On the west side of San José, on Paseo Colón, a refurbished two-story building opened its doors at the beginning of the month to anyone who wants to pay to learn English or Portuguese.
The Brazilian-founded Wizard Language Institute franchise has 1,200 sites worldwide. But it had never ventured into Costa Rica until the building’s inauguration last week. Yet the academy has declared ambitious goals for the country: 15 sites here by 2015.
On the east side of San José, in the Los Yoses neighborhood, another building opened its doors to English students earlier this year. This is the latest site for the Instituto Británico.
The school has graduated 15,000 students in 28 years in Costa Rica. On June 30, the new building will close for what administrators describe as “purely financial” reasons, thus ending a three-decade legacy in the country.
So which of these polished new buildings is to be believed: Is Costa Rica’s profitable English-language industry going up or falling apart?
The consensus arrives somewhere in the middle. The worst of a worldwide economic crisis seems over. With reports of slight growth in early 2012, major industry players show weary optimism about the future.
“It’s still very fragile, getting a little bit better as time goes on, but it could just be disrupted by any little thing,” said Brian Logan, owner of Idioma Internacional, in San José. “I don’t feel bullish at all about anything. But I feel better than I did last year and certainly the year before.”
Several of those interviewed for the story said they believe Instituto Británico’s decision to close came as a result of its new building. The economy brought a measured demand for English classes, and the modern structure was too big to fill.
In an email, Instituto Británico Director Marcy Devine said: “The institute was moved to a new building recently. However, it was not within the first-year projections to fill it out completely, but eventually it would have growth toward capacity.”
Instituto Británico saw a drop in individual students beginning in 2008. In 2009, the amount of time the school spent tutoring companies totaled 330 hours. After two years, that figure fell to 170 hours.
As a whole, English schools scraped by during the recent lean years.
Idioma Internacional takes a different approach than most programs by focusing exclusively on business contracts. Instructors teach at the company’s headquarters instead of making students come to an on-campus site.
A couple of major deals, including an exclusive contract with microprocessor giant Intel, the country’s largest exporter, and an agreement with the state-run National Learning Institute, helped Idioma Internacional handle the economic crisis. But overall, Logan witnessed fewer companies willing to spend money on English instruction until the uptick that began in 2012.
Idioma Internacional and other schools, such as the New Learning Academy, have benefitted from not being a part of a larger franchise. Costs are lower, and school owners say that since they are not chained to any larger corporation, they offer more flexible teaching materials, a factor that helps garner business contracts.
Casey Shirey, academic coordinator at the New Learning Academy, in the northern San José district of Guadalupe, said the program’s flexibility and customer service proved essential in upholding strong ties with clients such as BT (formerly British Telecommunications).
Independent schools must compete with brands with multiple locations, including Intensa, Berlitz, the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center (CCCN), Universal, Inlingua and the new Wizard Institute.
The economic crisis hit these classrooms across the board in 2009. Schools saw significant drops in enrollment, but those numbers have crept back up.
Andrea Fernández, marketing manager at Intensa, said after a rough period at the start of 2010, the school is doing better than ever.
During the down years, Intensa and its four Central Valley locations maintained a heavy marketing presence, Fernández said. The campaigning helped Intensa increase its enrollees in 2012 as English-oriented companies invest and hire in Costa Rica again.
“The English market always has had institutes opening and closing,” Fernández said. “Instituto Británico draws attention because it is a big institution [with] 28 years in the country, so it has had an impact. However, there are many institutes that open doors here to teach English and close and nobody notices. They need more infrastructure or investment, and they can’t compete. Not everyone can do it.”
Following the industry trend, Berlitz schools saw a 13 percent jump in attendance between November 2011 and the first quarter of 2012. Before that, in 2010 and 2011, the institute saw almost no growth, an administrator said.
Many of the schools are investing in technology to try to keep up with, or surpass, the competition. Officials at Berlitz, Idioma International and CCCN all volunteered information about “Blended Learning.” The program incorporates mobile devices like iPhones and Blackberrys into the curriculum. The ubiquitous gadgets receive information to reinforce what students are studying in the classroom.
CCCN Executive Director Karl Schmack reported similar positive results in the spring of 2012.
The academy upholds 10 sites, and has headquarters in Los Yoses, near where the soon-to-be defunct Instituto Británico building sits. Schmack said he plans to hire former Instituto Británico instructors as business improves.
As the number of attendees inside Instituto Británico’s new building dwindles down to zero, Schnack hopes CCCN will snare some of those students, who before long will be without a school.
Carlos Wizard Martins, Wizard Institute’s founder, came for the school’s inauguration last Saturday. He said his company had been eyeing Costa Rica for some time. The franchise already has programs in Panama and Guatemala, but the company wants Costa Rica as a hub for Wizard language schools, training teachers here before opening institutes in other countries in the region.
Laura Rodríguez, director of expansion in Costa Rica, cites a commonly heard fact about the need for fluent English-speakers in the country. According to the Costa Rican Investment Board, 80 percent of service transactions in the country – primarily tourism – are done in English.
“We feel the timing was right,” Rodríguez said. “There’s a big demand for foreign languages, [and] demand has been growing from last year to this year. With the closing of the Británico school, we’re more than happy to open our doors to those students.”