THE recess bell rings, but no one inYesseria Morales’ first-grade class makesa beeline for the door. While hundreds ofvoices outside begin the collectivescream that celebrates 15 minutes offreedom from school, Morales’ 6- and 7-year-old students continue to work intheir groups, learning basic lessons inmath and physics.Sporadic cries do emerge from the students’tables, to the tune of “I want to play,I want to play.” But these students, manyfrom poor immigrant families, are talkingabout learning how to add and subtract orcreate basic machinery. Using colorfuldidactic materials not available in mostCosta Rican schools, learning here hasbecome a game.THEIR school, República de Haití inDesamparados, south of San José, is oneof 86 participating in the “Education withoutBorders” program, which last monthcompleted its second two-year phase andis moving into its third.The program, coordinated by theInternational Organization for Migration(IOM), has included not only distributionof didactic materials – such as games,anatomical charts, books and maps – butalso construction of classrooms. Fundamentally,the program focuses on trainingin what is known as education throughmediation, in which students teach andlearn from one another.The goal of the program is to improveeducational opportunities for immigrantchildren, particularly Nicaraguans, whomake up 4% of the Costa Rican studentpopulation, up from 1.13% in 1990.“NICARAGUA has been hit by a lot,by dictatorship, poverty, earthquakes. Andthen Hurricane Mitch increased immigration(to Costa Rica) a lot,” said programcoordinator Vilma Contreras.Hurricane Mitch, which hit CentralAmerica at the end of 1998, caused 2,394deaths, left 7,000 missing, and damaged16,543 homes in Nicaragua alone, accordingto the United Nations DevelopmentProgram. Costa Rica saw only sevendeaths and four missing.Nicaraguans originally flooded CostaRica in the 1980s to flee their civil war, andnow flock here in search of work to escapethe poverty of their country, the poorest inCentral America. However, many havebeen unable to escape the poverty whenthey arrive (see separate story).“Costa Rica is internationally recognizedfor its open reception to these immigrants,”Contreras said.However, as the foreign population hasgrown, so too has the backlash, she added,remembering graffiti on city walls that readFuera Nica (Get out Nicaraguan) when theIOM program began here in 2000.NOT only do Nicaraguan studentsface prejudice, they also enter the CostaRican school system with little backgroundin Costa Rican history and politicsand often a lower overall education level,Contreras said.The IOM program aims to improvelearning by providing necessary resources,focusing on social and cultural diversityand boosting student self-esteem.“When we first started training in SanCarlos (in north-central Costa Rica) manyteachers cried during the training, becausethey realized the rejection that was goingon,” Contreras said.All of the participating schools have atleast 5% foreign students. However, theprogram does not only benefit foreigners,rather, it focuses on the entire student population.“THE goal is to unite, unite, unite.There is not one single action of the programthat separates the Nicaraguan students,”Contreras said.In the program’s first phase, from2000-2001, 300 of the poorest elementaryschools around the country participated. A$5 million donation from the U.S. Agencyfor International Development (USAID)allowed for the construction of 260 classroomsand two computer labs and theremodeling of more than 100 classrooms.Participating schools also were outfittedwith the types of didactic materials so popularin Morales’s classroom.“Teachers can leave the chalkboardand put the theories into practice withthese materials,” said República de Haitíschool principal Hilda Hidalgo.“It stimulates (students’) abilities,”agreed Morales. “They can manipulate thematerials, which facilitates learning fordifferent kinds of learners.”The IOM program has also providedbooks, charts and maps to the school’slibrary, which receives no resources fromthe Ministry of Public Education other thansalary, according to librarian Alba Fallas.“Students have a new interest in reading,and in the library,” she said.THE 1,500-student República deHaití, built in 1936, was one of the schoolschosen to continue in the second phase ofthe program, from 2002-2004. A donationfrom the Costa Rica-United States FoundationCooperation (CR-USA) allowed thesecond phase, even though the programwas scaled back to 86 participating elementaryschools.While the material benefits for schoolshave been important, teacher training inmediation teaching techniques has beeninvaluable, according to Hidalgo.The idea of these techniques is thatstudents learn best when there is someoneto help, regardless of whether it is ateacher, another student or a parent.“It is really nothing novel,” Contrerassaid. “A child who is very good at mathematics,may not be as good at Spanish. Sothey help one another.”In addition to fellow students withinthe schools, students from high schoolsaiming to complete 30 hours of communityservice required for graduation havecome to elementary schools to help asmediators.“It builds solidarity among humanity –one child helping another as if she was herteacher,” Contreras said.Mediation builds self-esteem for bothparties, she added.“Self-esteem has to come first, andlater comes knowledge,” she said.“Schools are always concerned aboutwhether the student is learning, but theyare not concerned about how they are feeling.But if you are hungry, or sad, youcan’t learn.”More than half of the students atRepública de Haití are financially unableto contribute ¢500 ($1.11) a month to purchasepaper, photocopies and test material,explained Hidalgo.ANOTHER CR-USA donation willallow the IOM program to continue into athird phase, through 2006. Thirty-five elementaryschools and new this year, 30high schools, will participate.While every year dwindling financialresources lead to fewer schools, Contrerasis confident the program will continue tochange lives in the schools where it hasbeen and where it is going.“We have awoken values that you candirectly see within a person, and it will continueto grow. It’s like a snowball,” she said.
Today in Costa Rica