School Year Begins with Internet for 96% of Costa Rican Schools

back to futureThe school year began for Costa Rican children on February 10th. This year internet connection has been provided to 96% of the country’s schools. To achieve this, the Ministry of Public Education  partnered with internet providers to improve existing connectivity and establish new connections in previously isolated rural areas.

In April 2013, the government of Costa Rica announced its plan to provide internet access to more than 4,000 of the country’s public schools. Computers with internet access will provide teachers and students with new opportunities and resources not previously available to them.

With the growing availability of internet services, students will be afforded the opportunity to access new educational materials, learn computer skills and familiarize themselves with the use of technology. Additionally, the internet will provide unprecedented access to online educational resources that give teachers’ access to teaching materials and training opportunities.

Six different internet technologies have been used throughout Costa Rica to successfully provide 4,320 public schools with online access. The most common technologies utilized are broadband access through ADSL technology and 3G mobile network access  from several telecommunication companies including the National Fund Telecommunications and Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad.

Isolated areas of the country often have few if any choices for wireless providers. In many situations, the only available option is 3G wireless broadband. According to the Superintendent of Telecommunications, the government has been working with several telecommunications firms to improve this situation and provide both telephone lines and internet services to rural areas that have been waiting years for these services.

In December 2013, the government announced that the Telefónica and Claro communications companies had won government contracts to install broadband in isolated areas of north Costa Rica. This project alone will benefit more than 40,000 students in 500 schools, costing the National Telecommunications Fund $13.8 million.

Over recent years, Costa Rica has witnessed extreme growth in both internet usage and the number of companies offering wireless communications. In 2010, 24% of the population had internet connections. By 2012 that number had risen to 47% (2 million people) and again in 2013 it increased to more than 50% as a result of internet connections being increasingly provided to remote rural locations.

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Photograhy Helps Guatemalan Children Fight Poverty and Gang Violence

My First CanonFor the past twenty-two years, the Fotokids project has taught photography and creative expression skills to  hundreds of children from the poorest neighborhoods of Guatemala. The program gives each student a camera and then teaches basic photography skills which they use to document aspects of their daily lives. These photographs not only give children a way to express themselves artistically, but also provide them with an alternative lifestyle to joining a gang.

Gangs pose a severe threat to children throughout Guatemala who either fear becoming the victim of gang violence or face recruitment. Gangs in Guatemala routinely recruit children as young as six years old. These children engage in a variety of crimes that include the transportation of drugs and firearms, robbery, rape, and extortion. To become full members of a gang, these children are often also required to prove their loyalty by committing a murder.

Photography teaches empowerment skills to these children by giving them a way to to record and communicate their own personal narratives. Living in extreme poverty, these children frequently face difficult social issues on a daily basis. To process the difficult experiences that characterize their lives, many of these children use photography to express themselves. They photograph gang violence, poverty and drug use within their neighborhoods and also capture the effects of alcohol, drug and violence within their own homes.

Also known as the Fundacion de Niños Artistas Guatemala, the Fotokids program provides children with options they would not otherwise have. Not only does the program teach children marketable skills, but it also promotes education by requiring all participants stay in school. To facilitate this, Fotokids provides all participants with a partial or full scholarship so that they can afford to continue their education past primary school.

According to past participant Evelyn Mansilla, “without it I’d never have finished school, gone to university or been able to give back to my community. We all want to branch out and take the project to more places in the city. There are so many children of all ages here that need our help.”

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Teaching Humanitarian Values to Combat Gang Influence in Central America

Boys in parade in Granada, NicaraguaEach year, approximately 3.6 million children in Central America drop out of school or are forced to repeat a grade. Widespread gang violence in the region significantly contributes to this statistic.  For this reason, governments, schools, community leaders, and school officials have introduced programs to teach children basic humanitarian principles on the value of human life.

In Honduras, the Department of Education joined with the International Committee of the Red Cross to create the program Creating Humanitarian Spaces, which teaches respect for human life, tolerance, and the value of education to students, teachers and the broader community.

The government of Belize introduced violence prevention programs that support positive development skills through role play and games. In El Salvador, the National Sports Institute trained police officers in the use of sports to teach similar values to school-age children. Similarly, soccer programs in Panama help keep children in school while teaching strategies for avoiding violence and drugs.

Earlier this year, UNICEF and the Central American organization CECC/SICA jointly released a report entitled Finishing School in Central America: The Pending Challenges, that highlighted the dropout and repeating problem in the region. Throughout Central America, 33% of primary school students and 69% of high school students either repeat a grade or drop out altogether. Nicaragua and Honduras have the worst retention rates of the countries surveyed with only 44% of primary school students completing their studies.

“Countries in the region will not achieve the full realization of the right to education for all children and adolescents if they don’t take consistent, coherent, and sustained measures to improve the quality of education, reduce repetition and drop out,” according to Bernt, Aasen, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Gang violence has increasingly become a part of many communities throughout Central America, introducing a culture of violence and fear that affects people of all ages. Students, teachers and bus drivers are often required to pay protection money to the gangs to ensure their safety. Those who do not pay may be killed. Children in these areas also grow up afraid to leave their homes, go to school or play outside. Others are recruited at young ages to become members of youth gangs. As a result, many children in these countries witness or become the victims of beatings, kidnappings and killings.

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Presidential Candidate Proposes Elimination of Test Requirement in Costa Rica

Costa Rica

The Presidential candidate of Costa Rica’s National Liberation Party, Johnny Araya, has written a controversial plan that would eliminate the bachillerato test requirement for high school students who do not plan on pursuing higher education.

This exam has proved to be a stumbling block for students who intend to obtain a college diploma. In 2012, only 69.8% of those who took the test passed all sections.

If the proposed plan is approved, it would change the hiring requirements for jobs in the public and private sectors. The plan has not yet been examined by the ministry’s technical departments. Additionally, members of the teacher’s union have not yet shared their opinions.

Isabel Roman, Director of the State of Education Program, stated that should the program be adopted it should happen after an in-depth study considering all sides of the situation. However, Araya plans to put the plan into action during his first year in office if he is elected.

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Schools Resume Classes in Colon and Capira, Panama

tomame una foto

When schools were re-opened in the districts of Colon and Capira in Panama on Thursday, November 28, the Ministry of Education, MEDUCA, announced that children will resume classes with or without school uniforms. The Ministry acknowledged that several families had lost everything and therefore it could not expect students to observe all school regulations.

However, the MEDUCA announced that areas severely affected by the rain in Colon and Capira will continue to have their schools suspended and regional directorates will monitor the situation before resuming classes. This check on classes bears testimony to Panama’s compulsory education system that includes six years of primary school and three years of middle school. Although schools in rural areas offer basic classes and fewer teachers, MEDUCA pays attention to the students’ requirements and monitors school activities so that everybody in Panama can access education if they want to.

MEDUCA effectively suspended schools out of safety concerns for children because the heavy floods destroyed 800 homes and prompted the evacuation of at least 500 people in Colon and Capira along the Caribbean coast. While some students resume classes and continue their education, other students will hopefully be able to re-join classes as soon as their lives stabilize.

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How to Help the “Ni-Ni Generation” of Latin American and Caribbean Youth

According to a recent joint report presented by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA),  young people between the ages of 15 and 29 account for 26% of the total population in Latin America and the Caribbean — while one-third of these youth live in conditions of stark poverty. Moreover, 16% of young people are not integrated into the education system or job market.
Child in Ocho Rios, Jamaica
The UN report, which offers a demographic profile of the region’s youth and an analysis of extreme poverty levels, examined youth’s lack of access to education and employment, as well as a related absence of community engagement. With this sector of youth, and even younger children, falling into the most vulnerable population in Latin America, institutions are calling for major investments in basic services and education. Young women and those in rural areas, as well as those belonging to indigenous or Afro-descendant communities, are at added risk.

Additionally, a large segment of youth are plagued by rising rates of teenage pregnancy, informal work, or no activity at all. According to the report, “This group, known as ‘the ni-ni generation’ because of being left out of both the education system and the market, denotes a persisting structural mechanism of social exclusion.” ECLAC and UNFPA make clear that this type of ‘double exclusion’ will continue to have devastating ramifications for the entire population if neglected. However, stakeholders hope that the report’s bleak results will serve as a sounding board and a reference tool to inform and galvanize policymakers.

At-risk Latin American and Caribbean youth must have access to education opportunities in order to break inter-generational cycles of poverty and stagnation. Investment in this sector cannot come soon enough.

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In Guatemala, Violent Student Protests Rock Local Schools

Tz'utuhil Maya school teacher with traditional huipil (traje)in Panabaj, Guatemala

Teacher, Guatemala

In Guatemala City, protesting students have taken over their schools for the past several weeks. Outside Aplicacion Belem Normal School, students could be seen protesting and confronting the riot police. The protest started more than two months ago and for the past few weeks they have taken over schools in the capital.

These university students are protesting against the new educational reform set by the government. The reform will lengthen the university courses for teaching professions from the original three years to five years.

According to the Ministry of Education, there was a meeting between the government and the students; however, an agreement has yet to be reached.

The protest has since escalated. With the presence of police, violence has also intensified. Students have even attacked Education Minister Cynthia del Aguila. Relief workers reported that she was exposed to tear gas and suffered a panic attack. Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla was also injured.

More than 40 people have been injured during the clash between police and students. Recently, a meeting was called by President Otto Perez Molina to try to stop the protest.


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The Sustainable Development Generation: Rio+20 Conference Calls Youth to Action Worldwide

Despite some sense of disillusionment amongst global media outlets regarding the difficulty of implementing tangible results from the recent United Nations Conference On Sustainable Development in Brazil (Rio+20), stakeholders still tout reasons to be optimistic. With increasing influence from Brazil, China, and India shaping the conference agenda as well as continued debate over the contested roles and needs of developed, versus developing, countries in combating climate change, extreme poverty, and environmental degradation, the summit’s main focus was finding meaningful space for common ground.
According to Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the summit’s ultimate goals to achieve sustainable development and a green economy may already be in able hands: our global population of innovative youth. “This has to be the generation of sustainable development – you have no other choice,” Sachs said to students during the conference.

As a result of the Rio+20 final agreement, a working group of representatives from 30 nations has been tasked with developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by September, which will be blended with the renowned UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Although, like most UN agreements, the SDGs are voluntary and not legally binding, they serve along with the MDGs as important symbolic and written records of global responsibility. The SDGs, said Sachs, should be simply stated and easily remembered. “They should decorate the walls of every primary classroom and be part of secondary and university education,” he said to resounding applause. Teachers take note!

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Read This! More Books Needed in Africa and Costa Rica

Book AddictionBooks For Africa, a non-profit that donates used books from libraries, schools, and the community is asking for help in raising $9,800 USD in donations to ship books.

Since 1988, 46 countries have benefited from the shipping of more than 27 million books for their citizens. “There is not a single more important investment than that which we are making in education-absolutely none,” said the Kenyan Ambassador to the United States, Elkanah Odembo, who also sits on the Books For Africa Board of Directors.

Costa Rica also faces book shortages, of both literary and textbooks, due to high printing costs for local businesses. Such costs have led to a decrease in the supply of books, putting a strain on schools. A change in the printing process would help change the high shortage in books.

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Campaign for “Love and Freedom” Changes Lives in Nicaragua

Young people act out a flash-theater scene

Surrounded by their audience in a spacious room, a dozen young people dressed in black perform flash theater: a boy hands a bouquet of flowers to a girl; two girls embrace while a boy looks on in disgust; a girl hands a condom to a boy who pushes it away.

Each is a microcosm of the relationships these young people grapple with.  Their performances are designed for other adolescents to recognize and reflect on patterns of love and control at this critical age.

The theater project is part of The Campaign to Live and Love in Freedom by Grupo Venancia, a feminist organization based in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Domestic violence is widespread in Nicaragua, where a weak justice system, underfunded police, and machista attitudes make women vulnerable to abusive relationships.  While Grupo Venancia also provides assistance to women in crisis, the campaign is designed to prevent abuse at the age when young people begin exploring romantic relationships.

It also aims to open a dialogue about gender roles and sexuality.  A central theme of the campaign is the importance of loving oneself first: the tagline says, “I’m not a ‘better half,’ I’m a whole.

As a volunteer with another of Grupo Venancia’s projects, I caught a performance to find out more about the campaign.

The flash pieces carried an emotional weight beyond their simple staging: the actors’ facial expressions and gestures in each mini-scene conveyed shame, distrust, fear, and hope.  Scattered in pairs and groups of three around the space, the actors repeated their scenes at intervals, their gestures and phrases becoming familiar to the audience.

Throughout the performance, the adult facilitator, Itzel Fajardo, asked the audience for their responses.  “Which image impacted you most?”

The young audience identified scenes of control, like a boy checking his girlfriend’s cell phone, or discrimination.  They also responded with connections to their own lives.

In a longer piece, volunteers from the audience stepped into a scene to replace the actor, offering their suggestions about how to change an action from controlling or passive to healthy and communicative.

Teens act out a controlling relationship

The dozen young people in the theater group range in age from 16 to 20 and come from various rural and urban communities in Matagalpa.

They performed in nine communities over a period of eight months, bringing the campaign to schools in the urban center of Matagalpa as well as isolated communities on the edge of the roadless Caribbean region.

Their preparation started almost a year ago with theater workshops and discussions led by adult facilitators from Venancia.

They used their own experiences as boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, and friends to create the stories they presented to peers.

Tania Meza, a 16-year-old in the troupe, says she’s inspired by the reactions of the audience.  “I want the audience to say, wow, I lived that, too. I want them to respond with their own feelings.”

Irma Mendez, who’s 19, shares that her participation in the theater group helped her end an unhealthy relationship.  “It’s been incredible, excellent.  We’ve been able to share our experiences and feelings and to reflect on them together.”

Fajardo, one of the designers of the campaign, worked with the teens throughout the process.  “Our goal wasn’t exactly to change attitudes, more to raise awareness.  And in that we’ve surpassed our goal, because of the changes we’ve seen” in the theater group.

For the boys, it was their first time reflecting on sexuality and gender roles.  “The process was really important for them.  Some were pretty machista at the beginning, but the reflection helped them make great strides.”

The changes were just as critical for the girls in the group, some of whom have been in abusive relationships.  Fajardo says now they talk about creating healthy boundaries in their relationships.

She sees that the teens have been deeply impacted by the knowledge that their stories are helping other young people.  “Now they see themselves as activists for change.”

For the audiences, she says, the process is “like giving them special glasses, and suddenly, they can see their reality and reflect on it.”

Audience members react to the theater performance