Nuestra Escuela: Part 1

Nuestra Escuela: Part 1

Student Body President Joshua Martínez standing in front of the main campus of Nuestra Escuela in Caguas, Puerto Rico.
Student Body President Joshua Martínez standing in front of the main campus of Nuestra Escuela in Caguas, Puerto Rico.

Caguas, Puerto Rico, about 30 miles south of the capital, San Juan, is home to about 87,000 people. By day, commerce bustles around a few major medical centers. Shortly after 5pm, people return to their homes, and the shop-lined streets downtown are vacant.

At the edge of the commercial district, one small building stands out. Painted with a brilliant shooting star trailing a rainbow, Nuestra Escuela's main campus provides hope, security and freedom  to about 150 students. The name Nuestra Escuela translates as “our school,” and as soon as I stepped inside I could see that it truly feels like it is owned by the students and staff alike.

I traveled the 1600 miles to this tiny school in Puerto Rico because I heard they were doing big things. According to the Institute for Democratic Education in America, there are hundreds of democratic schools--where students’ voices are included in decision making-- across the country and around the world. However, when I started looking at school’s websites, I found that many of them were located in middle to upper-middle class communities and predominantly served students from those households. The way our economy works, middle class children are likely to be taught critical thinking and decision making skills in preparation for careers in middle management. Children from low income families are likely to be taught to follow directions and do uniform work in preparation for low skill jobs. I am working towards a democratically organized vocational school for teen parents in Baltimore City (more details available at www.sowerschool.wordpress.com), so I needed to see democratic education at work with students from low-income communities.

What I found was better than what I’d hoped for. After two weeks with the school, I had learned more than I could fit into one article about how their school works, and how Baltimore can benefit from the lessons they’ve learned. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to  Joshua Martínez, the Student Body President, and the two core organizers of the school, Siri Rolón Rivera and Frances González. They spent countless hours explaining the school’s past and present to me, and were very kind to endure my butchering of the elegant Spanish language.

Because I feel these lessons are so vitally important for people engaged in the struggle of liberatory education, I’m splitting this article into two manageable chunks. This week I’ll give you an overview of the school’s structure. On Monday, April 22, I’ll get into the juicy topic of student accountability, which I think they handle exceptionally well.

¡Bienvenido a Puerto Rico!

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.