Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Colegio San Andrés Apóstol

4th graders take a break on the playground for a picture
(Picture courtesy our companion parish St. Andrew's Marblehead Mass.)

When we came to El Salvador a year ago I had no idea I would be running an Anglican elementary school! My only qualifications for this position are that I attended an Episcopal elementary school (St. Paul´s School in Visalia, California), and fondly remember chapel services and religion classes. The bishop challenged me with turning Colegio Episcopal San Andrés Apóstol into a ¨little Yale,¨ and set me loose.

The school year here runs from January to October, with November and December being vacation months, so I came in at the end of the 2005 school year (landing in the middle of September, Independence Month, which was chock-full of parades, civic acts, food sales, sports days, and science-project judging at the school!). Our 2006 enrollment is 104 students, from pre-k (four-year-olds) to sixth grade. We have two pre-school and kindergarten teachers who teach in a small (5 x 15 meter) house next door which was purchased to house their classes last year. Three elementary grade teachers teach 1st through 6th grades, the lower grades attending in the morning, and the upper grades in the afternoon, because they share classroom spaces tucked around the church. Next year I hope to add seventh grade, but space is at a premium. Students mostly come from the neighborhood immediately surrounding the church, which is working class to working-poor, with pockets of severe urban poverty. Their parents are making an extra effort to send them to a private school, where tuition is twelve dollars a month, and where class sizes are capped at twenty (as opposed to 40 or 50 students to a teacher in the free public schools). We have ten children who receive partial or full tuition scholarships. In 2007 I hope to identify some children from the poorest sectors in the neighborhood, who might not have a chance to study otherwise, and offer them scholarships to the school.

Though I was unprepared to run a school, I quickly developed a passion and a vision for it. I have come to believe that education really is the solution-- both for individuals and for communities, to poverty. Well-educated individuals have a better chance at obtaining higher education and a good job, and are less easily manipulated by politicians and business owners. They also tend to have more time and resources to contribute to improving their community. In a neighborhood and a society where just being young puts your life at risk (because of gang activity and the societal and police backlash), I feel like educating these children in morals and values, helping them know that God loves them, giving them skills in computing and English and helping them develop a passion for music, reading, dance, or art may literally save their lives, in that it may better equip them to resist pressure to join a gang when they are 12-15.

We have made a lot of improvements to the physical plant in the last year, painting the classrooms (this was initiated by last year's graduating 6th grade class, who contributed to the purchase of paint and put in their labor as their gift to the school), refurbishing desks and kindergarten chairs, installing fans, organizing the library, and installing a brand-new computer center. All of this has been accomplished with a great deal of help from friends in the US, people who have visited, and members of the community. The dream which we are currently working toward is to buy some property beside the church, next to the house we currently own, and begin a multi-phased project of constructing a 2-3 story self-sufficient school building, with a classroom for each grade. I realize that a great building is an element of a great education, but not a guarantee of one, so we are also taking steps to improve the quality of the education in other ways-- through teacher trainings, weekly staff meetings, and hopefully bringing on a dedicated director in 2007. Any assistance, advice, or contributions you might wish to make would be more than joyfully and gratefully accepted! The lesson I have learned through all of this is that a little bit goes a long way in El Salvador, like the loaves and the fishes, and that is a tremendous blessing.

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