NicaNotes: The Privilege of Public School in Nicaragua

By Becca Mohally Renk

(Becca Mohally Renk has lived and worked in sustainable community development in Nicaragua since 2001 with the Jubilee House Community and its project, the Center for Development in Central America.)

This week the new school year started in Nicaragua and I waved my eldest daughter, Eibhlín, off to her final year of high school. I teared up remembering my three-year old in her first tiny blue and white uniform, proudly marching off to preschool in pigtails.

Eibhlín’s third grade class on a walking field trip. Photo: Becca Mohally Renk

I’ve also been reflecting that this month marks 15 years since President Daniel Ortega declared public education to be free once again, just 24 hours after he was inaugurated. That was his second declaration; the first was to declare public health care free again. Those two declarations have led to the most significant improvements – among many important improvements – in the lives of Nicaraguan families in the past 15 years.

The Sandinista government had just been voted back into power following 17 years of neoliberal governments between 1990 and 2007. The neoliberal educational model considered the public school system as useful only in creating future clients, viewing the poor as a source of cheap labor and not worthy of investment in their education. To that end, budgets were cut and the “school autonomy” policy was introduced, which passed the cost of education on to families.

Under the neoliberal governments, Nicaraguan public schools received funding from the central government based on the number of students they had registered at their school. Because they were given so little funding, schools reported more students than were actually studying at their center in an attempt to cover their operating costs, then charged the families fees to cover the difference – even though the Nicaraguan Constitution guarantees a free education, preschool through university.

To save money, schools hired “empirical” teachers – those who had not formally studied education. By 2006, more than 45% of all teachers working in schools had not been formally trained. School buildings deteriorated to the point of being useless or even dangerous. Children had to bring their own desks or sit on the floor to receive their lessons. Girls were disproportionately affected by the disastrous neoliberal policy: families couldn’t afford to send all their children to school, so the eldest boy was prioritized; the girls stayed home to look after siblings while parents scraped together a living.

By 2003, the average Nicaraguan had just three and a half years of schooling and only 30% of those starting 1st grade were expected to finish 6th grade (United Nations Development Program, 2003). By 2006, nearly a quarter of the country was unable to read or write, a shameful statistic following on the triumphant National Literacy Crusade in 1980 that had managed to lower the 50.3% illiteracy under the Somoza dictatorship to 12.9% in a matter of months, and further lower it to 10% by 1990.

Economists agree that the progress of a country is dependent on education. Your earnings increase by 10% with each year of schooling you receive, a higher increase than any other individual action could provide (World Bank). Fifteen years ago, when more than half of Nicaragua’s population was under the age of 21, it was clear that without a significant investment in education, the economy and society was not going to advance.

Upon taking office in 2007, the Sandinista government began a revolution in education, making fundamental pedagogical changes to create an accessible education system placing students at the center.

Just two years later in 2009, my husband and I made the decision to send our kids to public school. At that time, we didn’t know any other foreigners in the public school system, and our Nicaraguan coworkers all sent their kids to private school as well. We made the decision because we wanted to be part of the rural community where we live, and because we believe in public schools – in free, quality education for everyone.  So we sent three-year old Eibhlín to the public preschool near our home, and the next year our younger daughter Orla joined her. Since then, our family has had the opportunity to experience the Nicaraguan public school system for ourselves.

What has this educational revolution looked like firsthand?

In elementary school, my kids’ classes were three times larger than the classes ahead of them. Today, youth with no schooling at all has dropped from 24% to 4% since 2006. Their school buildings were expanded and improved to accommodate more students, just like 75% of all schools in the country.

Fundamental to the success of getting more kids enrolled and staying in school has been the school meal program, which now feeds 1.2 million school children a hot meal daily and has contributed to the 66% drop in chronic malnutrition in school age children since 2007.

Under neoliberal governments, there were no school meals – in 1990 they even discontinued the daily glass of milk that was provided during the 1980s. I knew parents who had to make the decision to send their kids to school and have them go hungry, or to send them to dig through garbage for recyclables to sell so they could eat. Of course the parents chose eating over school.

Students enjoying the school lunch program. Photo: Becca Mohally Renk

When my kids started school, the meal program was beginning. Throughout elementary school, the children’s families took turns cooking for their class. When it was my week to cook, I would go to the school and the teacher would send me home with rice, beans, oil, sugar and a mixture of ground cereal grains. I would cook the rice and beans for each day and mix the cereal with water and the sugar to make a nutritious drink. Then, like the other families did, we would add what we could to round out the meal –cheese, vegetables, perhaps a bit of chicken. On one memorable occasion, we made the treat of repocheta – fried corn tortillas covered in refried beans, farmer’s cheese, cabbage salad, sour cream and ketchup. It was immensely satisfying watching the children eat a nutritious meal before running off to play at recess. One year when there was a severe drought that drove up the price of food, for several months our children were given two meals at school each day to take pressure off families and ensure kids got enough to eat.

Another important support for students’ families has been the program where each elementary school student gets a backpack filled with school supplies. Each year our daughters and their classmates received backpacks in bright colors with notebooks, pencils, erasers, rulers and more at the beginning of the year, a huge cost savings for families, especially those with several school age children. Since 2007, 5.7 million backpacks have been handed out.

Getting kids enrolled in school is the first step, helping them succeed is another challenge that this government took on with its program Battle for the Sixth Grade. When Orla began first grade, there was a 13 year-old in her class who had never learned to read and write. Many students had been held back year after year due to irregular attendance. Today, rates for passing elementary and secondary grades have increased from 79% to 91%. Youth with no schooling at all has dropped from 24% to 4% since 2006, and Nicaragua is now the number one country in the world for educational attainment for women (UN Women, Women Into Politics 2021).

Eibhlín’s class graduating sixth grade. Photo: Becca Mohally Renk

During my time as a parent of children in the Nicaraguan public school system, I have also seen the changes in curriculum and pedagogy.

When my daughters reminisce about elementary school, they talk about the school clean up days when they would bring machetes to cut weeds and would make brooms to sweep the yard with their classmates. They talk about their love for their teachers who gave creative assignments, took them on walking field trips around the village, and who brought their own craft supplies to class so the kids could do art. Now the Ministry of Education gives each teacher a packet of didactic materials at the beginning of the year to facilitate creative learning.

When my girls first started school, significant classroom time was taken up with the teacher dictating and students writing. There were few school books and each quarter there were written exams in most subjects. Since 2007, the Ministry of Education holds monthly in-service days where teachers are trained in new techniques and changes to the curriculum, leading to significant shifts in the classroom.

While there are still quizzes and periodic exams, particularly in mathematics, in most subjects students’ grades are cumulative and the focus is on group projects involving research and presentation. There is less dictation, and school books are now digital and available free to download to any smart phone from the Ministry of Education website. Students of all ages are encouraged to do research: all secondary schools have internet access and tablets, and many have a digital projector for use in classrooms and tech support staff who work with all the teachers on how to appropriately use technology in the classroom. In high schools, there are a wide range of opportunities for participation. Last year my kids participated in school and municipal-wide activities including the Day of the Book competition (where they made giant books and acted out a book for younger students), Miss Recycling (a competition to create an entirely recycled outfit & present it), a Science Fair with the theme of innovate green business ideas, cultural celebrations of dance and food from around the country, and Search and Rescue Brigades (organized by the local Fire Department) which trains students to respond to natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic explosions.

As they ushered in the new school year this week, our daughters were excited to discover that there are only 38 students registered in their classes, in comparison to the rest of secondary school when they’ve been in classrooms with 55 or 60 students. Although classrooms are open with banks of windows on either side, with so many students it was often chaotic.

The reduced class size is a new national policy to improve the quality of education at all levels and to make it easier to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. This change is made possible in part by years of investment in teacher training – since 2007 there are nearly 30% more teaching positions. There is also training for other positions – now for the first time teachers are required to study school administration for two years in order to qualify to be a principal.

As Eibhlín’s school career draws to a close, I’m so proud of her and her classmates, because I know what feat it is that so many of them are finishing high school. Under the neoliberal governments, there was no secondary school in our community at all, and many families couldn’t afford the transportion cost of sending their kids out of the village to study. Now, however, most of the kids who started preschool with Eibhlín will graduate at the same time she does. Our village now has Saturday school, a country-wide program that uses rural elementary school buildings for high school classes on Saturday. Students study from 8 AM to 2 PM one day per week, a schedule that allows older students in rural areas who have to work or young people who have babies to finish high school. Most of Eibhlín’s former classmates from elementary school now attend rural high school on Saturday, although there are others like her who study during the week in town. Family support is important to get students through to graduation, but the Ministry of Education also gives support – when they graduate, each of them will be given a cash prize of $45, enough to help cover graduation costs and get them enrolled in further education.

There are lots of opportunities for graduating students to further their education. This year the Ministry of Education has started a program in high schools and created a map on their website to teach students about the many university programs, associate degrees, and technical training available to them for free throughout the country. This will acquaint students with opportunities and help them find a program that matches their interests. Thanks to free third-level education and improved opportunities, since 2006 the percentage of population with a university degree in Nicaragua has risen from 9% to 19%.

Looking back on my daughters’ school careers, it is clear to me that they and their classmates are getting an excellent education, and I’ve never regretted our decision to send them to public school. On the contrary, I feel absolutely privileged to be part of a public school system that is working for all children and young people.

(Unless otherwise noted, statistics are sourced from a talk by Presidential Advisor on Education Salvador Vanegas, 6 November 2021, and the Plan Nacional de Lucha Contra La Pobreza Para el Desarrollo Humano 2022-2026).

By Nan McCurdy

2022 School Year Begins
More than 1,700,000 youth returned to the classroom on Jan. 24 to start the 2022 school year in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools nationwide. The school year was officially inaugurated at the Francisco Luis Espinoza National Institute (a secondary school) in Estelí by Salvador Vanegas, the education advisor to the President; María del Socorro Torres, Ministry of Education (MINED) departmental delegate, and Francisco Valenzuela, mayor of Estelí. Vanegas said “We have been improving schools, getting the food for the school meals all over the country as well as the school packages of materials, and training the teachers who make us feel proud of what they do.” This year a special program will promote and make math friendlier as well as incorporating the scientific method in all subjects. The Ministry is also strengthening education in the countryside: “A whole educational revolution aimed at entrepreneurship culture, a total strengthening in infrastructure, in the curriculum, in teacher training and in new subjects for primary and secondary school in the countryside.” See photos:  (Radio La Primerisima, 24 Jan. 2022)

UNICEF Thanks Nicaragua for Keeping Schools Open
The UNICEF representative in Nicaragua, Antero Almeida de Pina, thanked the government for keeping schools open during the health pandemic. The diplomat also commended the house to house vaccination program. “For us as UNICEF, the opening of the school year is a great joy…. I want to thank the government very much for keeping the schools open and for getting the vaccines to children throughout the country,” said Almeida de Pina. 1.8 million young people began the 2022 school year at the levels of early childhood, primary and secondary education. (Radio La Primerisima, 24 Jan. 2022)

National Reforestation Campaign Kicks off January 30
The National Forestry Institute, the Ministry of Environment, and the Ministry of Education announced that the 2022 National Reforestation Crusade will begin on January 30. The 2022 Crusade seeks to plant 27 million trees on 36,886 hectares, establish 1,520 nurseries and deliver 45,000 packages of reforestation supplies to community members. The INAFOR Director Indiana Fuentes stated that “since the National Reforestation Crusades began, 281,479 hectares have been reforested reducing the pressure on and the degradation of the forests, mitigating the negative effects of climate change.” This initiative is part of the Comprehensive Education Model that promotes academic development, along with the formation of core values like environmental protection. (Nicaragua News, 21 Jan. 2022)

Some 40,000 Students Study for 66 Technical Degrees
Classes in the 45 technological centers of INATEC start February 2 and 40,000 young people and adults will study for careers in 66 areas. Loyda Barreda, director of the Instituto Tecnológico Nacional (INATEC), said that, in 2022, 40,635 students will begin technical degree programs that have a duration of two years or more. The Tecnológico Nacional ended 2021 with 8,000 technical graduates and a student retention rate of 85%. Barreda added that when the young people do their pre-professional internships in businesses that have an alliance with INATEC, a good number of them are then hired. “There is another percentage of young people who opt for entrepreneurship; let’s remember that there is a whole national ecosystem that facilitates, promotes and stimulates this entrepreneurship platform as well.” Seventy percent of the training is practical, linked to a didactic environment that simulates the real conditions of a job. (Radio La Primerisima, 25 Jan. 2022)

High Percentage of Population Trusts the Sandinista Government
The government of President Daniel Ortega is starting a new five-year term with popular support and approval, according to the most recent opinion poll of the national polling firm M&R Consultores announced on Jan. 25. The poll indicates that 84.1% have confidence in the government; 76.8% consider that Nicaragua has progressed in the last 14 years; 71.9% say that with President Daniel Ortega’s leadership, the country is moving in the right direction. There is broad support for the Dec. 10th reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China with 69.7% approving of the move; 78.9% consider that this relationship with China generates hope for Nicaraguans and for the development of the country.  For 78.3%, the construction of an interoceanic canal would be of great benefit for Nicaragua and 76.2% want it to be built. The study reaffirmed that 7 out of 10 citizens are highly satisfied with government services such as transportation, road maintenance, health and education services, electricity, drinking water and job opportunities. The FSLN maintains a predominance of 58% of sympathy, while 60.5% give the opposition a negative rating. The survey again highlights that for 62% of Nicaraguans democracy is synonymous with living in peace, freedom and stability. For 97.4%, political and social conflicts must be dealt with through dialogue and therefore 86.9% support the government in its call to national unity. More here: (Radio La Primerisima, 25 Jan. 2022, Informe Pastran, 25 Jan. 2022)

More Women to Receive Larger Loans from Zero Usury
155,000 women with small businesses will receive loans in 2022 from the Zero Usury Program, reported the director, Leonor Corea. More than US$47 million will be granted in amounts from US$286 to US$1,400 at .5% interest per year. Corea said the low interest is because the objective is for women to develop their businesses and have income for their families. She said that the solvency level of the solidarity groups is 95%, which has allowed the program to continue for almost 15 years, benefiting 445,000 women from 4,600 neighborhoods in 140 municipalities. Last year the program’s statutes were reformed to respond to women’s demands. Among the changes is the expansion of possible credit to US$1,400, and the number of possible loans received. (Radio La Primerisima, 24 Jan. 2022)

Free Trade Agreement with China Coming
The Minister of Finance and Public Credit, Iván Acosta said that there will be a Free Trade Agreement with the People’s Republic of China. He also said that the memorandums signed with China are a cooperation strategy to build infrastructure for development. “For countries like us that export food, we always need new markets, and the Chinese market is the biggest. This is a great opportunity for us to also bring in new investment and increase productive capacity for our export goods. We also need to build cooperation in science and technology with China, to help develop our industries and energy capabilities,” he stressed. “We need to connect our ports in the Caribbean and the Pacific, so we require investments in new corridors and a canal that can compete with the Panama Canal. The first memorandum is for global cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and Nicaragua. The second memorandum is to have what you call the early harvest that takes a step forward. In the meantime, we negotiate a free trade agreement. The third memorandum is for Nicaragua to be included in the Belt and Road Initiative. The last memorandum will be part of the economic dialogue initiative with China.”  (Informe Pastran, 24 Jan. 2022)

Japanese Parts Manufacturer Expands
The Yazaki Corporation Group of Japan announced that it has invested more than US$6 million in the expansion and equipping of its Nicaraguan automobile parts manufacturing plant Yazaki Nicaragua S.A. located in the Department of León, generating 3,000 new jobs. (Nicaragua News, 25 Jan. 2022)

2021 Remittances 16% Higher than 2020
The Central Bank published the IV quarter 2021 “Remittances Report” which shows a continued increase with respect to 2020. Total remittances from abroad for the fourth quarter 2021 were US$589.6 million, US$80.9 million higher (15.9% growth) than 2020 (US$508.7 million). Total 2021 remittances were US$2.15 billion, an increase of US$295.5 million (16.0% growth) with respect to 2020 (US$1.85 billion). (Informe Pastran, 25 Jan. 2022)

No Dialogue with Traitors
National Assembly Deputy Wilfredo Navarro was forceful with respect to the supposed dialogue desperately desired by the some in the opposition: “The government of Nicaragua has nothing to negotiate with terrorists and those who sell out their country. Dialogue is with the people of Nicaragua and with the sectors that want the development of the country.” He went on to say, “Neither the Government, nor all of us who are defending this process, are going to sit down with terrorists, sell-outs, traitors, who have done so much damage to the country; [we] try to bring together people who want to work with Nicaragua to support the effort and give continuity to development.” (Hablando de Todo, 21 Jan. 2022)

100,000 Community Health Consultations
Medical brigades and mobile clinics from departmental hospitals will carry out 106,482 medical consultations and surgeries in 2,300 communities benefitting more than 100,000 people the week of Jan. 24. This is part of the Family and Community Healthcare Model that the government is implementing. (Nicaragua News, 21 Jan. 2022)