Costa Rica is dotted with hundreds of small villages that still have meager bus service, shaky rural electricity, primitive dirt roads and barely adequate primary schools.What’s worse, most lack a high school. The Ministry of Public Education (MEP), because of questions of money and transportation, does not have the resources to send teachers of such subjects as languages, computers, music and art to such remote locations, so the primary schools usually offer only the basics: social studies, math, Spanish and science.
As a result, a great many of the students don’t go on to high school after sixth grade. Among other reasons, they are justly afraid of being placed in high school classes with students who have already been in complementary courses throughout their primary years. English is especially intimidating.
For much of Costa Rica’s history, English was a subject offered only in secondary schools. This changed in 1994, when MEP instituted a foreign-language and development program named Programa de Lenguas Extranjeras para el Desarrollo (Foreign Languages for Development Program). The objective was to make Costa Rica a truly bilingual country.
For several reasons, including a lack of good teachers, the program has not been a success. What’s more, the government simply has been unable to carry the program to many rural areas.
But for a few of these deprived villages, there is help, thanks to WorldTeach, a U.S.-based, nonprofit organization that has been sending volunteers to Costa Rica since 1989 to teach English in rural secondary and primary schools. The program extends from the northwestern province of Guanacaste to the Southern Zone’s OsaPeninsula, and includes assignments in indigenous areas.
WorldTeach began in the U.S. city of Boston when two HarvardUniversity students decided to go to Costa Rica and help out during the U.S. summer months. The program grew from there, and WorldTeach now has both summer teaching programs and/or yearlong programs in nine countries: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Namibia, Poland, South Africa, Chile,Marshall Islands, China and Guyana.
The programs vary greatly from country to country.
In Costa Rica, WorldTeach offers both summer and yearlong programs. In 1999, MEP asked WorldTeach to send summer volunteers to Costa Rica to complement its Telesecundaria English curriculum, a distance-learning program for secondary schools using videos to introduce subjects from math and science to English, instituted because of a lack of qualified teachers in certain rural communities. WorldTeach volunteers receive one week of orientation, then move on to their teaching assignments around the country.
WorldTeach volunteers in the yearlong program for primary schools are under contract with MEP and must comply with government requirements. In return, the ministry ensures that volunteers receive work visas, provides a small living allowance and works with the WorldTeach field director to arrange school placements. Costa Rica is the only program with a government contract that gives WorldTeach volunteers the right to give grades as ministry teachers.
To qualify for the yearlong program, volunteers must be fluent in English, possess a bachelor’s degree and have a desire to teach and become immersed in a rural community in Costa Rica. Most volunteers are young university students.Many intend to go on to graduate school after the experience and thus choose the country most relevant to their career intentions. Occasionally, volunteers are also retired teachers looking for new experiences.
The government of Costa Rica provides approximately 50% of the funds necessary to support the program. Since this is less than what the other countries in the program pay, volunteers to Costa Rica must often go through a fundraising process to pay for airfare and training.
Volunteer service for the yearlong program begins with a monthlong orientation in Orosi, a small valley town near Cartago, east of San José. During their month in Orosi, volunteers live with Costa Rican families.
Orientation includes discussions about teaching methods and practice, health and safety, Spanish-language training and a weeklong teaching practicum in the Orosi elementary school. There, volunteers are prepared for the challenges of teaching in rural schools, many of which lack basic supplies – books, photocopiers, newspapers, computers, Internet access and parents capable of helping children with their homework – things that are taken for granted in the United States.
Upon completion of orientation, volunteers go to their assigned villages to begin their teaching assignments. They live with local Costa Rican families who receive a small stipend from MEP for providing food and lodging.Most volunteers have their own room and share the bathroom and living space with their host family.
Throughout the year they spend in their village, volunteers teach English at all levels in the schools and often provide adult classes.
Many start or contribute to community projects in addition to their regular teaching responsibilities. Often, they institute environmental education programs within the school or community – projects that raise awareness of conservation, waste management, organic farming and reforestation.
In the end, everybody in the WorldTeach program wins. The communities not only have native speakers to teach English to their children, they also have enthusiastic and dedicated teachers who adore their students and become enormously involved in their communities. In return for their dedication, volunteers acquire a language, learn first hand about another culture, attain an understanding of life in a deprived area and develop lifelong friendships and cherished memories.
WorldTeach volunteer Lacey Kohlmoos on her first day in the mountain community of La Estrella de El Guarco, east of the capital, said: “Leaving Orosi meant leaving our comfort zone, our support system. Last night, we were all scared, excited, sad, glad.
We are all very happy to be embarking on this adventure, though it’s going to be rough and life-changing. I feel that I am going to learn more than my students.”
For more info about WorldTeach, contact Erin Barr, Costa Rica field director, at 283-9243 or 364-6222; within the United States, call 1-800-483-2240; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.worldteach.org.