The school buildings are instantly recognisable as such; although single-storied and squat, they are the largest buildings in the area and the only ones with any type of formal signage.
As I approach, I see four teenage boys resting in the shade of the high school patio. They each look up with mild interest before turning their attention back to their phones. One greets me with a murmured ‘hola’. Interesting, given the area does not have internet and the mobile phone coverage is known to be weak, at best.
I walk past them and wander around the two concrete buildings, one a high school and the other an elementary school, situated directly adjacent to each other. It is the first of January and both schools are closed for the holiday season, though there are no doors or fences barring those who wish to from entering the school grounds.
Looking around, I am also struck by the absence of any graffiti. It seems in this community, consisting of about 60 people, the school is respected and revered. Students hang out in the school grounds even in the holidays.
Night has now fallen as I sit by a campfire listening to two women tell the story of the community with the aid of a translator. Both women have been here since its inception.
The community appreciates the value of growing up surrounded by nature and is dedicated to agriculture and forest preservation. Established in 1985 with help from the government and initially consisting of 12 families, the community has now reached 15.
Each person who wishes to join Coope San Juan needs to bring skills to help better the community. No one with a criminal history will be accepted, as the locals work to keep their youth away from any potential vices.
Children began attending the local primary school, Escuela Coope San Juan, in 1992. Before that, they travelled 5 kilometres to the nearest school by horse or on the back of a truck. There are currently 16 children aged 5-12 attending the school who are all taught by one teacher.
Liceo Rural Coope San Juan, the secondary school, opened in 2004 for 13-17 year-olds, so these students didn’t have to travel the 21 kilometres each morning and night to the closest high school. This school currently has five teachers and caters to 46 students, including some who now travel to San Juan from other areas.
Before the two schools were built, only those who were incredibly dedicated would receive an education, the women tell us. To get to the neighbouring schools students would leave before 4am and return around 8pm.
Coope San Juan is proud of its younger, formally-educated generation. Those who are graduating high school are often the first in their family to do so, or the first in their family to go to university. The township is home to two police officers, a man and a woman, who grew up and still live in San Juan. They travel to a nearby town for work, as there is no police station in San Juan.
The community is working to incorporate homestays into its repertoire, to create a steadier stream of income than agriculture. This shift is providing more opportunities for learning, and not just for the younger generation.
While older women teach traditional cooking classes, teenagers lead bicycle tours through the rainforest, explaining everything from the natural science, cultural significance and historical value of the neighboring flora and fauna.
Locals have worked with researchers and scientists to study the nearby rainforest, or have improved their knowledge of the English language by hosting homestayers, like me.
I learned a lot too. My host ‘parents’ were roughly my age and we compared our disparate lifestyles through garbled English, Spanish and a variety of miming gestures. The lack of internet forced me to immerse myself in the learning in a very real way; instead of Googling what I wanted to say, I needed to think laterally about how I could explain a variety of more abstract concepts.
It was refreshing to visit a community which was able to value the role of education without curtains of bureaucracy obscuring the view. Although there are certainly many improvements that could be made to New Zealand’s education system, visiting San Juan reminded me that no matter where we are in the world, we all have similar hopes for educational outcomes.
In many ways, educators in New Zealand have similar focuses to those in Coope San Juan. We too want students to have an appreciation for the environment and the role we play in protecting it. We want to grow positive, community-minded people who can help better our society. We want to instil a love of learning that extends beyond the school gate. We want to enable students to transition seamlessly into the world of work.
If I got anything out of my time in Coope San Juan, it would be the reminder to stay focused on what matters most in education; making it work for our communities, and for our people.
Perhaps a timely reminder, as the Tomorrow’s Schools Review winds of change begin to stir.