Adult Education

Margaret and Technical High graduates, 2013

Margaret and Technical High graduates, 2013


12 YEARS OF SUCCESSES (2002-2014)

The Free High School for Adults and the Technical High School


Dr. Rosa Elena Bello, mayor of San Juan del Sur, co-founder and former rector of the Free High School.

The Free High School for Adults, which opened in 2002,  is a grassroots non-profit organization that has found innovative ways to provide high-quality secondary and technical education to under-served low-income mainly adult populations, and to ensure that these diverse students (between ages 13 and 50) can earn the degree. 616 had done so by December 2013, sixty percent of them women. Of the 2012 group, almost half were the first in their family to receive a high-school diploma.  The Technical High School graduated 60 people in 2013, most with advanced technical degrees.  Watch the march and ceremony here:

In 2014 we serve over 700 students.

Co-founded by Dr. Rosa Elena Bello and Margaret M. Gullette, the FHS provides second chances for people who thought they might never get any. Its graduates include women who were illiterate until an earlier partnership provided two large adult-literacy programs in the San Juan area. Hundreds of women earned sixth-grade diplomas after only three years.

Some of these graduates wanted to continue on to secondary education, which for the neglected (the rural poor, especially women) is essential at this historical moment. But the ordinary daily high schools in Nicaragua accept no one over 18, no woman who is pregnant, and no woman who has had a baby. We do. We are “more public than the public schools,” according to the vice-minister for Education, who calls us “a model” for the nation. In 2014,for the first time, the Ministry and the San Juan del Sur City Council have both made donations for operating expenses.

The Free High School and the Technical High both operate in San Juan proper as  Saturday Schools (so that people who work all week–maids, night watchmen, fishermen–can attend), and it also comes directly to farm folks in 12 widely scattered rural communities that draw from twenty villages. (In 2014, 240 students attend these 12 schools.) A majority in the Free High School are women; a large majority come from the rural areas.

With Nicaragua rivaling Haiti as the poorest country in the hemisphere, our programs reduce inequality, drug-use, and prostitution, and help alleviate poverty, violence against women and children, poor nutrition, environmental degradation, unwanted pregnancy, and ill-health. Our imaginative educational programs teach all required subjects, as well as computer skills, reproductive health, gender, and critical thinking, and they develop social consciousness. The Free High School opens the door to economic opportunity and teaches the values of community outreach. Thus it helps produce the valuable workers, active citizens, and socially-minded leaders that this small country desperately needs.

Our motto is Empowering Women and Men for Life.

We have grown tremendously since 2002. In 2006 we opened a Technical High School, which now offers four career tracks (Accounting, Management of Tourist Industries, Business Administration, and Civil Construction).

The demand for our education is growing. We are now the largest high school in the municipality. Four, five, and six members of a family sometimes attend.  Mothers attend with their children.

Our first year we had 12 graduates; in December 2013, seventy-four graduated. In only ten years of operation, 616 people have earned a high school diploma that is certified by the Ministry of Education.  Because of the rural influx and our desire to keep classes under thirty, we have been adding extra classes and teachers both in-town and in the rural communities.

Our students are eager to learn. Attendance is good, retention rates are astonishing (in 2011 retention was 79%, which would be good in the United States; retention in Nicaragua hovers under 60%).  A new video, made by a volunteer who interviewed a number of students and graduates, includes one woman who earned her university degree after earning our diploma and has returned to teach in the Saturday School. You can hear how grateful these people are, and why. Go to You Tube.

Rural students have to walk from two to fifteen kilometers to the bus to get to the Saturday School. Some start at 3 or 4 A.M., and walk in the dark even in the rainy season, when the roads are pits of mud and they may have to cross flooded rivers. Students and their families make huge sacrifices to acquire the coveted diploma.  Rosy & Bus SMALLER

A free bus now serves rural students from the south. It was donated by an international consortium: American Jewish World Service, The Random Act, Torroella-Mongris, and the Cagliari high school of Rosamaria Maggio.

We have become the largest high school in town. Here, opening day at the Saturday School

We achieve excellence.

Ministry of Education: We are a “model” for the nation

In 2011, Rosa Elena Bello and Margaret M. Gullette, went to visit the vice-Minister of Education, Marlon Siu, to describe the Free High School for Adults and  the successes of the graduates. At the end of the meeting, the Minister told us that the FHS was a model for adult education; he sent a team to report on our history and programs so that they could be emulated. Since then the Ministry has started a pilot program that  across the country that uses some of our strategies.

We are changing the culture of the region. In the 12 communities where we have rural schools, the children and adults have better health: fewer respiratory illnesses, fewer fungal infections, fewer dangerous diarrheas. (The local health center keeps records of where its patients come from.)  In the last few years we have also noted fewer (unwanted) pregnancies in the 12 villages and in the Free High School, according to director Maria Dolores Silva. A former vice-mayor observes that people used to be “humble” meaning silent and intimidated. Now they speak up, they look you in the eye, they even disagree.

Roz Feldberg, a member of the Advisory Committee, wrote a fine review about the importance of our work and the students’ eagerness to learn: It begins, “The Free High School for Adults in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua is my favorite non-profit. I don’t know of a more effective project to provide educational opportunity anywhere.”–user_id-206482 We were one of the top-rated nonprofits in 2011

Gioconda Belli speaks at the Opening of the School in 2013

Gioconda Belli speaks at the Opening of the School in 2013

A  report focusing on rural high school programs (2010) praises our structure, our staff and teachers, and the results we achieve with our students:

The FHS is providing quality secondary education in rural communities that would not otherwise have access to this level of schooling. The actual structure of the organization is easily replicable, but there are some unique parts that have helped to make it what it is.

The first and probably greatest key to the success of this organization is the personnel. Doctor Rosa Elena Bello, Maria Dolores Silva and Dorquis Muniz Lopez along with the other teachers form a group of passionate, determined, intelligent, and skilled people who work long hours for little pay. . . . Students were also more motivated [to attend and learn] than in any other part of the country we visited.

Luckily the national Ministry of Education (MINED) wants schools like this implemented across the country, although it currently lacks the funds to do so effectively, so MINED will depend on NGOs, like the FHS, to implement this type of secondary school.

The Free High School was honored by being selected as one of only six international programs to be included in the

Catalog for Philanthropy


 Our students give back through social service.  For years, all seniors were required to teach adult literacy to someone in the general population. In 2004, 55 of our students taught 80 illiterate people; in 2005, 100 volunteers taught 117.  Our program has been so successful–a model of intimacy, flexibility, and comprehensiveness –that the regional Ministry of Education asked other high schools for adults in southern Nicaragua to imitate it. When San Juan del Sur was declared “Free of Illiteracy” (a major national goal for each city and town), our students alone were given credit for helping to produce that achievement.

Asked what her dream was, this student wrote “to arrive at getting a diploma”

Seniors are required before graduation to produce a research monograph and present it before an audience that includes the mayor and the heads of other city institutions.  (Only our students are asked to do field work in addition to research.) In 2010 they were asked to produce strategy papers about how to ensure that everyone in San Juan receives a sixth-grade diploma. A Commission from the Ministry was so impressed by the results that they have asked for the survey instrument to duplicate it elsewhere.

About 70 students graduate each year.

Community activist, FHS graduate, Marlene Roque has been a teacher in her rural community and now helps an NGO’s diabetes program.

We focus on the complex educational, psychological, and material needs of working adults.  Two generations in a family often find themselves obtaining levels of education they never expected they could all get. The current record is six members of a family.

Delia participated in the first literacy program in 1998; now she is a proud graduate of the Free High School.

Aside from high-quality academic training, rural outreach, and mentoring of our rural teachers, the FHS provides an emphasis on computer skills, family planning, human rights, respect for women, environmental responsibility. We are proud of our Computer School. Everyone who graduates must have completed the course. Over 250 have done so, including three of the girls who once lived in the Battered Women’s Shelter.

Our students succeed after graduation. A survey sample indicated that 87.5% are employed, some in small businesses, some with local government– in the mayor’s office and the Ministry of Education. Many go on to higher education, either in our own Technical School or in universities. One of our top women graduates, Lena Ruiz, went on to study law and is now the Director of Community Medical Services and the Free High School while Dr. Bello is mayor. Three of our highly-ranked women graduates have returned with  university degrees in hand, to teach for us. In 2004 our four best students received grants to go on to higher education from the LACA Foundation.  Many students have been elected to the Cabinet of Citizen Power, a new good-government organization. 

Dr. Rosa Elena Bello, also a nurse with an M.A. in Public Health, co-founded the Free High School and until she was elected mayor, served as its rector. In addition she is the director  of  the town clinic, Community Medical Services; the town pharmacy; all functioning since 1991. An activist who has dedicated her life to social change since the age of seventeen, before becoming mayor she was  the regional coordinator of the Cabinet of Citizen Power, comprising delegates from ten municipalities.

Dr. Bello has retained a group of innovative teachers dedicated to the highest standards of pedagogy since 1998, when the first literacy program began.  She received an honorary doctorate in Public Health in 2009 from Simmons College, Boston. Brandeis University named her the Distinguished Visiting Practitioner of the International Center for Ethics Justice and Public Life in 2011.

The Catalog for Philanthropy points out that the Free High School is “highly cost-effective” and concludes, “The returns on these investments are, of course, beyond price-for both benefactors and beneficiaries.”

  • $88 covers the costs for one student for an entire year.
  • $175 pays the salary of the teacher in the computer school for a month.
  • $180 pays for the salary of an in-town teacher for a month.
  • $250 pays for enough paper and cartridges for a month of work for all the students and all the teachers. (MINED does not provide texts, so we have to photocopy all our curriculum materials.)
  • $2,600 pays for the salary of the Executive Director for a year.

The umbrella for the Free High School is the Newton-San Juan Sister City Program, a 501(c ) (3), which acts as the pass-through for funding. 100% of any gift goes directly to program activities in San Juan. 

Give as generously as you can. To donate online, please click  here  and type “Free High School” in the “Designation” box.

Checks can be made out to Newton-SJ Sister City Project and sent to the treasurer of the Sister City Project, Don Ross, 211 Winslow Rd. Newton MA 02468. For further information, contact the Director of Development, Margaret Morganroth Gullette, email:

The David-Quayle Report on the FHS (2010)

This is their description of the ethos of the School.

. . . the Free High School has a number of other goals that also affect the way it works. The FHS wants to contribute to the social and economic development of the society by educating a workforce that will be capable of directing how they want the economy and the society to develop. Similarly the FHS wants to empower men and women, enabling them to make better, more informed decisions in their own lives and the lives of their families. They also want to provide people with the tools to live a dignified life, whatever that means for the individual.

Under the section, “Quality Education,” David and Quayle write,

The FHS also puts a great deal of importance on giving the students a high-quality education. They do not simply want to have students graduate, they want them to learn. Because of this, the final two years of secondary school are not offered in the rural communities because the FHS believe that specialized teachers are required to assure that the curriculum is taught well. The FHS also has monthly training sessions, sends teachers out to the communities to help with difficult subjects, makes sure to choose the best candidates as teachers, and has teachers who make themselves available to the students as needed. All this takes a dedicated set of teachers and administrators, people who do not simply see[k] a paycheck and a job, but who feel called to their work.

Here are their comments on the trainings the rural teachers receive.

The rural teachers receive a training session once a month [in town] that features classes from the licensed teachers who teach at the Saturday school. During these monthly meetings teachers are given lesson plans and packets that contain all the necessary information for the upcoming month. They also go over the packets to make sure that they understand everything and to clarify anything that the teachers find confusing or incomplete. In interviews teachers often expressed how important these training sessions were to them, although many added that they were at times insufficient, particularly when it came to English. Math was also a problem for some teachers, although certainly not all. During the training, teachers also report on how classes are going and where their students are at in the curriculum.”

Dorquis [Math] and Maria Dolores [Spanish, both with college degrees] visited each community about once a month in order to check on the teachers and help them when they get stuck on a subject or are having trouble explaining something to the students. . . . Teachers stressed how important these visits are for them. The quality of education is improved by these visits because they allow rural students access to experienced and talented teachers who can both teach classes and help the on-site teacher improve his/her methods with feedback. During the visits we were able to observe that students were responsive and receptive to the presence of Maria Dolores and Dorquis and their teaching. After three years of studying in the communities the students then have to go on to the Saturday [School]. Teachers also report on how classes are going and where their students are in the curriculum.

They also understand the economic situations of the rural students:

In these communities, as elsewhere in rural Nicaragua, secondary education requires some sacrifices on the part of the families and the students. Simply getting to school requires long walks over rough terrain (sometimes in bad weather and sometimes very early in the morning) or it requires money for a bus (as well as money for food) or both. Many rural families practice subsistence farming and do not generate to Saturday school [and eat lunch] is no small sacrifice. an income that meets all of their needs even excluding education. For them, finding the money needed to get to the Saturday School [and eat lunch] is no small sacrifice.

Brian David and Emily Quayle are fluent in Spanish; they graduated from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Emily with degrees in History and Hispanic Studies and Brian with a degree in Political Science. Both have spent time in Central America. After working with a Sister City Project in Carazo, Brian decided to try to discover “best practices” in rural education with two goals: to provide feedback to Dr. Rosa Elena Bello and her staff, and in the longer-term hope of sharing their findings in order to help other institutions affect improvements. They learned about the existence of the FHS from our Website. They wrote the report after spending three weeks in San Juan in the spring of 2010 interviewing administrators, teachers, parents, and students, and making site visits to the rural classrooms.

In all, they observed four schools, which included The Richland Center-Santa Teresa Sister City Project (Carazo); La Vida Education (San Juan del Oriente); and Empowerment International (two other sites in Nicaragua).

Margaret Gullette, Director of Development

The Co-Founder of the Free High School

The co-founder of the Free High School and the North American partner since 1997, Margaret Morganroth Gullette has raised money for the two literacy programs and the Free High School and Technical Institute, as well as for the bus that carries students from the distant southern villages to the Saturday School. Margaret’s essay on the adult literacy program for women,  “Florcita la Suerte” (cited as notable in Best American Essays), can be found in the Writers’ Views section.

Margaret is the author of four books, including Aged by Culture, and the prize-winning Declining to Decline and Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America. Another essay, “The Contagion of Euphoria,” won a Daniel Singer Millennium Prize in 2008.



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