Principal, San Francisco de Chachagua School, San Francisco de Penas Blancas, Costa Rica
If anyone can prove by example that education is a great equalizer, it is Eulin Chacon. Growing up in San Carlos, Costa Rica, she had always enjoyed school. She liked to study and pursued her education through high school, dreaming of continuing on to college.
Her parents, however, were unable to afford college tuition, so her father offered her a job at their family shoe store to help her pay her own way. "My father believed that if I paid for it, I would value it more," Eulin says. "He was right." She went on to earn multiple degrees in education, curriculum, and administration, and supplemented her knowledge with courses on community projects. And while she would love to earn her Ph.D., she has had to push aside that dream because it is too expensive.
Even though she did well in school, Eulin always felt that she and her classmates were marginalized because they were poor. And she became determined to do something about it. It seemed to her that the best way to change attitudes was from the inside, and so she made up her mind to become an educator herself and, in her words, "offer equal opportunities to all."
A Principal Who Puts Her Principles into Action
She has put that philosophy to the test as the principal of the San Francisco de Chachagua School in the Costa Rican village of San Francisco de Penas Blancas. Despite the challenges of a rural location and low-income students, San Francisco has thrived under Eulin's leadership, rivaling larger schools in terms of curriculum, quality, and efficiency.
"When I arrived 14 years ago, we only had two classrooms and a small dining room," she recalls. "Today we have seven classrooms, a dining room, and a computer lab."
Another change she has made has been to the school's curriculum. Under the tutelage of the school's ten teachers, the school's 213 students (ages four through twelve) study English, Spanish, computers, math, science, social studies, and agriculture.
Yes, agriculture. And that is the feature that sets Eulin's school apart from every other primary school in Costa Rica: it is the first officially designated Agricultural Primary School in the nation.
Let's step back a moment and see how that came about.
San Francisco Had a Farm, E I E I O
When it comes to education, the Costa Rican government has the best of intentions—which include the provision of meals for all students. In San Francisco de Penas Blancas, however, funds allocated for that purpose had been diverted to other pressing needs, so there was rarely enough left over to put food on the table for the school's students.
In 2006, Grand Circle Foundation launched an initiative to build a microfarm on school grounds, as a way to solve the meal problem for good, while benefiting the entire community. The project became the pilot of the Foundation's Invest in a Village initiative, which aims to create sustainable change in communities where we already have developed strong relationships.
The microfarm project consists of three phases, funded by our travelers and by the San Francisco community, under Eulin's dynamic leadership. In the first phase, a parcel of land adjacent to the school was purchased and the ground prepared for the planting of fruits and vegetables.
Phase 2 involved building a barn to house livestock. Today, the second floor of the barn is used as a classroom, where all the children have a weekly lesson in agriculture. "For us, it was an excellent idea to bring classroom learning to the farm where children can play and learn," says Eulin. It is this feature in particular that earned the school its groundbreaking official designation.
The farm now also has electricity and an irrigation system, and a tilapia pond, the focus of phase 3, remains to be built, to fill the children's plates protein from this fast-growing fish.
More Than a Principal: A Partner
A school-based project of such a large scope simply wouldn't be possible without the support of a dedicated principal, and the Foundation found an enthusiastic partner in Eulin Chacon.
"I want my school to become a small piece of heaven where children come to learn and enjoy," she explains, "and I want students who lack love and food at home to be able to find it here." In such a welcoming environment, Eulin believes that students will be better able to excel, no matter what challenges they encounter in life.
She is proud that, in less than three years, the microfarm has had a national impact on her country and that her school is seen as an innovator. Most of all, she is delighted by the effect the microfarm has had on the children, who have been involved in every phase of the project. "The students are so proud that the school belongs to them and that they have contributed to every bit of the microfarm," she says. "It also shows that someone cares about them."
She has further made efforts to make sure that parents contribute time and labor—as well as perform the all-important task of motivating their children to pitch in. For example, when it was becoming clear that the barn would not be big enough to contain all the livestock, she prompted the community to use surplus food grown at the farm to raise the funds needed to expand it. "My #1 goal with the school is to become totally independent," she says. "It's the best legacy for future generations."
She also credits the Foundation's partnership with improving students' self-esteem and proficiency in English, providing teacher training and mentoring through a teachers' exchange program, and renovating the school's facilities.
Grand Circle Foundation is proud to have played a role in sponsoring the microfarm on the school grounds that is not only helping to feed hungry students, but also giving the children the chance to learn valuable skills in a nation that is heavily dependent on agriculture.
For Eulin, however, once the microfarm is complete, there are still dreams beyond the horizon. "I would like to make a classroom for children with learning difficulties," she says, "and a gym that children and the community can enjoy, to avoid seeking drugs and other things that might harm them."
Knowing Eulin, she will probably accomplish it. After all, more than anything, the San Francisco School has Eulin's strong leadership to thank for its many successes. "As a leader, I have my own ideas, but I want to hear everyone else's ideas as well," she says. "That way, we can work together as a team, as a family, for our children."
Spoken like a gutsy leader who is a true first among equals.
Featured in our May 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.