Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A visit to an Adolescent Montessori Environment in Honduras

An APUFRAM student showing his artwork depicting the coffee harvest

During my recent trip to Honduras, we had the chance to visit a boarding school called APUFRAM. As we arrived at APUFRAM, darkness was falling and our group was hungry and eager to get home to Comayagua. I was also anxious because our driver needed to be back home, and our friend Hernan was waiting for us and he had prepared food for the whole group. We had decided to stop at APUFRAM because Zac remembered that there was an art studio full of incredible student paintings and Deb and Pete were looking for a painting to become the label for the coffee they were going to sell. Also, Adalid’s three kids had all been students there in the past year and we had grown close to them and wanted to see where they went to school. I wanted to be in and out in ten minutes, but this was not to be the case.

We pulled in to the school store and Hector informed us that we would be met by none other than Padre Emilio. To meet Padre Emilio and hear his story is to witness the results of a simple plan executed over the course of more than 35 years. When he came to Honduras he realized that the opportunities for rural youth to attend school beyond the elementary level were few and far between. All of the junior high schools and high schools were located in big cities, and rural people who wanted to send their children would not only give up a valuable farm hand but also be burdened with the costs of housing and feeding their child far from home. In fact, according to APUFRAM more than 90% of Honduran adolescents do not go to school beyond sixth grade. Padre Emilio saw this and realized that these people did not need a hand-out, but rather they needed an opportunity, a hand-up. He founded a “boys and girls town” near Flores Comayagua. APUFRAM is essentially a boarding school for poor rural young people. The families must pay something, but the cost is based on what they can afford to pay. The students help keep costs down by balancing their studies with work.

As Padre Emilio switched to English, he told us that the work component was not just to help make the program more affordable. He repeated several times that the entire program was designed to help the young people to help themselves. The work is deliberately diverse and this contributes to the students feelings of competence. The students farm to raise and prepare their own food, they have a carpentry shop to sell goods and learn a trade, they have a retail shop and a repair shop. The students work for 4 hours and study for 4 hours every day. He told us about how in his estimation by making advanced education available to rural young people, that at least fifteen people would be positively affected in a chain reaction. He spoke of how many of the students go on to University and how most of the current staff are actually alumni of the school. Padre Emilio took a break from telling us about the school to ask us about who we were and where we are from. When I mentioned that we were from rural Wisconsin, he spoke of his own rural root in Salina, Kansas. How he easily adapted to the simple life of rural Honduras when he arrived 40 years ago because he was raised in the country. He went on to praise the work ethic of the young people who come to the school in Flores. He talked about how people love the work and are grateful for the opportunity. He spoke about how there are almost never any fights, and he ascribed this to the rural upbringing of the young people. As we looked around we saw cheerful young people and the buzz of intentional activity.   

As a Montessorian, I quickly recognized that Padre Emilio had inadvertently set up the ideal Montessori environment for adolescents. In having a rural boarding school with a focus on productive work, he has exactly matched the developmental needs of the age. Adolescents need to be brought into society through experiences of making a positive contribution to a community. The boys and girls of APUFRAM make a daily contribution to the community and to their own education. When a person is in an environment that meets his or her developmental needs, it tends to have a “normalizing effect” on the behavior of the person – meaning that the person will exhibit positive social traits and work productively. My guess is that Padre Emilio’s observation that there are no fights and that the students love their work has as much to do with the fact that the school has a normalizing effect on the student body as it does with the rural upbringing of the kids.

Have you ever avoided something because you knew that to see it would challenge you to change something about yourself? For years I have avoided seeing Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, because I don’t want to stop driving and move to a solar-heated straw bale house. Looking back, there is a part of me that would like to have missed the visit, because to visit APUFRAM is to be confronted with a picture of what is possible when vision, compassion, intelligence and resources come together. Once a person sees what is possible, the question becomes “what is stopping you from realizing an equally big vision?”