A teacher asks:

We'd like to bring some surplus materials with us on our trip. What do you need?

This is something we posted on TripAdvisor this month.

Schools in Costa Rica work differently than what you may have experienced. One aspect we (and our guests) work with is the severe shortage of books - the esential unaffordability of a $15 text book in an economy that is supported by $2 and $3 an hour wages.

There are many reasons for the shortage of books and the lack of a reading habit that is an indirect spin off of the culture. Yet this is a culture that is more committed to their children than most. And a culture that is proud of it's history of pacifism, healthcare and literacy. How is it possible to have one of the highest literacy rates on the planet (around 97%) and almost no libraries and few books? But how do YOU define literacy?

The good news is that Costa Rica is currently ranked #1 in a 2009 survey of primary school enrollment.

But what has that got to do with literacy? Here it essentially means the child can "read and write". But when mandatory schooling stops at age 15 with a very low graduation rate and no books what is the likelihood that the child will later bump into Kafka or Marquez or understand what a 48% interest rate really means on that first refrigerator they buy?

How will you grasp the significance of the precedents for the Geneva convention or even the history of evolution.

Kids can and DO graduate from school life with very little access to books. They are just too expensive and take a beating in the wet and creature filled neo-tropics. For the last few years we have had good success cajoling our guests to bring some books for the kids along with their luggage.

These books have been donated to Escuela Tuetal Sur which is located in a small modest rural community just north of Alajuela. There is more info here: Escuela Tuetal Sur

We also lately have been working donations for the Escuela Poasito (destroyed in the Jan 8th 2009 earthquake epicentered near the village on the slopes of Poas volcano). Our focus at Poasito school is to find old laptops people no longer need and get a computer lab started as it is so much harder to find the correct books.

These 2 schools are "almost" typical public primary schools - kindergarten through age 12. Tuetal Sur school has 350 children this year and Poasito has 250. If we get books more suitable for older kids, they will go to Colegio Tuetal Norte - the closest high school about 1km from the hotel. The colegio has 510 children this year and a library with less than 300 old tattered books last time I counted.

The education and literacy issue is a complex one but here are a few local factoids. In Costa Rica, the government (MEP - Ministry of Education) provides the teachers but the neighborhood must find ways to house them (build classrooms, assembly areas, toilets and the like).

Most schools do not have libraries and there is no funding for such. The children are fed their main meal of the day for the equivalent of 25 cents (US). The schools have very few supplies (by comparison to what you may be used to) and in many poor rural neighborhoods the parents are unable to afford to help. Kids drop out of "colegio (high school)" early or do not graduate in part due to the inability to afford books and uniforms or to retain the required curriculum.

Thanks to the efforts of the school staff and the help of some of the gringo visitors a library is now an active part of school life at Escuela Tuetal Sur. Poasito has a couple of laptops and computer supplies and luckily a local high speed internet connection but as yet no internet access.

Both schools are "model schools" in many ways but most of all through their management. The directors of both schools (Snr Soto in Tuetal Sur and Snra Barrantes in Poasito) have a tremendous commitment to education, are leaders in their villages and are held up as models for schools for many miles around. They make a very interesting visit for anyone interested in education.

To date our guests have donated many books as well as a large amount of school supplies. Contact the hotel for a list of the things that are needed. You'd be very welcome to deliver them yourselves to either school. Escuela Tuetal Sur is 1km from the hotel gates and Escuela Poasito is on the slopes of Poas Volcano on your way back from visiting the volcano park. We'd be happy to introduce you to either. Thanks again for visiting and taking time with the kids - the future stewards of the national parks and reserves you'll be visiting this trip.