By Becca Mohally Renk
(Becca Mohally Renk has lived and worked in sustainable community development in Nicaragua since 2001 with the Jubilee House Community and its project, the Center for Development in Central America.)
This week the new school year started in Nicaragua and I waved my eldest daughter, Eibhlín, off to her final year of high school. I teared up remembering my three-year old in her first tiny blue and white uniform, proudly marching off to preschool in pigtails.
I’ve also been reflecting that this month marks 15 years since President Daniel Ortega declared public education to be free once again, just 24 hours after he was inaugurated. That was his second declaration; the first was to declare public health care free again. Those two declarations have led to the most significant improvements – among many important improvements – in the lives of Nicaraguan families in the past 15 years.
The Sandinista government had just been voted back into power following 17 years of neoliberal governments between 1990 and 2007. The neoliberal educational model considered the public school system as useful only in creating future clients, viewing the poor as a source of cheap labor and not worthy of investment in their education. To that end, budgets were cut and the “school autonomy” policy was introduced, which passed the cost of education on to families.
Under the neoliberal governments, Nicaraguan public schools received funding from the central government based on the number of students they had registered at their school. Because they were given so little funding, schools reported more students than were actually studying at their center in an attempt to cover their operating costs, then charged the families fees to cover the difference – even though the Nicaraguan Constitution guarantees a free education, preschool through university.
To save money, schools hired “empirical” teachers – those who had not formally studied education. By 2006, more than 45% of all teachers working in schools had not been formally trained. School buildings deteriorated to the point of being useless or even dangerous. Children had to bring their own desks or sit on the floor to receive their lessons. Girls were disproportionately affected by the disastrous neoliberal policy: families couldn’t afford to send all their children to school, so the eldest boy was prioritized; the girls stayed home to look after siblings while parents scraped together a living.
By 2003, the average Nicaraguan had just three and a half years of schooling and only 30% of those starting 1st grade were expected to finish 6th grade (United Nations Development Program, 2003). By 2006, nearly a quarter of the country was unable to read or write, a shameful statistic following on the triumphant National Literacy Crusade in 1980 that had managed to lower the 50.3% illiteracy under the Somoza dictatorship to 12.9% in a matter of months, and further lower it to 10% by 1990.
Economists agree that the progress of a country is dependent on education. Your earnings increase by 10% with each year of schooling you receive, a higher increase than any other individual action could provide (World Bank). Fifteen years ago, when more than half of Nicaragua’s population was under the age of 21, it was clear that without a significant investment in education, the economy and society was not going to advance.
Upon taking office in 2007, the Sandinista government began a revolution in education, making fundamental pedagogical changes to create an accessible education system placing students at the center.
Just two years later in 2009, my husband and I made the decision to send our kids to public school. At that time, we didn’t know any other foreigners in the public school system, and our Nicaraguan coworkers all sent their kids to private school as well. We made the decision because we wanted to be part of the rural community where we live, and because we believe in public schools – in free, quality education for everyone. So we sent three-year old Eibhlín to the public preschool near our home, and the next year our younger daughter Orla joined her. Since then, our family has had the opportunity to experience the Nicaraguan public school system for ourselves.
What has this educational revolution looked like firsthand?
In elementary school, my kids’ classes were three times larger than the classes ahead of them. Today, youth with no schooling at all has dropped from 24% to 4% since 2006. Their school buildings were expanded and improved to accommodate more students, just like 75% of all schools in the country.
Fundamental to the success of getting more kids enrolled and staying in school has been the school meal program, which now feeds 1.2 million school children a hot meal daily and has contributed to the 66% drop in chronic malnutrition in school age children since 2007.
Under neoliberal governments, there were no school meals – in 1990 they even discontinued the daily glass of milk that was provided during the 1980s. I knew parents who had to make the decision to send their kids to school and have them go hungry, or to send them to dig through garbage for recyclables to sell so they could eat. Of course the parents chose eating over school.
When my kids started school, the meal program was beginning. Throughout elementary school, the children’s families took turns cooking for their class. When it was my week to cook, I would go to the school and the teacher would send me home with rice, beans, oil, sugar and a mixture of ground cereal grains. I would cook the rice and beans for each day and mix the cereal with water and the sugar to make a nutritious drink. Then, like the other families did, we would add what we could to round out the meal –cheese, vegetables, perhaps a bit of chicken. On one memorable occasion, we made the treat of repocheta – fried corn tortillas covered in refried beans, farmer’s cheese, cabbage salad, sour cream and ketchup. It was immensely satisfying watching the children eat a nutritious meal before running off to play at recess. One year when there was a severe drought that drove up the price of food, for several months our children were given two meals at school each day to take pressure off families and ensure kids got enough to eat.
Another important support for students’ families has been the program where each elementary school student gets a backpack filled with school supplies. Each year our daughters and their classmates received backpacks in bright colors with notebooks, pencils, erasers, rulers and more at the beginning of the year, a huge cost savings for families, especially those with several school age children. Since 2007, 5.7 million backpacks have been handed out.
Getting kids enrolled in school is the first step, helping them succeed is another challenge that this government took on with its program Battle for the Sixth Grade. When Orla began first grade, there was a 13 year-old in her class who had never learned to read and write. Many students had been held back year after year due to irregular attendance. Today, rates for passing elementary and secondary grades have increased from 79% to 91%. Youth with no schooling at all has dropped from 24% to 4% since 2006, and Nicaragua is now the number one country in the world for educational attainment for women (UN Women, Women Into Politics 2021).
During my time as a parent of children in the Nicaraguan public school system, I have also seen the changes in curriculum and pedagogy.
When my daughters reminisce about elementary school, they talk about the school clean up days when they would bring machetes to cut weeds and would make brooms to sweep the yard with their classmates. They talk about their love for their teachers who gave creative assignments, took them on walking field trips around the village, and who brought their own craft supplies to class so the kids could do art. Now the Ministry of Education gives each teacher a packet of didactic materials at the beginning of the year to facilitate creative learning.
When my girls first started school, significant classroom time was taken up with the teacher dictating and students writing. There were few school books and each quarter there were written exams in most subjects. Since 2007, the Ministry of Education holds monthly in-service days where teachers are trained in new techniques and changes to the curriculum, leading to significant shifts in the classroom.
While there are still quizzes and periodic exams, particularly in mathematics, in most subjects students’ grades are cumulative and the focus is on group projects involving research and presentation. There is less dictation, and school books are now digital and available free to download to any smart phone from the Ministry of Education website. Students of all ages are encouraged to do research: all secondary schools have internet access and tablets, and many have a digital projector for use in classrooms and tech support staff who work with all the teachers on how to appropriately use technology in the classroom. In high schools, there are a wide range of opportunities for participation. Last year my kids participated in school and municipal-wide activities including the Day of the Book competition (where they made giant books and acted out a book for younger students), Miss Recycling (a competition to create an entirely recycled outfit & present it), a Science Fair with the theme of innovate green business ideas, cultural celebrations of dance and food from around the country, and Search and Rescue Brigades (organized by the local Fire Department) which trains students to respond to natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic explosions.
As they ushered in the new school year this week, our daughters were excited to discover that there are only 38 students registered in their classes, in comparison to the rest of secondary school when they’ve been in classrooms with 55 or 60 students. Although classrooms are open with banks of windows on either side, with so many students it was often chaotic.
The reduced class size is a new national policy to improve the quality of education at all levels and to make it easier to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. This change is made possible in part by years of investment in teacher training – since 2007 there are nearly 30% more teaching positions. There is also training for other positions – now for the first time teachers are required to study school administration for two years in order to qualify to be a principal.
As Eibhlín’s school career draws to a close, I’m so proud of her and her classmates, because I know what feat it is that so many of them are finishing high school. Under the neoliberal governments, there was no secondary school in our community at all, and many families couldn’t afford the transportion cost of sending their kids out of the village to study. Now, however, most of the kids who started preschool with Eibhlín will graduate at the same time she does. Our village now has Saturday school, a country-wide program that uses rural elementary school buildings for high school classes on Saturday. Students study from 8 AM to 2 PM one day per week, a schedule that allows older students in rural areas who have to work or young people who have babies to finish high school. Most of Eibhlín’s former classmates from elementary school now attend rural high school on Saturday, although there are others like her who study during the week in town. Family support is important to get students through to graduation, but the Ministry of Education also gives support – when they graduate, each of them will be given a cash prize of $45, enough to help cover graduation costs and get them enrolled in further education.
There are lots of opportunities for graduating students to further their education. This year the Ministry of Education has started a program in high schools and created a map on their website to teach students about the many university programs, associate degrees, and technical training available to them for free throughout the country. This will acquaint students with opportunities and help them find a program that matches their interests. Thanks to free third-level education and improved opportunities, since 2006 the percentage of population with a university degree in Nicaragua has risen from 9% to 19%.
Looking back on my daughters’ school careers, it is clear to me that they and their classmates are getting an excellent education, and I’ve never regretted our decision to send them to public school. On the contrary, I feel absolutely privileged to be part of a public school system that is working for all children and young people.
(Unless otherwise noted, statistics are sourced from a talk by Presidential Advisor on Education Salvador Vanegas, 6 November 2021, and the Plan Nacional de Lucha Contra La Pobreza Para el Desarrollo Humano 2022-2026).