The Nicaraguan School System

You wouldn’t think that a Small Business Development Peace Corps Volunteer would spend much time in high schools, but in fact I spend at least 50% of my time in schools. Entrepreneurship is an official part of the high school curriculum in Nicaragua, so I help the teachers become acquainted with the concepts and techniques to teach them. I get a lot of questions about the schools, and there are differences from the American school system, so I figured I would write a blog post about them.

The Nicaraguan school system is nationally controlled. There is a ministry in Managua that oversees the entire system, with subordinate levels of organization at the departmental and municipal levels. Each department and municipality has its own Superintendent, who report up to the departmental superintendents, or in their cases, to the national ministry in Managua. In addition to the public schools there are private schools (most of them Catholic or Evangelical Christian), an equivalent of charter schools, and even some technical high school programs. They are all still supervised by the auspices of the Ministry of Education.

Summer in Nicaragua starts in late November/December and goes until May. December and January are also the only coffee harvest of the year. As a result, the Nicaraguan school system is on a calendar year system, starting in February and going until early December, unlike American schools which run from August or September until May or June.

All public school students wear the same exact uniform, nationwide. A white shirt, tucked into navy pants (a pleated dress for the girls), white socks, and black shoes. I feel terrible for whoever has to wash those white shirts, every single day, because from what I’ve seen they stain very easily.

All Nicaraguans have the right to 12 years of free education. One year of pre-school, followed by six years and primary school, and five years of secondary school. Many parents start their kids in private pre-schools earlier though. And rather than in America, where a school is usually only an elementary school, middle school, or high school, in Nicaragua they can be multi-functional. If a school is called a “colegio” it is multi-functional. Usually it has primary school in the morning followed by high school in the afternoon. Many colegios have pre-school as well both morning and afternoon. “Institutos” are secondary only, usually both morning and afternoon.

The morning/afternoon split is pretty interesting. There are actually six different modalidades of secondary school that you can sign-up for:

  • Matutino – Morning classes from 7:00 AM to 11:45 AM
  • Vespertino – Afternoon classes from 1:00 PM to 5:45 PM
  • Nocturno – Some institutos offer night classes, often geared toward working adults who want to get a high school degree
  • Sabatino – Students attend classes all day on Saturdays only
  • Dominical – Students attend classes all day on Sundays only
  • Distancia – The Ministry of Education will send a secondary teacher on Saturdays to remote communities that only have a primary school to teach secondary school classes

At Sabatino and Dominical female students are allowed to bring up to one young child along with them.

Every student gets to not only decide how they want to study, but also at which school. They are allowed to change their schools every year. To matriculate they need to go to the school any time from January through March (yes, they can sign-up even after the school year begins) with a few documents, like proof of identity. And they have to do this every year. Letting the kids change schools if they want to every year doesn’t make sense to me. It makes long term planning for the schools more difficult, and there is less stability for the students, which I have heard through the TFA debates is a beneficial element to education.

Every school day has six “hours” plus a 15 minute long recess. I put hours in quotes because the periods are actually only 45 minutes long, plus many of them are doubled up into blocks. That’s a total of four and a half hours of class time every day. The classes that the students take, and how much they receive every week, is set by the national Ministry of Education. It depends on the grade, but it is what you would expect – lots of math and Spanish, with plenty of science and English, as well as phys ed, social sciences, and some other smaller courses. Math and Spanish are certainly the most emphasized, and tested heavily for the college entrance exams. Entrepreneurship is taught through the Nicaraguan equivalent of home and careers class. For the second half of junior year and all of senior year the official curriculum is entrepreneurship.

In Nicaraguan high schools the kids never change classrooms. At the beginning of the year they are placed into sections based on age, and then the teachers come to the sections’ classrooms. For instance, at my largest school, Instituto Nacional del Occidente, in the morning session there are five sections of seniors, each with between 40 and 50 students. The youngest seniors are in sections 11 A and 11 B (14, 15, and 16 years old), and then they get progressively older in 11 C, D, and E. I think I even have a few 22 year olds in 11 E.

The schools are not enclosed buildings like in the United States (at least on the East Coast). The schools are usually just a series of long buildings divided into classrooms. They are very basic with windows for ventilation, a door, desks for students, a teacher’s desk, and maybe a chalkboard or whiteboard. My biggest complaint is that they are echoey and hot (especially when you pack in 60 kids). And the kids have to clean the school and the classrooms. At the beginning of the school year the students have to bring in brooms and mops, and then clean the floors a few times a day. For any of my Shohola friends, I assure you, despite having been doing this since pre-school, for the most part they are more inept at cleaning the floor than Cabin One campers are during cabin cleanup. And it drives me crazy when they try to do it during class rather than just sitting down and participating.

Even though schools can operate morning, afternoon, and night, teachers can only work one turno. I suppose this is in an effort by the Ministry of Education to create as many teaching jobs as possible. The result is that many teachers get jobs teaching at private schools in the opposing turno. I even work with one man who works at a private school in the morning, a public school in the afternoon, and then teaches night classes a few days a week. They just need the money, even though it is not ideal. They are very overworked and do not have time to evaluate student work or plan classes.

Teachers grade the students here differently as well. Every quarter they have to accumulate 100 points. No fewer, no less. However, they are not allowed to give tests; maybe only one or two small quizzes. Only a final exam at the end of the year is allowed. They are expected to assign work every class and evaluate it on the go for little assignments worth five, 10, or maybe 15 points each. Unfortunately, this rarely ever happens. The teachers don’t plan their assignments far enough ahead (to be fair, actually, I can think of a few teachers who do a nice job and plan this well so it is less arbitrary), so when they realize that they need more points they just start arbitrarily yelling out that things are worth points. My friend said it’s like Hogwarts. 20 points if you hand this on time! 10 points for participation in class today! Five points for everyone who brings in a little Nicaraguan flag next week! And inevitably, they never make it to 100, so they wind up making up points at the end of marking periods (although every teacher swears that they do not gift or invent points).

In the US teachers aren’t beholden to a magical 100. A high school teacher could say that there will be a test and essay each worth 50 points, two quizzes worth 25 each, and a handful of smaller homeworks, discipline assessments and participatory activities. If out of a total 225 points a student obtains 200, the teacher would just need to divide 200/225 and multiply by 100 to get ~89%. B+. And whereas in the United States the pass/fail threshold is usually 65, in Nicaragua it is 60. In addition, the Ministry of Education frowns upon failing any student and keeping them behind, so in practice very very few students receive below a 60 in any subject.

I could go on and keep talking about the minutiae of the school system here, but I see myself drifting into a frustration rant, so I think I will leave it here.

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