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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Students on the Streets to PROTEST!

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Costa Rican kids, better known here as Ticos, can boast that they have the best public education system in Central America. Not bad, huh? Parents can choose public or private school when their kids are aged 5 or 6. When I was in fifth grade, I remember changing from a private school to the local public elementary school. What did I love about that change? Aside from my parents not having to pay for tuition, I got to wear whatever clothes I wanted each day instead of the uniform they made me wear (jacket, neck-tie and all) in private school. Well, no such luck here in Costa Rica. All students must wear uniforms, whether they're in public or private school. Some schools have beige or brown uniforms but the majority of the uniforms combine white or blue dress shirts with dark pants worn by both boys and girls. I've noticed that since so many different schools share the same uniform colors, students often wear a unique school patch. The reasons for having mandatory uniforms in Costa Rica are the same as those argued in the US. It is cheaper for families to buy their child three uniforms than a whole wardrobe of the latest fashions. Many kids come from poor families and although picking your own clothes can be fun and self-expressive, it can also create quite a drain on a family's finances. Uniforms keep students from becoming distracted by who's wearing what each day. Last week, we saw hundreds of uniformed high school students protesting in the streets. Despite the best school system in Central America, kids are worried about the future of their educational system. Monica shared a little bit of the scene with you but Shawn and I actually got to talk with some of the young demonstrators.

Kevin

School Days - Tico Style

Children start el kinder around age five or six - same as American kids, right? After kindergarten, kids move on to la escuela for six years of study otherwise known as la primaria. Starting around age twelve, students move on from la primaria to la secundaria, also called el colegio. This is where they take a wide range of classes including Spanish, English, Math, Social Studies (History & Geography), and Science (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics). I've found that a lot of teenagers here speak English but the older students are much more confident because they've been studying it longer. Kids here love sports too, the most popular being soccer for boys and volleyball for girls.

After the first three years, students have to pass a major exam in order to make it to the fourth year. They must eventually pass this test to be allowed to go to the next grade. At the end of the five years there is an even bigger final exam called el Bachillerato, and if they pass that, then they receive their diploma. It's crucial that they complete their studies because many students I've spoken with fear that without having passed the Bachillerato, it is extremely difficult to find work.

At this point, about 50% of students take a break from studying instead of going right to college. Some Ticos prefer to travel, mostly to the US and maybe Mexico or Europe. For those that go to El Universidad, there are a handful of selective public schools and hundreds of private schools from which to choose. The largest University by far is the University of Costa Rica with 30,000 students studying at regional campuses. The private universities generally have greater focus in a particular area and are more expensive. Exceptional students, those from poor families, and especially students studying medicine or engineering are aided by becas (grants), or student loans.

Costa Rica's excellent educational system has produced a literacy rate of about 93% throughout the country. Compared to other nations in Central America, primary and secondary education is good, and the post-secondary education is considered even better. Many students come from around the world to study at the University of Costa Rica. We just hope that the Education Ministry listens to the students and supports their dream of great education.

Here's Shawn reporting from the streets of San Jose!:


I was drawn to the window by the sound of thousands of people chanting and cheering. The street below was packed with uniformed students carrying banners and bringing traffic to a standstill in the downtown of this busy city. Kevin and I threw on our boots and ran outside to see what was going on. We found ourselves in a sea of blue and white uniforms that seemed to swallow the whole downtown. Wave after wave of wild students passed by chanting slogans like "Se siente, se siente, el pueblo esta presente." Some were drumming and occasionally the erupting into wild mosh pits. Over 1200 students from more than 50 San Jose public schools had taken to the streets to express their dissastifaction with new policies made this year regarding what subjects are offered and stricter requirements to graduate from high school. Many of the students we talked to were angry because they believe that fewer of them will be able to continue with their education after high school. We followed the students for two more hours until they finally stopped in front of the Ministry of Education where student organizers climbed on top of a van and made passionate speeches.

Voices of the Students:

Kevin chatting with Maurizio and other students
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MAURIZIO: He is concerned about the Education Ministry's decision to decrease the number of students who are able to continue with their education. He believes this will only create more problems for his generation, such as unemployment: "If the government tries to save money now by paying less for education, we will have to pay for it later."

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VERONICA: "We are here to let the people who make decisions know that we are not going to stand for this. If they choose not to listen, we will have to close school down until they realize that we are serious." Veronica also pointed out that she and her fellow students were fortunate to live in a country where it is possible for students to demonstrate: "In many of the other countries of Central America people cannot speak their opinions so openly. Countries like Nicaragua and Honduras have large armies and the people there are too afraid. In Costa Rica we have no army, no civil war, and we know that we can come out into the street and tell the government what we think."

We saw no violence and very few police officers on the street. Even though the newspapers reported that there were instances of violence such as passing cars being kicked and jeered, no one was arrested. There were some tense moments such as when a pyramid of about ten students collapsed and one person took a few minutes to get up. At times the protest seemed more like a rock concert than a political event! Students were lifted above the crowd and carried along until they were dropped...ouch! Large groups would sporadically break into convulsive dancing, jumping up and down and fist-waving.

The students here wonder if the latest cutbacks are the beginning of a trend that will lead to a lower standard of education. Where does your school district get the money to pay your teachers, maintain the school buses and organize field trips? Could that money disappear one day? Increased tourism and Central America's newly found peace have brought economic stability and increased prosperity to Costa Rica, leaving students wondering why they are not receiving a fair share. As another student pointed out: "There are difficult times ahead for the world and now is the time when we should be investing in our future."


 
Shawn

 
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