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Foundation works to keep kids in school

Indifference is aggression.” This is the startling motto that captures the essence of the philosophy of Fundación Acción Joven, a grassroots nonprofit organization that aims to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Costa Rica. 

A big divide exists between the wealthy elite who can afford to send their children to state-of-the-art, internationally renowned schools and struggling, low-income families in marginalized communities whose children often do not finish school.

Many people in Costa Rica are unaware that the main reason kids from seventh to 10th grade opt to leave school is lack of interest in formal education, which is surprisingly a higher deterrent than the lack of means to pay for education, according to a 2008 National Statistics and Census Institute home survey.

Student exclusion remains one of the main problems of the Costa Rican education system, particularly at the high school level. According to the Education Ministry, the percentage of exclusion in public high schools in 2009 was 10.8 percent.

At a national level, the figures are alarming: 41.4 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds are excluded from the education system, and only an estimated 43 percent of students in seventh grade graduate from high school, according to State of the Nation reports from 2008 and 2010.

Fundación Acción Joven is committed to addressing these problems by bringing young people, educators and administrators together and listening to them as they propose solutions to stem the desertion rate in public schools.

José Aguilar, founder and executive director of Fundación Acción Joven, had his finger on the pulse of this problem in 2004. As part of his master’s degree in project management, Aguilar set out to address public schools’ lack of resources. In so doing, he discovered a vastly underutilized commodity in university students who were required to complete 300 hours of community service in order to graduate from the University of Costa Rica. Fundación Acción Joven was officially created in 2006, and by the end of 2007, with the support of Education Minister Leonardo Garnier, the foundation had helped create and implement 30 education-focused community service projects involving 130 university students.

“[During this stage] we helped kids directly in academic areas, but soon realized we were facing a systemic and structural problem in the schools,” Aguilar said. “We discovered an attitude and environment of frustration.”

To address this problem, the foundation began conducting workshops with students, teachers and administrators with the aim of creating a different kind of environment.

In 2008, Acción Joven developed its Integral Model for the Prevention of Student Exclusion, with the goal “not only to prevent dropouts, but to place schools at the center of building social cohesion, to unite the divided society,” Aguilar said.

Accion Joven Liceo Julio Fonseca

Fundación Acción Joven planning workshop with teachers and students from Liceo Julio Fonseca in the northwestern San José district of La Uruca. Courtesy of Fundación Acción Joven.

The model’s strategy is to convert public schools into centers of hope where students, teachers, the government, university volunteers and the private sector work together to ensure that students graduate from high school. Targeted schools in San José include Liceo Julio Fonseca, which serves the western areas of La Uruca, León XIII and La Carpio, and Liceo Napoleón Quesada serving communities in the northeastern suburb of Guadalupe. In the northwestern province of Guanacaste, six schools are being targeted in the Santa Cruz canton.

Acción Joven uses its integral model to reach the students directly, and empowers them to analyze, articulate and formulate solutions. The first step is to bring the students together in a safe setting where the Acción Joven staff, along with university student volunteers, first plan an ice-breaking, team-building session. This is when the students begin to break down barriers among each other and warm up to the idea that someone actually wants to listen to their needs and cares about what they have to say.

Once this group cohesion phase is achieved, students meet again to analyze the factors that cause them to leave school and then work to design their own solutions. They also learn skills, such as using PowerPoint, to present their plans formally to their school’s administration. Simultaneously, the same process is carried out with the teachers.

To carry out the proposed solutions, Acción Joven coordinates a community improvement plan by uniting nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and government agencies to make real change in the lives of young people.

This model of youth empowerment, which places strategies articulated by marginalized youths at the center of measurable change, is the approach developed and facilitated by Acción Joven – and it’s working.

Between September 2009 and September 2010, the seventh-grade dropout rate fell from 87 students out of 334 to 49 out of 336 at Liceo Julio Fonseca, meaning that 38 more seventh-graders from the impoverished communities of León XIII, La Carpio, Rosister Carballo and Copey stayed in school. And at Liceo Napoleón Quesada, the dropout rate over the same period fell from 172 of 545 students to 75 out of 539 – 97 more youths staying in school.

The numbers speak for themselves, but Aguilar is quick to point out that “these are not just numbers; they are kids with names and incredible stories.”

The foundation’s success rate recently earned it a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy’s Community and Economic Development to Combat the Drug Trade program.

With the 2011 public school year now well under way, Fundación Acción Joven will be at the forefront of the nationwide movement to convert public schools into centers of hope and give all Costa Rican young people an improved chance for a bright future.

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