such things as give arts and craft classes in the schools to help teach manual dexterity and to stimulate the imaginations. We make big improvements in the classrooms adding whiteboards and fans, new desks etc. and gave lots of resources to the schools. We started next to take computers to the schools to use as learning tools for children to learn letters and numbers and math and reading in a fun and exciting way. We took children on excursions, kids who had never been outside their barrio were open to new adventures. We took children for dental visits, and had their teeth fixed, we took them to the opticians and supplied eyeglasses. We built extra classrooms and even extra schools, and felt we were really bringing a benefit to the children.
Then as the country began to develop more and more, there came more and more restrictions in the schools. Firstly we were no longer allowed to take school children on excursions, due to the thread of earthquakes (valid at the time, but never rescinded). Next we could no longer take children out of the school for dental visits or optical. This came after some unscrupulous groups in the north of Nicaragua were using photos of children for bad purposes, so it is hard to disagree with. Next was the rule that children cannot be taken out of the classroom for any reason, including tutoring. To work one on one in a classroom with 45 other children who are all talking, playing, moving around etc. is virtually impossible, so it effectively put an end to tutoring.
Next came the idea that all school building, improvements or donations had to be passed by the central Ministry of Education in Managua before they could be carried out at a local level. Firstly we had to be an 'approved organization' which involved a very lengthy presentation, endless paperwork, and endless patience, as the large multinational agencies such as World Vision etc. were put in front of all smaller local organizations such as ourselves. So for a full year we were unable to formally make any improvements in schools, build much needed classrooms, give desks etc. And then when we did finally get our approval we found that we had to put in a plan to the Ministry detailing each planned action no later than three months in advance of the year in which the activity was to take place - a plan for the whole year, and we may or may not receive our approvals by the February of each new year. And we could no longer plan events in the schools such as we had in the past for Mother's day, International children's day etc.
In the meantime the schools where we were working had filled up - we could no longer take computers into the primary schools as there was no space to use them. We couldn't officially help with any resources, and certainly could no longer pay for extra teachers or any help in that manner. Our effectiveness in the schools seemed to be falling further and further behind.
Then when we finally got our permissions and built an extra classroom in a school where we had promised it, it had to be built to a new plan and supervised by the Ministry of Education architects. Our older classrooms were all built to fire codes and local earthquake codes, but this new classroom would have survived anything. The last classroom we had built in 2015 had cost $7400, this new classroom in May 2017 cost $18142!
By this time our first big learning center was operational and successful. We honestly felt that with the direction the Ministry of Education regulations were heading that it was only a matter of time before they would stop outsiders coming into the schools. So we decided that we could best serve the children and our mission of improving education by embracing the learning centers and making them as beneficial as possible to bring education to the children living in the poorest barrios.
We continue to work with the high school students, and of course our 'ayudantes' who receive university scholarships. In fact as I write this our office is full of backpacks and school supplies all being prepared for the high school students who return to school next week.
We still worked in the primary schools until the beginning of December, our last school being Pablo Antonio Cuadra in Pancasan. Now next week, when the school year starts we will be opening our new Learning Center in Pancasan, and for the first time we will not be sending volunteers into the primary schools for the start of the school year. In some ways when I say that it seems a little sad, but like everywhere in the world, and like everything in life, there is change. What we strived to do in the first place is change things, to improve education for these children, and with the Learning Centers, I truly feel we are doing just that.