The “greenest” (sustainable) schools in Guatemala
“Eco-friendly—sustainable—green,” remark our visitors with amazement when they visit the twin middle and high schools at the remote mountain Maya Jaguar campus. Why their surprise?
Perhaps they expected to find our schools like those they had observed while traveling through the countryside: dilapidated, paint-peeled structures with dreary classrooms full of broken down desks and chairs to seat 50 to 60 students per room. Such schools are bereft of books and supplies, sparsely equipped with a few nearly ancient computers, some so old that they no longer function, serving only to collect dust and cobwebs in a corner.
The Maya Jaguar Center for Education and Development schools stand apart. Sustainability shouts with its small classes of eight to 12 students, smart modern-day laptop computers, overhead classroom projectors, e-Readers, and the Internet. Well maintained state-of-the-art solar power system and satellite equipment keep the technology humming.
Although Guatemala is the largest country in Central America, sadly, it only spends three percent of its gross domestic production (GDP) on education. Coupling this factor with the deep-rooted corruption of its government institutions, the country proffers the lowest literacy rate in the Western hemisphere. It was these very factors that provided the wellspring for Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala to create sustainable education for some of the country’s most impoverished indigenous young people.
Burdened with extreme poverty, inadequate and insufficient nutrition from the time of birth, and lack of opportunity to learn the national language of Spanish (the Mayan people speak one of 22 different indigenous languages), these youth exhibit a profound desire to be educated. It is their burning desire that wins them scholarships at the Maya Jaguar Center, providing them with a lifetime opportunity of education and with it, a rare chance to transform their lives and leave poverty behind.
However, they would find no ordinary education. Theirs is sustainable education, one that opens doors to becoming tomorrow’s leaders, one where a student gains critical thinking proficiencies, and achieves literacy skills that they will share with their younger siblings. They also learn organic gardening practices using open-pollinated seeds—when produce is harvested, seeds will be saved for future plantings, creating the basis for sustainable gardening. Students learn to research local plant foods that will be used in their school kitchen. For instance, malanga, a native root vegetable, supplies double the much-needed calories of potatoes with equal nutrients at half the price. Plantains and bananas, also locally produced, are used in lieu of more expensive and less fresh foods that are shipped in from long distances. Good nutrition is taught in the classroom and in the gardens. Students produce amaranth, a powerhouse of nutrition recently re-introduced to nearby villages by the Maya Jaguar Center. Amaranth is a high-protein ancient grain nearly lost 500 years ago when the Spanish prohibited its cultivation upon threat of death. By encouraging its production, students also honor their culture and history.
Students engage in the daily tasks of campus life. Rising at 5:30 a.m. they rotate chores of weeding and watering the school gardens, preparing food, managing the school’s small chicken farm, and cleaning the school buildings. Their sense of ownership of their schools becomes quickly evident to observers.
The need to be competitive in the labor market upon graduation is expressed in the curriculum: indispensable skills in health and the sciences are taught. A fully equipped science lab, the only one in the vast northern region of the department of Huehuetenango, has been created for them. Problem-solving, teamwork, and interpersonal skills are focused upon. Linguistic competency in oral and written communication in the Spanish language is a primary goal which serves to level the playing field for indigenous students in competing in the job market. Small classes, along with daily tutoring workshops, create a further opportunity for students to overcome their prior substandard schooling.
It is through the combined activities of building on students’ hunger for learning, creating relationships between the Center and the surrounding communities, and teaching students to share their knowledge of nutrition and agronomy that the school is truly sustainable. The knowledge, skills, and aptitudes students at Maya Jaguar sow at school, they also sow at home. What grows in the students’ homes grows throughout the villages.
Together, the Center’s innovative and specially-trained teachers and their “burning-to-learn” students together have molded the Maya Jaguar Center into a vibrant educational community. The students’ obvious pride in their schools and their enthusiasm to engage in the management of their campus clearly demonstrates that the Maya Jaguar Schools are the “greenest” of all in Guatemala.