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Unusual School Helps Moms, Kids Thrive

CALLE QUEBRADAS, Palmares – When Leslie and Wendy Castillo marched between rows of two-foot-high tables last month to accept their graduation certificates, it was clear the program they were leaving had done its job. With all eyes – little and big – on them, the kindergarten-age girls were respectful, confident, outgoing and excited to share what they had learned.


Before the ten-minute graduation ceremony began, both girls eagerly pulled yellow T-shirts that read “Mamá es mi maestra” (“Mom is my teacher)” over their grinning faces. The girls, who are not sisters, were not only excited to be honored for their accomplishments, but also happy just to own new shirts.


While every parent is inevitably their child’s teacher, the words on these shirts have a distinct meaning in this poor, mountainous community. Lacking resources to send their children to preschool, the mothers here decided to start their own school and make themselves the teachers. Beyond providing a unique opportunity to stimulate their children’s capabilities at an early age, the school has given the mothers a chance to realize their own capacities.


THE preschool, named Estrellitos del Campo, was started in 1988 as one of the first efforts of Costa Rica’s Madres- Maestras (Mother-Teachers) movement, brought here by psychologist Theresita Cordero. Cordero had first seen the program in Panama, where it began in 1971 as a way to provide attention to children in economically depressed areas – offering at the very least a meal for poor children.


Costa Rica’s Mother-Teachers Association now has six schools throughout the country, and leaders hope it will grow.


The schools have no single teacher; instead, the mothers, aunts or cousins who bring their children to school step over the threshold and lead the group. When the class sings a group song, each “teacher” helps his or her child clap, dance or remember the words.


While the mothers work together to support and encourage all of the children,  “each mother guides her child to develop all of his or her talents,” explained Rosa Gutiérrez, a mother-teacher at Estrellitos and member of the organization’s national board of directors.


“You can’t just come and watch your child. The commitment is that we all participate in every activity; everyone shares the responsibilities,” she continued.


THIS individualized attention allows the young learners not only to master their colors and numbers, but also to develop a degree of self-confidence not typical of children their age.


“Normally when a child gets to kindergarten, he is very shy. By contrast, these children already know a lot and want to tell you about it,” explained Ana Grace Chavarría, another mother-teacher at Estrellitos.


Furthermore, because the students’mothers are their teachers, the one-on-one guidance isn’t restricted to the three days a week when they are in school; children take the songs and games they learn and practice them at home, Cordero said.


Despite limited resources, songs and games are complemented by other typical preschool activities like arts and crafts.


“The materials we use mostly come from nature – leaves and pebbles that we collect ourselves,” explained mother María Delma Solano.


Three days as a week Solano carries her four-year-old son Christofer, who cannot walk, on her back for one hour to attend the school. Christofer suffers from a neuro-degenerative spinal disease.


“The changes we have seen in him are enormous,” Solano said. “They sent him to a special school, but I wanted him to be with normal kids, so I brought him here. Here he sings; he participates.”


THE benefits for the mothers may be even greater than for their children. Above all, the program allows them to leave their poverty-stricken homes and become proactive in improving their lives. Most of these women are housewives who, before becoming mother-teachers, only worked outside the house during the coffee-picking season, Gutiérrez explained.


“This is a great space to discover our talents, our capacities,” she said. “Because we live alone in our homes, a mother might sit and say, ‘I can’t do that, I don’t have schooling.’


But after being here, she says, ‘Look at everything I can do; I don’t need to have a degree. God gave me my degree when he gave me the gift of this child.’”


As their self-esteem grows, the mothers learn to speak in public and defend their rights and their children’s rights. They also gain the valuable understanding – tragically uncommon among poor people – that their children can be intelligent and excel, Cordero added.


The women exchange ideas about childrearing, create support networks and develop conflict resolution skills to resolve the inevitable disputes that arise among them, sometimes carrying over from violence the women face at home, Cordero said.


THESE benefits spill over to the community. In Calle Quebradas, spouses have begun recognizing the value of their wives working outside of the home; some have been inspired to form their own community organizations, Gutiérrez said.


With such success, Cordero and Gutiérrez would like to see the program expand to other communities, but resources are limited. The families in Estrellitos make weekly payments of ¢200 ($0.41) – a considerable amount for a poor family – to pay for the school’s electricity and water. In addition, the program receives regular support from the Palmares Community Association, and families hold periodic fundraisers. A large donation from the Canadian Embassy helped construct the building. People interested in finding out more, or contributing, can contact Cordero at, or deposit funds in Banco Nacional account number 019-002098-9.


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