As anyone who works in the non-profit sector can tell you, projects rarely go exactly as you plan them. None of us like to brag about our failures, but let’s face it: no matter how lofty your goals are or how meticulously you have planned your project, making a real, sustainable change involves a lot of trial and error.
The Rural School Partnership (RSP) Program is SCSRN’s longest-standing project. It started with four donors who “adopted” four rural elementary schools and provided the students with school supplies. Now, 25 years later, 47 rural schools in San Ramón have participated in the program. We have 22 Nicaraguan schools currently sponsored by groups in the United States, including schools, churches, clubs, and families. Along the way, we’ve had our share of trial and error, and as a result, we’ve learned from our mistakes. The following are five things that make the RSP Program a success.
- It has long-lasting impact in rural communities.
When we started the RSP program, schools were partnered indefinitely with a sponsor in the United States, and the donation was the same every year: school supplies. This created two problems: 1) there was no lasting change because once the supplies were used up, there was nothing left, and 2) parents and teachers grew complacent, simply expecting the delivery at the beginning of each semester.
Starting in 2015, we limited participation for each Nicaraguan school in the RSP program to three years. Once parents and teachers knew that the support would stop after three years, they began to request to use part or all of the donation for permanent improvements to the school, like laying pipe so that the school could have water, paving dirt floors, improving security measures, or buying a sound system for assemblies and community events.
There are 78 rural schools in San Ramón. Our goal is to maintain relationships with 25 rural schools, so that every nine years, we can rotate back to schools who have previously participated. This way, schools know they will get another chance to participate, but they have to make the most of the opportunity when their turn comes around.
- Donations go a long way.
The standard donation that we ask from RSP sponsors is $500 each year for three years (though some give more). To give you an idea of how much money that is in Nicaragua, consider that the minimum wage for an unskilled worker is approximately $140 a month, working six days a week.
We tell the teachers at the beginning of the school year (which in Nicaragua begins in February) how much money they will receive that year in local currency. Teachers then meet with the parents to decide how to invest that money. During the first semester of this year, schools have used the money to build fences, pave courtyards, purchase sound systems, install windows, and build latrines. If any money is left over, it is used to buy teaching materials and school supplies.
- It involves parents in their children’s school and education.
With salaries like the one mentioned above, you can imagine that parents don’t have much money to support their children’s school. The RSP program gives them some agency, and parents want to attend meetings so they can be part of the decision-making. Teachers take advantage of these meetings to get parents involved in other ways. In many of the communities where we work, we have seen how parents have gotten much more involved in their children’s education as a result of the RSP program.
- It gets rural teachers from different communities talking to each other.
To be frank, we didn’t anticipate this one, but we began to notice it after we made changes to the program in 2015. One teacher had the idea of using their RSP donation to purchase a portable sound system – basically a stand-alone speaker with a microphone and a USB port to play music. A week later, five other teachers arrived with the exact same request! Word had spread about this one teacher’s great idea, and other teachers shared it with the parents in their communities.
Most rural communities in San Ramón are isolated, and materials are scarce. Rural schoolteachers don’t often get opportunities to share ideas, and when they do, it’s usually to talk about what they don’t have. The RSP program has provided them with a chance for constructive exchange.
- It connects the rural communities of San Ramón to our sister communities in the United States.
This was one of the main reasons for starting the RSP program in the first place–creating opportunities for cross-cultural communication. Through videos, photos, drawings, letters, and visits, the children of San Ramón and the people from our sister communities in the United States learn about each other. For many of the children at our RSP schools, communicating with sister communities in the United States is exciting, and motivates them to learn about their community so that they can share what they’ve learned. The interaction is also very fulfilling for the U.S. sponsors, especially for those who come to visit as part of a cultural immersion eco-tour. Overwhelmingly, we are told by visitors that the visit to their sister school is the highlight of their trip!
The RSP program is much more effective than it was when it began, and not as effective as it will be in the future. We continue to learn from our experiences, and recognize that the people of San Ramón still have a lot to each us. We invite you to come and learn with us! If you’re interested in becoming an RSP sponsor please contact us.
Want to see pictures of the children and the schools that participate in the RSP program? Check out our Flickr page!