“Empowering Women and Men for Life”
–The Free High School Motto
Providing secondary education for poor rural and urban people helps them individually, but it is also changes the general level of culture and democratic participation in the rural areas and the barrios. The former vice mayor, Adelina Rivas Mayorga, explains the difference that the Free High School makes. “The people all used to be ‘humble’.” She mimicked looking down shyly, hunching up her shoulders, lowering her head, turning away. Then she straightened up and looked her Newton interviewer in the eye, enthusiastically. “Now they talk to you, they give you their opinion. They even disagree.”
We have conferred diplomas on 616 people, the majority women. Our rector, our executive director, our computer teacher, and most of our other teachers are women, who model leadership for all students. Empowering women transforms the world. Our School has rescued many women who got pregnant as girls and became single mothers very young and thought their lives would be over. Women who get help in raising their voices, their self-esteem, and their status, change their own futures and improve their families’ life chances in every way.
The majority of students are rural. Our students receive an excellent education not only in the academic subjects but also in computer sills, social skills, verbal ability, ethical reasoning, health and family planning, gender and women’s rights, and the value of collective action.
Lena Ruiz, now in her mid-forties, the top graduate of her year, went on to get a scholarship from a California foundation, LACA, to go to law school Managua on Saturdays. Earlier in her life, she had dropped out to further the Sandinista revolution; she became an
officer in the new national police. For some years while studying she served as the administrator of a sawmill and woodworking shop. Now she is the director of Community Medical Services and rector of the Free High School. (Photo shows her when she graduated from the FHS.)
After graduation, Estebana Sanchez worked in the Ministry of Education on the adult literacy program, and then came to the Battered Women’s Shelter when it housed four abused girls, to provide a maternal authority figure in the evenings and stay overnight.
Estebana and her children all walked many kilometers from the community of Las Brisas # 1 to get to school, starting the walk in the early hours of the morning. In the rainy season students from Las Brisas must cross the swollen river many times. They wade, carrying their school clothes on their heads.
We are proud of all of our high-school graduates. All had to work hard to receive the degree–some because they had children and jobs and worked all week. Some had both children and farms to care for; many crossed rivers in the rainy season and walked for miles to the bus. They had to scrimp to get the bus fare to come into town. Most, after working all day, had to fit homework in at night in houses with poor lighting where electricity is costly.
A significant numbers of our graduates excel even beyond such measures of achievement. Their grades were outstanding. Some go on to technical schools, including our own. When they go on to university they find that they are as well prepared as their peers–an important measure in a country where so many first-year university students, even those from private schools, need remediation. Many of our graduates have taken important steps into the world beyond the diploma. Here are more of their stories.
Delia Simon was illiterate in 1998. As a child, her father having abandoned the family, she was raised by a single mother. After going through our three-year literacy program, she entered and finished the FHS. In her final year, for her literacy service, she taught an uncle how to read and write. After graduation, she also chose to participate in the rural literacy program, “Yes I CAN!”, which involved living with a family for eight weeks. (Once that program was completed San Juan del Sur was declared “Free of Illiteracy.”) At age 24, Delia was studying a technical program in Granada.
Johanna Cortez ( 2005, a LACA recipient studying Business Administration in a university, UPOLI) now teaches in the Free High School. She is also the accountant for community road projects in the Mayor’s office.
Silvia Rios Bermudez, who graduated in 2006, went on to get a university degree in Managua in Communication Sciences. She now teaches Spanish in the Free High School.
Noelia Chavez Lopez is a librarian at the Biblioteca Movil and a member of the new Rotary Club-San Juan del Sur. “Without my diploma, I couldn’t have continued in any career or gotten any decent work. If you stay at home, you remain ignorant. In school, you learn something new every day. I had excellent teachers and loved English most. I was very emotional about getting the diploma. Finishing is a big accomplishment.”
One fourth-year student, who was only 24, took a year off from attending the FHS to run a campaign for City Council, and won. Luis Miguel Olivares was one of five City Councilors.
Raúl Merlos Sanchez, from a distant and impoverished village, who played the guitar and sang with aplomb at the opening of the high school in 2008, won a scholarship to go to Technical School in Venezuela in 2011. In a field of 12 candidates from San Juan and Rivas, he stood out through high grades and the interview. (This also speaks well for the teacher who taught him for the first three years in his village.) The FHS was honored to help him financially with the visa and health exams to make it possible for him to accept the scholarship.
Mario Lopez, 43, worked as a kid as a day laborer; then became a mason. Now, as a graduate with the highest grades of his year, he is a student in our Civil Construction program in the Technical School; and at the same time, he supervises and contracts community road projects.
A 34-year-old welder said the high-quality math he learned helps him write better proposals. He speaks better; he has more confidence when offering a bid; he gets more recommendations for his work. “You can’t get along without a high-school degree anymore,” Luis Sevilla said.
Our highest-scoring student in Tourism, Belkis Guillen, 27, who has organized a women’s cooperative in her village to sell jams that carry a handsome label in English, is grateful to the School because “It has taught me to formulate and promote projects that help in the development of my community and help me be an active participant.” A single mother, Belkis has received a scholarship to study English.
Harol Bustos, also in our Technical School, is a tax collector for a community water project.
Cornelia Avendaño, who works as the Civil Registrar in the Mayor’s Office, also is finishing her law degree.
Maria, 42 years old, had formerly worked in hardware stores. Now the only woman in her year in Civil Construction, she was pregnant all last year. She worked as a cleaner and assistant in the church but never missed a class.
José Guadamuz went on to the Normal School out of town to become a primary-school teacher, but on graduating found that the Ministry was providing no placements in teaching that he was willing to accept. He has been hired as an Education Specialist in the local branch of the Ministry of Education. His boss, Dorquis Muñiz, director of Education for Adults, ran “The Battle for the Sixth-Grade Diploma,” one of Nicaragua’s millennial goals. Of the six people working for her, four, including José, are graduates of the FHS. Since much of the work is recruiting rural people who are illiterate or who have few years of education, they–with their own recent successes in overcoming poverty and ignorance–do an amazing job at convincing reluctant adults to become earnest students.
Dariel Castro, who graduated in 2010, works as the administrator of environmental projects for an international group, Community Connect, that organizes foreign volunteers into work brigades for local nonprofit projects. Dariel says, of his checkered progress toward the degree, “I no longer need to regret the nine years I was out of school, without resources to return, because I was able to get such a good degree from the Saturday School.”
This is Yeseling Ariana Solis, 23 years old, in the restaurant where she cooks.
Yeseling Ariana is married and lives outside of town. She had a baby boy following a high-risk pregnancy during her fourth year of high school, but there was no one at home to take care of him. Yeseling, determined to finish school come hell or high water, got through her senior year in 2014 by walking into town with her baby, Yerik, early every Saturday morning and caring for him throughout the day in the classrooms. “If I had to take him out, I did. He wasn’t the only disturbance. Other students make noise too and talk to each other.”
Yeseling had been a victim of domestic violence as a child. Her parents separated when she was six-years old and her grandmother raised her in a house where there was never enough money. After she got her sixth-grade diploma at thirteen, she went to work washing clothes in the houses of strangers. When she was 17 she met the man who she would later marry, and he supported her in that he was willing to buy her notebooks and clothes so she could go back to school on Saturdays. On weekdays she was a street vendor, selling pretzels, powdered cornmeal, and pinol (a rural drink) that she made herself. After Yerik was born, she continued to do this while pushing him around in a carriage.
Two months after graduation, Yeseling started working six days a week cooking at a fast-food place in San Juan del Sur and was finally able to give up street vending. She aspires to run such a business someday, and her new boss encourages her and plans to give her more responsibility. She would also like to study drawing. In the meantime, Yeseling is repairing her small family home in Rivas by taking out micro-loans from the government. “Although drowning in difficulties,” a Free High School administrator said, “she sees our center as a life raft because it permitted her to receive an education and graduate.”
Without the Free High School, Yeseling might still be washing clothes or selling snacks on the streets. Now she is educated, has a decent job, and is progressing down a rewarding career path. Most importantly, she is empowered. This is the kind of difference in people’s lives that we’ll be making by supporting the school. Thanks for being part of that difference.
Many of our graduates, like Maria and Mario, go on to our own Technical School, while they continue to work– as masons, waiters, house-cleaners; or, in the case of Ernestina Bustos (graduated 2005; now in Tourism), as chief cook for the local Army base. Three out of the four cashiers at the only supermarket in town–coveted positions because of their pay and financial security–are graduates of the FHS.