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February 21, 2012

First Day of School in Nicaragua

By Abbi Antablin

The idea seemed almost too good to be true: a self-sustainable, private high school providing academic coursework in tandem with technical classes and apprenticeship within reach of people living in rural poverty. If it could be done, it would be completely in line with Opportunity Nicaragua’s Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) model. I was sold: hook, line, and sinker.

In October of last year I learned of Opportunity Nicaragua’s plans to build an entrepreneurial school near their offices in Granada. The school’s students would graduate not only with a high school diploma (a huge deal as only 46% of Nicaraguans advance past sixth grade) but also with a technical certificate in tourism or agriculture, the two most employable professions in the region. The students would receive hands-on training in tourism and agricultural businesses that are run by, and provide funding for, the school.

Smiling seventh-graders at Emprendedora School in Granada, Nicaragua.David Kone, Opportunity Nicaragua’s Executive Director; Geralyn Sheehan, Program Director, Opportunity Nicaragua; and David Allman, Chairman of Opportunity Nicaragua’s board devised an aggressive plan to open the school in just four months. The abbreviated timeline would enable students to start classes in line with the traditional Nicaraguan school year.

Accomplishing all that needed to be done by the first day of school was nothing short of miraculous. The team had to raise start-up funds, complete construction, obtain licensing, recruit students, and hire and train teachers. Aware of just half this list, I arrived in Nicaragua last week fully expecting a work-in-progress. What I found was a bustling Emprendedora School full of 57 eager seventh-graders in white and navy uniforms singing a song about “beautiful Nicaragua.” I’m not making this up.

This year, the school offers just seventh grade, but a grade level will be added each year up to 12th grade. That means these bright students will be the leaders of the school for the next five years. What an opportunity! I could tell right away that the importance of creating a culture of respect and accountability was the top priority of Jorge Prado, the school’s Academic Director. He encourages students to take pride in and treat the school as their own.

Presently, the school consists of two co-ed classrooms and an office/library building. These two main structures are painted white and simply appointed. There is no air conditioning but the buildings are positioned on the plot to take advantage of a cross breeze and there is an open roof to allow for plenty of air circulation. It was surprisingly cool and comfortable.

Students walk to class at Emprendedora School.As we walked around the school, students were well-spoken, happy, and confident. This is due largely to Jorge’s personally recruiting students through home visits in the surrounding areas. Because Emprendedora School is part of an Asset-Based Community Development project, it was essential to get buy-in from parents and the community. As an example of buy-in, students arrive at school in a bus, which is quite a luxury. The parents have coordinated among themselves to provide transportation for the students at the cost of $.40 per student per day. Their organizing and funding transportation on their own was an early reassurance for Jorge and David Kone because it demonstrated the parents’ commitment to the school and their children’s education.

On the subject of cost and commitment, tuition is about $8/month, not including transportation, uniforms, supplies, or lunch. As a comparison, other private schools in the area range from $15-$100/month. In Managua, the top-tier international schools are $800/month. The Emprendedora School aims to be one of the most highly regarded high schools in the country, AND focused on children living in rural poverty.

Everything at Emprendedora School has a purpose in the community. The large yard where the students have recess is surrounded by mango trees, and Opportunity has contracted with a local buyer to purchase the mangos as soon as they are ripe. Beyond the schoolyard is more than 10 acres of land being used to test 32 varieties of yucca. The school will be a research facility for determining the highest yield and best-quality product for the farmers in the region. The school’s baseball diamond is used for drying yucca flour. Cows trim the grass in the fields. The list goes on…

While Emprendedora is up and running beautifully, I suppose it is still a work in progress. Over the next four years the school will continue to grow and develop, planning to build two new classrooms each year, adding a cafeteria and a library. In 2014 they plan to buy a bus and open an eco-lodge for students training in tourism. I can’t wait to go back and see these seventh-graders as mature, learned 12th-graders running a hotel, improving farming techniques, and ready to start their own businesses.

Abbi Antablin is a Regional Director for Opportunity International, especially focusing on the Young Ambassadors for Opportunity program. She recently returned from a trip where she saw firsthand Opportunity’s work in education, agriculture, and more in Nicaragua. Stay tuned to the Opportunity Blog to read more about Abbi’s trip.