Imagine a small, developing nation whose education system is severely lacking: schools are poorly funded, students can't afford tuition or books, fewer than half of indigenous girls even attend school — and often drop out to take care of siblings or get married.
These are the schools of rural Guatemala.
Now meet a firebrand educator who thinks he has a way to reinvent schools in Guatemala.
His school is called Los Patojos, a Spanish word used in Guatemala that means "little ones."
The main school building — with its sunny courtyard and colorful murals — is located in the town of Jocotenango, about an hour from the capital of Guatemala City. On the day I visit, the littlest students are racing around in homemade cow costumes as part of a student performance taking place later that day.
Los Patojos is in the mold of Montessori and Waldorf schools. It focuses on the whole child — the intellectual, the artistic, the physical and the practical. Teachers show the students how to bake bread, to take photographs, to frame a building — and they also instill pride of place.
"Guatemala wants to become Mexico. Mexico wants to become the United States. The United States wants to become Europe. I don't want to become anything. I want to become Guatemala," says Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes.
"I want to show my kids that we come from Mayas," Romero continues. "They built a f*****g civilization out of their own ideas. I believe these kids will have that feeling again of, 'Hey, I'm able to do something by myself.' "
Romero considers himself more of a rebel or social activist than an educator. He started out as a teacher at a Catholic school in Guatemala, but became frustrated with the confining parochial traditions.
"I saw all these beautiful minds oppressed. I just didn't feel able to be myself," he says.
He started inviting kids from the streets of Jocotenango to his parents' middle-class house. That grew into a community center that offered classes and a performance space. More and more kids showed up. He attracted the attention of international donors like Just World International and the Give Kids a Chance Foundation, who helped him build a real school. In 2014, he was the only Latin American to be selected for a "hero award" by CNN, which brought more international exposure.
In Guatemala, where childhood is threatened by poverty, gang violence, drug addiction and generalized low self-esteem, Los Patojos is seen as a ray of light.
"We have four fundamentals here," says Rafael Fuentes, the education coordinator, and a cousin of Romero's, "food, health, education and art. For us, art is just as important as math."
The day I visit, the school is celebrating its twelfth anniversary. Each class performs a different dance routine. The student audience applauds wildly for the dancers. The 350 children — ages 4 to 17 — seem unusually energetic, even euphoric.
That may partly be due to the school's bedrock principle: A child must be healthy and nourished in order to learn. Patojos has its own clinic where a doctor monitors students' weight and health. A kitchen staffed by students serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.
Moreover, the school does not shelter its students from the often negative news that comes out of Guatemala. Teachers encourage them to stay informed and discuss headlines.
"Here, we learn what is happening in Guatemala and around the world," says 12-year-old Luis Julian Montufar. "In public schools, they brainwash you and tell you all the good things the president is doing."
He then launches into a critique of President Jimmy Morales' recent controversial cancellation of a UN-backed anti-corruption commission that was investigating the president's own family.
At this point, you're saying: Great! But who pays?
Los Patojos relies heavily on international and domestic donors. Romero is the first to admit he spends a lot of his time fund-raising.
"I need money and that's the big challenge," he says. "My job is to always keep finding investment, donations and partnerships." Up to now, he says, schooling has been free. They're about to initiate a modest tuition for the upper grades.
Romero has ambitious plans. He is building an additional campus a few miles away in the shadow of the smoke-belching Fuego volcano.
That campus is being built by a team of seven teenagers — all of whom he says were wild boys from the streets. They're now learning about construction and horticulture. The vegetables they're growing in the rich volcanic soil will be sold in town and served in a student-run café with the proceeds plowed back into the school. Ideas for six additional campuses across Guatemala are swimming around his head.
"We're not just educating kids," Romero says, "we're also giving them all the resources to make their businesses. I'm not afraid of being called a f*****g capitalist. I need to pay the bills."
Four years ago, the Guatemalan Education Ministry recognized Los Patojos and began accepting its diplomas. The school is only a dozen years old so there haven't been many graduates. Romero says ten kids have left Los Patojos and moved into the workplace.
In Guatemala, the Maya built pyramids, invented a writing system, and developed a calendar. Juan Pablo Romero believes the seeds of genius are still here. They just need watering.
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