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Pencils, desks, buildings, and a new curriculum

Post-Mitch Honduras and Nicaragua undertake education reform as well as reconstruction of schools.

The dozen pupils looking over their new elementary school are pleased about improvements like new desks and bigger windows. Their old school was carried away by the flood waters of last fall's hurricane Mitch.

But what really intrigues them are the ceiling fans. "Some of the little kids think those will make the classroom take off into space," giggles Miguel, a first-grader, before asking a visitor, "Uh, what are they for?"

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Ceiling fans are just one sign of the from-the-ground-up reform that Central American countries are undertaking in education. Whether the new emphasis is on "teleschooling" in Honduras - to reach adolescents who left school because of work pressures or geographical isolation - or on rural-based schooling in Nicaragua - to give new relevance to rural living - educators say the reforms jump-started by Mitch are a one-time opportunity.

"The positive aspect of Mitch is that it shook all of us, awakened us to the fact that the world is changing, and we have to be part of the change," says Ramon Calix Figueroa, Honduras minister of education.

When Mitch-fed waters inundated the Honduras Education Ministry in the capital of Tegucigalpa, they destroyed floors of equipment and a nation's education records. Officials said it was a metaphor for the need to replace an old educational system drowning in inefficiencies and low results. It's a metaphor that goes for much of Central America.

In school, but educated?

Despite its ranking as the poorest region in the hemisphere along with parts of the Caribbean (notably Haiti), Central America hasn't done a poor job of getting children to school, education experts say. "Step 1 they've done, but you can't say as much for Step 2, which is actually educating them," says Maria Graham, an education program assistant with UNICEF's New York office.

Honduras, for example - where Mitch destroyed 3,000 classrooms, or 25 percent of the country's total - had achieved a primary education rate of about 85 percent before the storm. "They're proud of that rate, but ... it hides big problems like high illiteracy, high dropout, and high repetition rates," says Ms. Graham.

With more than 1 million people left homeless by the storm, the months after were initially a race to keep the affected countries from falling further behind in education. Many schools were turned into shelters. In Honduras alone more than 100,000 children were unable to return to school when the new year started in February, and the months since have been spent trying to avoid having them become permanent dropouts.

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But the medium-term goal is a fully reformed education system. In Honduras a series of regional discussions involving educators, parents, nongovernment organizations and the private sector is set to culminate in a national education plan in February 2000.

New urgency after Mitch

A similar "national consultation on education" was begun in Nicaragua right before Mitch by new Education Minister Jose A. Alvarado. But according to Dr. Alvarado, Mitch's pounding "only made the need for a new national education plan focused on the future all the more urgent."

Referring to Nicaragua's many years of warfare, political turmoil, setbacks from natural disasters like earthquakes and now a major hurricane, Alvarado says this is an opportunity "for the first time in decades to articulate a long-term vision."

Reform of curricula stuck in the 1960s, with its elitist or urban flavor, is a priority across the region. "The emphasis now is on how to develop a curriculum that isn't just a teacher-to-student handing down of information, but one that helps turn students into thinkers and decisionmakers," says Ramn Len, a curriculum development expert with UNICEF in Tegucigalpa.

In Nicaragua, the reform includes a new way of teaching in hundreds of rural communities. "The emphasis will be on using rural scenes, concepts, and products in reading, adding and subtracting, even values education," says Alvarado.

The desired result is a more relevant rural existence that in the long run, through more technical agricultural training, is also more productive.

While Nicaragua's urban dropout rate is high - 30 percent leave by sixth grade - the rural dropout rate is staggering at 50 percent. The idea of reversing that rate by teaching rural children using elements from their backyard - rather than the cities they may be dreaming of - is attracting the attention of countries participating in Central America's reconstruction, Alvarado says.

Central American leaders figure they have a small window of maybe four years - given international interest and involvement in the region in the post-cold-war '90s and now following Mitch - to set Central America in a new direction. The education reforms are one key element, they say.

But little about the reforms will make sense unless it is accompanied by an effort to instill new values that help children live better lives in a changed world, says Honduras's Mr. Calix Figueroa.

"We've done a very poor job of that in the past, but even there you could say Mitch is helping us out," the education minister says. "We've found we've had to start a new values education just teaching about caring for the world we've been provided for living in. As we've seen if we don't take care of the earth, it ends up harder for the earth to take care of us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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