Monday, January 16, 2012

Where will you send your kids to school?

The Nicaraguan school year will crank up again in a few weeks, and my husband Paul and I will once again send our two daughters, Eibhlín (6) and Orla (4), back to classes with 1.5 million other Nicaraguan school children. Many foreigners visiting the country ask us where we send our kids to school and are inevitably surprised when we say they go to public school. Why are they surprised?

Because everyone – gringos and Nicaraguans alike – assume that because we have the means to do so, we will educate our kids in a private school. They assume that the educational system in Nicaragua is not good.

We’ve been very lucky in that, so far Gracias a Dios, neither of our girls has needs that can’t be met by Nicaraguan public schools. Both girls started free public preschool at the age of three and are very blessed to live in a rural area with a small, safe public school right down the road where the student-teacher ratio remains low. Orla is about to start her second year of preschool. She goes to class from 8 to 11 AM Monday through Friday with 20-25 other children ages 3-6. She has a wonderful teacher and learns things all preschoolers do: colors, shapes, letters, numbers, games, songs, concepts like bigger and smaller and inside and outside. Orla and all the children at the primary school are also fed one hot meal a day – beans and rice – for free. The Ministry of Education provides food for nearly 1 million school children and mothers take turns cooking.

Eibhlín has just graduated preschool and will start the 1st grade in February. She’ll go from 7 AM to 12 PM Monday through Friday with 15 other kids. Just like first graders all over the world, she’ll be learning to read, starting to do sums, and her class will go outside to play kickball for P.E. Is the curriculum in Nicaraguan public schools ideal? Certainly not. But neither are the curricula at private schools. Nor, for that matter is the public school curriculum in the U.S.

Many people ask us if we send our children to school in Nicaragua because they assume that educating them elsewhere would be preferable.

I grew up in Idaho, what would I say if someone turned to me and said, “Are you going to send your kids to school in Idaho?”

When I was in high school in Northern Idaho, our state spent less money per student on education than any other state in the nation. Despite the fact that I was lucky enough to be taught by a handful of wonderful dedicated teachers, the U.S. public school education I received was most certainly inferior to my husband’s education in Ireland and most notably inferior to the education received by other public school students who were from wealthier areas. (Each student at my school had to bring a ream of paper for copies while students at New Trier High School had their own radio station.)

Like Idaho, Nicaragua has very little budget for its schools, so when Orla’s teacher wants to do coloring, she herself draws carbon copies of the picture for each student. There is no money for a janitor, so the mothers take turns cleaning the classroom. There is a watchman at the school day and night, but no budget for his vacation, so during one month of the year, the watchman goes on vacation and the children’s fathers take turns watching the school.

Come to think of it, this sounds a lot like Idaho, which still ranks 50th in the nation for public school spending. But I’d send my kids to public school in Idaho without thinking twice about it, and for the same reasons I send my kids to public school in Nicaragua:

  • Their teachers care for them and put in incredible extra effort to improve the kids’ education and make their school experience a good one;
  • Their classmates are their neighbors and their neighbors are their friends;
  • They are having a common experience with most Nicaraguan school children;
  • I just plain believe in public education, it ought to be free and it ought to be good, and it’s hard to believe that and not put my own kids in public school, even if the system falls short in some areas.

The truth of the matter is that education is incredibly important, not just on an individual level, but for the development of an entire country. And if we really want our country to move forward in leaps and bounds, we have got to improve access and quality of public education – and I’m not just talking about Nicaragua. So, where are you going to send your kids to school? – Becca