WTF with School around Here?!?
So education here in small-town Costa Rica was something I knew would be a challenge from day 1, but it’s shaping up to be waaaay different than I initially thought it to be. In a bad way. Were I a caricature, smoke would be coming out of my ears most days that I receive a WhatsApp from my kids’ teachers or my niece tells me a story of her virtual school experience. Seriously, a little piece of me dies every time. Let me start by giving a few asterisks up front so as to not appear ignorant about our educational situation:
We are at a very large school (600+ kids)
We are at a very large school that, of course, caters to a wide variety of income levels, including - literally - families that are dirt poor. I’ve seen some of the neighborhoods that feed into our school and the living conditions are shocking.
We live in an agricultural region where many families (not all, by any means) may have parents who did not finish high school or go to college. This makes it harder to support out-of-classroom learning.
We are in the midst of a pandemic, where school was going to be inconsistent, and a large portion of the school population doesn’t have computers or decent internet to connect for virtual learning.
This said, here’s what we’re dealing with:
We, way back in January 2021, opted to send our kids to the nearby school of Santa Rita for a variety of reasons:
Two families we knew sent their kids there and were happy with the experience
Our local school is tiny! and about half the kids in each of our kids’ grades would have been family. It was an attempt to expand the social circle at the 600-student school.
If offered some additional extras: gym, music, and computer classes.
Of course, schedules were wonky when the school year started in February: 2-3 times per week, jagged start dates. That was fine. Within a month or so, things started to become consistent. We knew what days to expect to go, and the kids had (dreaded, oh, so dreaded) guias to work on during “off-days”. (Guias are quasi self-guided packets that include the work to be done/material to be learned for any given month. Most recently I learned that they are made by individual teachers - oh, inconsistency! A long time ago, I learned that everyone hates them. Really, everyone. Students, teachers, parents.) Nothing was too challenging, but the kids were liking their teachers, meeting new friends, and getting out of the house.
However, over the course of the school year, which runs from February to November/December, things started going from kinda loosey-goosey to downright ridiculous.
1. Exhibit A: the kids are supposed to have school, more or less, every other day for ½ days. Their teachers teach group A MWF and group B on TR. HOWEVER, in the last 2-3 months, since we got back at the end of July from our US visit, teachers are cancelling or ending classes early right and left. At first, it was once every two weeks or so. Now, not kidding, it is typically weekly where the kids are heading to school for about 3.5 hours (which, I might add, includes lunch and surely some recess or something, so let’s say they are technically “learning” 2.5 hours on the days they’re there). The reason for these “early releases”? See Exhibit D.
2. Exhibit B: the kids are getting days cancelled regularly. Like waaay regularly. Ollie, last week, in 6th grade, had a TR schedule, of which he went one day (early release!) because the second day, his teacher had a doctor’s appointment. Really? In a country with no subs in public schools and school lasting only 4-5 hours per day, I think I’d try to schedule my appointment outside of my working hours. (Can you tell I’m bitter - this is not the first, nor second, nor third time this has happened….) While I get there’s a socialized healthcare system to deal with that doesn’t always allow for picking and choosing your appointments, but still.
Then, the following week, a MWF week, she cancelled an entire day Monday and….Wednesday. Why? Picture Day! What that means is that, since he’s in 6th grade (the last grade of primary school), it’s apparently a big deal. So big that we don’t send our kids to actual classes that day for fear they will...sweat (really? We live in the tropics with no air conditioning in our schools! You sweat no matter how much you try to avoid it, whether the kids go for 10 minutes or their token 4.5 hours!). But, alas, my singular opinion doesn’t matter much, so on Wednesday, Ollie got to go to school for his 10 minute photo session and then came home. Not kidding. And to add insult to lack-of-education injury, he told me when he got home that they had him wear a cap and gown for the pics, since this was such a big deal. OMG. These kids have gone to school in their 6th year practically less than I can count on my fingers and toes, and then they’re downing a cap and gown for school pics? Oh, oh, the priorities are so crossed here.
3. Exhibit C: There are no substitutes in these parts...my assumption is in the entire public school system (ironic, as I have heard there are many teachers looking for jobs….) So you can imagine the ridiculousness when your teacher gets COVID (Ollie’s did) and has to cancel her classes for two weeks! And the encouraging message to parents via WhatsApp from the teacher is along the lines of “kids can work ahead as they are able in their guias but we will go over everything in class once we resume.” Which we can basically interpret as “don’t bother doing anything for two weeks, since we’ll pick up right where we left off before I got COVID.” What a mess!
4. Exhibit D: Meetings + Trainings + Teacher Schedules not meant to accommodate either = MAJOR ACTUAL TEACHING TIME LOST. During the last few months, I have learned a staggering number of new words related to the bureaucracy of public education here:
Capacitacion - training, apparently always scheduled during teaching hours and therefore resulting in cancelled classes.
Elecciones - elections, like it sounds. Apparently for something important worth cancelling class or letting out early for.
Reunion - meeting. Who knows for what, on top of all the other get-togethers going on. Results in cancelled classes.
Estrategias - cumulative exams, happen at seemingly irregular intervals (for example, a big one - take home - in July. But now, apparently another one this week). Ironically, Ollie’s are being given after a nice 10 days off of school thanks to cancellations. So we get a note on the WhatsApp group seven days into this teaching-hiatus sending us the themes of the exams and notification that they’d happen starting the following week. Hmm, that’s not highly illogical (dripping with sarcasm). On top of that, I learned that on the day the kids have their English exam, which is a single period of their day, the main teacher will be letting them out early because “it is outside of her schedule to stay with them til the final bell that day.” Um, is it, really?
Asesoramiento - like “consultation” - apparently to learn how to do a better job managing the classroom, teaching, facilitating school and learning through a pandemic, who knows. Here’s a thought: let kids come to school and actually teach them! Results in cancelled classes.
A side note to the above ridiculousness is that, from what I learned, teachers have a fixed schedule to work (obviously) and this schedule (not obviously) only includes the actual classroom hours. Therefore, any meetings, etc. that in the US would be scheduled for after school or during prep-periods (which don’t apparently exist) happen during classroom teaching hours, at least at our school. Results in cancelled classes. Oh, the madness!
5. Exhibit E: What is actually being learned?...that is the question. I know Yori, for the first half of the year in her 2nd grade music class, was coloring. Color what, you might ask? Something like this:
Color it green if it makes a pleasant sound (bird?)
Color it red if it doesn’t (a car horn?)
She’d literally come home on music days and I’d ask: did you sing anything in music today? Clap out a beat? Listen to the radio? Anything? Nope. I think just recently, in the last 1-2 months (month 6-7 of the school year), did anything of musical note (ha, ha) actually start to happen in that class. And in core classes, they’d be learning things like basic hygiene (wash your hands!) as a major theme of 2nd grade. And who knows what else...too mind-numbing to even remember. Just recently she finally brought something that looks like multiplication facts (we started these in homeschooling when we moved here a year ago!) and writing a very simple paragraph. Oliver is instructed to “write a paragraph” when actually 1-2 sentence responses are acceptable. (I actually messaged the teacher about this to clarify at the beginning of the year when he was instructed to write a paragraph summary of a text that was…. a paragraph long: very confusing!) Sixth grade! High School next year! If I had hair, I’d be tearing it out!
6. Exhibit F: My 9th grade niece, a bright girl who works hard in school, opted for 100% virtual this year in the same town. Two days ago, I went over to her house to ask a question and there she was, exasperated and furiously working on guias. What was the deal? Her written schedule said her guias were due October 15. But on Thursday, her mom received a call saying they were actually due four days ago. !?!?! So that means she had been plugging away, but now had about 13 guias to finish over the weekend, all of which would be considered late. She was telling me how it made no sense, since her teachers were answering questions online for guias that according to her written schedule, were due in a week (makes sense) but according to the administrator who called her house, should have been already turned in and therefore not open to teacher consultation (doesn’t make sense).
On top of that, she said that this year, students who are slated to do 100% virtual are supposed to have regularly scheduled virtual classes with teachers. Many teachers send their schedules of these virtual classes and then don’t show up. They literally just don’t connect to the class. One of her teachers has yet to respond to her emailed question from two weeks ago. And a few teachers didn’t give her last month’s guias (which were due last month, obviously) and then (found them, maybe?) gave her double this month. I mean, really. It’d be laughable if you didn’t know that there were 1,200+ students in this district being affected by this craziness!
So, you might be asking, just what am I doing about all of this rather than just sharing my sob story to the black hole of the WWW? Well, I, of course, first reached out to the teachers in my most politically-correct, sensitive to the fact that everything I say will sound crazy because we are the only family at the school from the states-discourse, and asked for an explanation of the constant early releases and cancellations. What I learned is that the MEP (Ministry of Education) requires teachers to be on X number of committees and do X number of trainings and all these have to be done during their scheduled (aka teaching) time.
Ok, but that still didn’t make a ton of sense because I know some teachers at other schools and their kids don’t miss nearly as much school as ours do due to cancellations. So my next stop was the school’s director, who I must admit, did not really take a liking to me at the beginning of the year as I pushed to get my kids into higher grades than they were technically supposed to be in knowing the school was going to be less rigorous than in the US. But maybe she’d forgotten (or hopefully it was the kids’ good performance in school) that resulted in a decent conversation where she too explained the need to have teacher meetings within schedules they are given by MEP or she gets in trouble. But, I asked, why are there so many? And can’t they try to stagger them so that 10 days don’t go by between classes??? And what the hell with not going to school on picture day?!
This conversation led me to my final stop two weeks ago of contacting MEP directly. While I’m not entirely convinced it’s all MEP (since, as I mentioned, several other, smaller schools I know don’t miss classes every other day due to all this ridiculousness), they've got to play a role somehow. So I conjured up a nice, direct, firm email and off it was sent. So far, two weeks later, I have received a confirmation that they forwarded it to the attention of the “Direccion”. I plan to follow up this week, so we’ll see.
All this public education at a big school silliness has left us falling back on homeschooling more and more, which I must say, is finally, one year in, actually seeming to be a bit more manageable, a bit less like WW3 and overall more productive. The kids are writing, crafting, engineering, investigating, exploring nature, presenting, and more without so much as more than 15 minutes a week of public school homework, despite the cancellations. Their report cards were great (except Yori’s failing grade in...English!? Turns out the office didn’t input her 100% on the exam….oops!) We’re basically treating school days like play dates, cause that is what they are: few and far between and a chance to see friends. Yori affirmed my true understanding of just how things were the other day when she came home thrilled that her teacher gave her and her classmates slime because “only four kids were in class today and she had four slime packets!” Oh, brother. Now even the kids aren’t going….