Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 30 January 2006


Today marked the first day of classes for 2006. In Nicaragua, classes are in session from the end of January until November. Their “summer” vacation actually falls in the Nicaraguan “winter”, which, in Jinotepe, basically means the “windy” season.

I feel like things are finally beginning to take off here at Juan Jose. Despite all the chaos of the first day, I was actually able to get some work done in the English lab. I now have worked out a plan with two of the English teachers, photocopied some materials and am working on trying to find the cassette tapes with all the listening excercises on them. They seem to have disappeared, which is not that hard to believe considering the fact that suitable storage containers are no more than plastic bags, rolled up newspaper and used/unmarked cardboard boxes. The closet organizational freak in me is dying to be let loose!

Working on a curriculum for the English Lab with Profes Angel (left) and Kenya (right).

But I digress. The first day of classes included nothing of the sort. Students milled around for an hour or two and then herded into a crowded (standing only) auditorium, where they were presented to their teachers, directors, and the advisory board of the school. Afterwards, there were meetings for each section, and then they were free to go. It’s rumored that tomorrow classes will begin for real… I’ll believe it when I see it! 🙂

Top: La Directora, Vilma addressing the students at the opening “Acta”. Bottom: Teachers (and me!) during the opening Acta.

There are three sessions of classes everyday. The morning session (7am to noon) is by far the most popular, as I would imagine the midday sun and absurdly popular afternoon telenovelas are reasons enough to get up early in order to be home by noon. The afternoon session (12:30pm to 5:15pm) has about half as many students. The evening session has significantly fewer, and I really don’t know much about it. I think it is mostly older students who need to finish school, but are working during the day already. But I could be mistaken. More on that later.

There is a noticeable lack of basic educational materials here at Juan Jose, and throughout Nicaragua, I would imagine. It seems like they have bipassed a lot of typical, everyday things like staplers, tape and paper in pursuit of more technology. The have a computer lab with 15 Dells, but I have yet to see a pair of scissors. One has to ask permission directly from La Directora before making photocopies, because the paper is so expensive. There are no textbooks to speak of, save the odd teachers’ edition here and there. Class sizes are often pushing (and in rare cases) exceeeding 50 students per section. The building has fallen into a bit of disrepair–the result of decreased funding from the government and the unwillingness of parents to pay dues of any sort. Jamileth, my host mom, recalls the beautiful gardens that covered the grounds when she was a student here years ago. Now, giant blue trashcans (that actually get used!) grace the dead garden plots. The Sandinista Constitution established that education was to be free in Nicaragua, but what it failed to do was establish a mechanism to allow for sufficient funding. What has resulted is somewhat of a bare-bones approach to education. Teachers are underpaid, overworked, and it is miraculous that there hasn’t been a strike this year. But this is all part of a tune that resonates with most US inner-city public school systems.

While there will always be a need for more, Juan Jose is quite lucky, in that it has a computer lab, a library (with books that rarely circulate), a photocopier, an overhead projector, and miscellaneous other educational technologies and/or materials. But, I am led to believe that this is more the exception than the rule.

Books recetly donated to the school’s library by the Ministry of Education. A HUGE gift-hopefully they will be able to circulate and students will have access to them! It is really hard to find books to read in Jinotepe. Most “bookstores” just sell school and office supplies.

Nicaragua is certainly no Bangladesh, but I often see connections between the two educational systems. Class sizes in Bangladesh typically exceeds 50 students per class, and there is an even greater lack of resources. Both systems struggle with attendance and drop outs due to the greater need for young adults to work and earn a supplemental income. At the teachers’ meeting at the beginning of this year, they were discussing methods to discourage absenteeism and drop outs, because it had been such a glaring problem in 2005. A noteable difference between Nicaraguan and Bangladeshi government-subsidized education is that the Bangladeshi government has widely sponsored a program that pays students to attend school, and often provides a free meal. The poverty and illiteracy in Bangladesh is certainly more tangible than here in Jinotepe, but that is not to say that Nicaragua would not benefit greatly from a widespread implementation of a similar program, particularly in more rural areas, where the poverty rate often tops 80% of the population. The Bangladeshi scholarship was largely targeted at female students, but also awarded similar scholarships to male students as well. It has been well received by most participants, though some still remain skeptical of government education and have chosen to keep their children at home. A similar program has been tested in Nicaragua, with great results, but due to lack of funding, it has not been able to expand. I think that most Nicaraguans recognize the importance and the benefits of education, but they have fewer and fewer opportunities to maximize their potential in a deteriorating system. The Bangladeshis seemed to believe that the education system was getting better and better, while the overwhelming sentiment among Nicaraguans that I have spoken with is that their system is slowly crumbling, or at least remaining stagnant.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The situation is certainly not desperate. It just needs revitalization. Locally and systemically. I can help with the local situation in my own small way. But it is up to the government to jumpstart its educational agenda and seek international aid and investment in the future of its citizens.

Education is the key. I am convinced.



  1. Spoken like a true AmeriCorps

  2. Oh my little international traveler. Helen you’re so damn smart. I hope you realize that. Well- traveled, warm, beautiful, compassionate, and incredibly intelligent.
    I love reading your blog and getting to catch up on what has been happening in your life. I miss you so much, and look forward to reading many more blog entries. Social change is such a huge thing. Sometimes it can be so frustrating to work on such a small local level, but as you and I both know. It is so necessary. We must start somewhere. Keep up the good work!

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