As visitors approach Colegio Juan Wesley, an elementary and secondary school in San Cristobal Totonicapan, Guatemala, they behold colorful letters across the siding of the second floor: “A Dios sea la Gloria,” (To God be the glory). Over 300 children, from preschool to básico (high school), attend this school—and dozens of work teams throughout the year as well. This past week, 7 students from Front Range Christian School, 1 other chaperon and myself served Colegio Juan Wesley by helping in the construction of a new vocational school. Our eyes were also opened to the challenges of education in the developing world.
Timoteo Chocoy, the Director of Juan Wesley, hosted our team for the week. We stayed at the Wick House (a house for former missionaries), and were fed each day by Mari Lu, Timoteo’s hospitable wife. We spent the week singing (to 3 different groups), preaching (this was just me), doing a Sunday school lesson, and hauling rock. Our hands were put to good use as we carried rock and sand for 2 1/2 days to the second floor of the new vocational school, which was to be used for the cement mixture. Aching backs were the norm, but after Timoteo gave us the tour of the current school, much of which was built by short term teams, it became apparent that this work was worth the effort.
The vision for the school was born out of deep love and desperate need. Originally a mission of the Primitive Methodist Church in San Cristobal, the school quickly grew out of the church building and needed a new building. The vision for a school on the campus of Camp Shalom, near the Quiche Bible Institute, was born. Phase 1 would be the primary and secondary school. Phase 2 (which we were working on), would be the vocational school, a training institute which would give students the opportunity learn a trade – mechanic, carpenter, accountant, etc—and gain the skills for employment in Guatemalan society. Phase 3 would be an extension site of a Christian university.
Why the school? First, the quality of public education in Guatemala could be described as poor at best. Absent teachers, ignorant of curriculum, teaching in classes of 40+ is the norm. The average years in school for a Guatemalan citizen, even if they do stay in school, is less than five. A quality, Christian environment, with well trained teachers was in such demand, the only barrier to doubling their size overnight was tuition costs. Second, the school was launched for the sake of mission. For Timoteo, the school is a field of evangelism to the hundreds of students, over half of whom are non-Christians. Third, education is often the only way out of poverty. The economic pressure for a child to stop school after elementary school and begin working is tremendous. Not only can families not afford the modest tuition ($15/month), but children are often expected to begin working in the fields or in the family business at a very young age—thus permanently limiting their social and economic possibilities.
Here’s my question: how do we make schools, like Colegio Juan Wesley, work for more students? This is inherently a complex question. Quality teachers, competent administrators, and educational facilities are all central. But most issues come back to funding. Tuition only covers about half of what it costs to educate a student, not including new projects. What is needed is creative solutions for funding schools. We need more donors who will provide scholarships to students (only $350 / year). We also need creative solutions for funding schools. What about building businesses in the community which could give half of their profits to the school? Or what about using the vocational school to produce ready-made products for market, thus providing a measure of operational funding (this idea is already in the work)? Or could high school students work one day a week for Christian-owned companies and businesses, giving the student valuable work experience and the school their wage as a compensation for tuition (check out the Cristo Rey model)?
“No margin, no mission,” a recent head of school said at a marketing seminar. This negative margin, to which most schools can identify, really needs to return to the forefront of educational conversations, especially among leadership. The developing world, including the children at Colegio Juan Wesley, are waiting for creative solutions.