High school prepares teens with big ambitions

For 14 Galapagos teens, IB program may be the key to seeing the world


 

The IB students in Beatriz Mendoza’s class have big ambitions. Moises Jimenez, center back row, wants to go to university in Japan to study languages.

The IB students in Beatriz Mendoza’s class have big ambitions. Moises Jimenez, center back row, wants to go to university in Japan to study languages.

SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador — As Moises Jimenez sits upright in the back of Spanish class at Colegio Nacional Galapagos, a three-story, air-condition-less high school on a dirt lane a few miles south of the equator, he dreams of going to college in Japan, becoming a translator in multiple languages and traveling around the world.

The key to getting him started, Jimenez said, is graduating this November with a highly prestigious Bachillerato International Diploma, which is awarded to approximately five out of every 1,000 graduating seniors in Ecuador.

“I want the IB Diploma because it will help me get a scholarship, go to college and travel around the world,” Jimenez said.

Where an average annual income is $11,000 and one year at college costs twice that, scholarships are vital for young Galapagos students wanting to expand their world.

“The diploma enjoys a high level of respect and recognition among the world’s higher education institutions,” the International Baccalaureate website reads. “For students, success in the IB program often results in advanced standing, course credit, scholarships and other admissions related benefits at many universities.”

But earning this prestigious diploma is not easy.

From May to February, the 14 seniors in Colegio Nacional Galapagos’ Class of ’17 are focused entirely on preparing for the two-day exams that are given each November and will determine whether they get the advanced diploma.

They begin class at 7:10 a.m., some having taken the 11-mile bus ride from the highlands; others having walked or biked the dusty roads to get to the school on the edge of Puerto Ayora, the island’s main town.

Fourteen IB students attend school six days a week at Colegio Nacional Galapagos.

Fourteen IB students attend school six days a week at Colegio Nacional Galapagos.

 

It’s the beginning of a long day. Each student takes nine classes: math, physics, biology, chemistry, history, English, Spanish, theory of knowledge and physical education. There are no elective options such as art and music.

In an upper-class Spanish class led by Beatriz Mendoza, the students are in the midst of reading “The History of Latin America.” Mendoza said this gives the students a better understanding of other countries — a global perspective.

Even when classes end at 3 p.m., the students say they face another three to four hours of homework each night.

Classes are six days a week, Monday through Saturday.

Jimenez is a national cycling champion, but he’s giving that up to focus on his academics. “There is no time for sports or activities, only studying,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez has never been off the island — only one of the students in Mendoza’s Spanish class has — but his English is almost flawless. He speaks clearly, precisely and without difficulty.

“I study English in the summer by listening to English music and practicing the pronunciations,” Jimenez said.

For many students in the class, their only contact with areas outside the Galapagos comes from older siblings studying or working on mainland Ecuador.

In Jimenez’s case, his older brother graduated from college in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and is now working there as a physical therapist.

Worldwide, nearly 80 percent of the seniors who go through the IB program and take the exams receive the diploma.

Last year, Colegio Nacional Galapagos’ success rate was 100 percent — all 11 students enrolled in the IB program earned the advanced degree.

Mendoza, the Spanish teacher, is confident that this year’s 14 IB candidates will all pass, too.

That’s a tall order for Colegio Nacional Galapagos. Its location, on an island in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, creates a natural physical isolation. Young people growing up on the island don’t get nearly as much exposure to concerts, museums and other languages as teens on the mainland. Their teachers also don’t have the opportunity to mingle with other educators to trade tips or take training courses to help them improve.

Then there’s the matter of getting teaching supplies to the islands.

“The books from the government are on the mainland, but there is no money to ship the books here,” Gina Macias, the administrator for Circuit 2, which includes schools on the islands of Santa Cruz and Isabela, said in Spanish.

The entire circuit receives about $8,000 a year for all 12 of its schools. This is the money needed to pay for cleaning supplies, paint, electricity and equipment such as copying machines and computers.

“There is no extra money to buy supplies for the offices or for cleaning the bathrooms,” Macias said.

Even Jimenez’s crisp white-and-navy uniform is hard to come by. There are not enough school clothes to go around. They are given out to students first-come, first-served. Those who are late on the first day of school have to fend for themselves.

The back wall of Beatriz Mendoza’s classroom is painted with a reminder of the topics studied for the IB exam and the names of last year’s students who passed the difficult tests.

The back wall of Beatriz Mendoza’s classroom is painted with a reminder of the topics studied for the IB exam and the names of last year’s students who passed the difficult tests.

The IB program is not for everyone.

Nathalie Flaig, mother of two school-aged children, was impressed after learning about the program at orientation five years ago.

“The kids learn more, have a better opportunity to study abroad and study more,” said Flaig, who moved to the island from Switzerland 12 years ago after marrying a local.

But after ninth grade, when it came time for the students to choose among the four tracks offered — culinary, technical, general studies, and IB — teachers advised Flaig’s daughter Rebeca to take the general track.

“Rebeca didn’t go into the IB program because the teachers told her that only those who always get the best grades in school should go,” Flaig said. Still, Flaig is a fan of the program. “I think it is very important to have this program in the Galapagos.”

Rebeca Flaig, like the majority of the 340 high school students enrolled at Colegio Nacional Galapagos, is on the less rigorous general track. These students leave school two hours earlier and don’t have classes on Saturdays. They still have the opportunity to go on to college, but scholarships are harder to come by.

The IB program wasn’t even offered on Santa Cruz until 2008. But since its inception, it has helped more than 100 Galapagos students achieve their dreams. And those dreams are strong.

Romina Cahuana wants to study neuroscience in the United States.

Mara Espinoza has her heart set on being a marine biologist.

Other students in Mendoza’s Spanish class call out that they want to be an architect in Argentina or an engineer in Chile.

“The IB Diploma is so important,” said Jimenez, “because it will give us more possibilities in the future.”

 

 

More like this: Galapagos 2016

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