Bringing School Improvement Action Plans to Life in Nicaragua

Story/photos by Maureen Simpson

Nearly 30 parents, teachers, school administrators and community members have gathered at the local school in El Dorado, a small, coffee farming community in the mountains of Jinotega, Nicaragua. Poster-size charts filled with words like sostenibilidad, alianza and gestiones (sustainability, alliance and management) line the walls. Carmen Hernandez, a mother of two, is speaking at the front of the room, standing next to a mini replica of the modest school campus, which serves approximately 475 kindergarten-11th grade students.

"We're not going to do a project just because. We're going to do a project to solve one of the needs we have at the school," Hernandez says, pointing to the model. "As you can see, this is what we are intending to do. We want to work on developing a fence. We want our children to be safe here."

The purpose of the meeting is to share an action plan created by the Community School Support Group, which was organized with help from PCI in March 2019. El Dorado is one of 1,115 pre- and primary schools participating in Mejor Educación y Salud (MESA), which means "Better Education and Health" in English. The project is part of the United States Department of Agriculture's McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program and jointly implemented by PCI, the Ministry of Education and the Center for Human, Citizen and Autonomic Rights.

Through MESA, PCI works with local stakeholders in some of Nicaragua's most remote and vulnerable communities to improve health, nutrition and literacy outcomes for schoolchildren in the department of Jinotega and in the Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region. Along with establishing healthy school meals, reading materials, and water, sanitation and hygiene interventions, a major component of the program is building the capacity of teachers, parents and community members to work together and develop school improvement action plans.

"Our main goal is to strengthen the human talent that already exists here and to draw resources from the community to support the school," says Luis Manuel, a monitoring and evaluation specialist at PCI Nicaragua. "The school must be at the center of community development, because education is the pillar to be able to move ahead in life."

To help Community School Support Groups become organized, a PCI facilitator guides the group through 10 sessions on community ownership, strategic planning and the evaluation and updating of school improvement work plans. Parents, teachers and other invested community members learn how to set goals, prioritize activities, create a schedule and budget, pool local resources and track their progress.

"We accompany them at the beginning, but the idea is that after the 10 sessions, they are going to facilitate the sessions on their own and update their plans to include other activities," says Fidel Ruiz, who served as the PCI facilitator for El Dorado's Community School Support Group. "We work on developing sustainability, so they can continue to work even when PCI leaves."

Following Hernandez's presentation on building a school fence, three mothers perform a skit about requesting support for the project from the local mayor's office. The group then goes over the status of each activity in their action plan, from repairing classroom doors and latrines to obtaining instruments for the school band and planting school gardens. A long-term goal of the group is to build a school cafeteria. For now, mothers cook the school meals in their homes with commodities provided by MESA, contributions from each family and vegetables from the school gardens.

"From our perspective, these trainings from PCI are so important because parents have really gotten involved and interested in their children's education," says Jeanette Alfaro, El Dorado's school principal. "We feel backed by the community."

After the meeting, as Hernandez and her daughter pack up to walk home to their family's small coffee farm, she reflects on the value of her experience with PCI's MESA program.

"We're going to be able to train other people and have an impact on our community. We're also going to motivate our children," she says. "We have to improve so that in the future our school continues to be a beautiful school and it gets better. We want to promote education."