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Mixed Messages Follow First Day of School

For Fiorella León, 6, the kickoff to first grade at Escuela Buenaventura Corrales in San José went off without a hitch. Leaving school at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, she said her first day was “easy,” showed off drawings she’d made, and, when asked by her father, Rolando, what her new teacher is like, gave the universal first-day kids’ response: a cautious “nice.”

According to teachers’ associations, she’s one of the lucky ones. Logistical problems common during first days of school in the past have struck again this year, union leaders say. However, the Public Education Ministry (MEP) maintains these claims are exaggerated and that the 2006 school year began with record levels of order for 1.05 million students.

Because the 200-day school year does not include any paid planning or training time for teachers before school begins, the first day of classes is doomed to be chaotic, since teachers who don’t go above the call of duty walk into their classrooms for the first time along with their students, according to Jesús Vásquez, president of the Association of High-School Educators. He added that in high schools, the fact that no days are set aside for makeup testing from the year before means that some teachers supervise exams on the first day, and students who don’t need further testing are “walking around.”

“The law legitimizes disorder in schools at the beginning and end of the year,”

Vásquez told The Tico Times, referring to a 2001 decree by the Government Attorney’s Office that training or planning time does not count as class days, nor as paid days for teachers.

In addition, schools were tripped up Tuesday by lack of personnel, desks and financial support for students lacking resources, according to Gonzalo Ortíz, treasurer of the National Educators’ Association.

Desk shortages have been a problem for years (TT, Feb. 13, 2004).

“There are kids who have no place to sit to receive their lessons,” he told The Tico Times. Asked why these problems occur year after year, Ortíz attributed them to “lack of planning, lack of foresight.”

Also as in years past, the government’s assessment of the first day of school varied wildly from the unions’ account. The Public Education Ministry did not respond to Tico Times phone calls this week, though Education Vice-Minister Marlen Gómez told the daily La República the first day of school was successful and “could be characterized as a record because the problems that occurred were minimal.”

President Abel Pacheco, during a speech at the official inauguration of the school year, held at the newly renovated Escuela Tomás Guardia in the Caribbean port city of Limón, said educational achievements during his term were accomplished despite the failure of the Legislative Assembly to provide increased funds to the central government by approving Pacheco’s tax reform bill.

“(Imagine) if they had given us the resources we’ve been asking for since August 2002!” the President said.

The school year began with 12 new primary schools, 20 high schools and 15 teleconferencing high schools, according to the ministry. A statement from MEP last week said funds for the special grants designed to cover underprivileged students’ initial school costs had already been deposited in order to avoid the delays in those payments that have occurred in the past. (Ortíz pointed out, however, that new students are unlikely to receive their funds for months, since schools must identify needy students and get the corresponding funds approved by MEP and the Finance Ministry.)

The ministry’s budget of approximately ¢536 billion ($1.08 billion) – 13.81% larger than the year before, when 1.02 million students enrolled in schools – has been used to fund, among other projects, the hiring of 1,548 additional teachers (TT, Jan. 13).



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