Winter 2014
From La Cañada to Managua

From La Cañada to Managua

Nicaragua partnership grows into thriving, two-way collaboration

by Mel Malmberg

“When we started taking students to Nicaragua four years ago, we had noidea what direction it might take,” Spanish teacher Manuel Nuñez says.“What started as a simple cultural exchange—our students went there,Nicaraguan students came here—has evolved into a program that creates meaningful connections for students and faculty.”

With the backing of the E.E. Ford Foundation, Flintridge Prep’s Nicaragua Initiative has blossomed into a robust, school-wide program that allows students to follow a passion and make a difference. It allows faculty to learn, teach and exchange ideas. Backboned by a student trip to the country each summer, the program now encompasses athletics, mentoring, language and cultural emersion and community service.

From La Cañada to Managua

“Each year we have extended our connection and involvement with the community,” Nuñez says. “It’s no longer a visit; it’s an investment. It’s a two-way street that continues throughout the year.”

The tone for the relationship was set in part by Naomi Hatanaka ‘11. As a junior, Naomi was sincerely touched by the plight of the families at La Mascota, the country’s only pediatric cancer hospital, which students had visited on their trip to Nicaragua. Hatanaka went on to use her senior year independent study project to create a nonprofit fundraising organization, A World of One’s Own, or AWOOO, for the La Mascota patients and their families, growing what was a short visit into a lasting connection. Three years later, her continued advocation and fundraising involves former classmates (notably Kyle Eschen ‘11 and Roy Yu ‘12), as well as current students. Not surprisingly, she is majoring in social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley.

From La Cañada to Managua

Now, working with La Mascota is a vital part of the work Prep students do in Nicaragua.

On the 2013 trip, history teacher Ingrid Herskind says she was inspired by the students’ connection to the patients at La Mascota.

“I could see a generosity and sweetness, watching them engage with these kids who were really sick,” she says. “They were there in the afternoons, hanging out, playing cards, taking pictures and basically just loving these kids. It was absolutely genuine interaction and support, impassioned and from the heart.”

In addition to the work at La Mascota, students and teachers work and learn at St. Mary’s School, a K-8 institution in Managua. St. Mary’s has a mission and ambition similar to Prep’s, and the relationship includes both countries’ students and faculty in an exchange of mentoring, learning and teaching.

This year, the students lived with families from St. Mary’s and spent mornings at the school. Founded just five years ago, St. Mary’s has already grown to 500 students and is known for its inclusivity and outreach programs. Prep students were encouraged to learn as much as to teach, as they worked in a classroom with elementary students and took a Spanish and dance class.

From La Cañada to Managua

Michael Weinstein ’14 says, “It was great to learn along with the kids we taught. I was in a 1st grade classroom with one of my ‘younger brothers.’ The kids spoke so fast, we had to step up— and we learned a lot of slang.”

Julia Shaw ’14 says, “It was cool how much they wanted to learn. Their energy was really high.”

Alex Khalsa ‘15 reflects, “I didn’t realize how much Spanish I had learned until after the trip.”

Prep science teacher Heather Clark taught environmental studies (in Spanish) for 1st through 8th graders while St. Mary’s teachers observed her technique. Spanish teacher Fabian Bejarano worked with St. Mary’s Spanish teacher Ximena Gonzalez. This year, students at both schools will use iPads to connect Prep’s Spanish I classes to 7th and 8th grade English classrooms at St. Mary’s.

Athletic Director Alex Rivera visited Nicaragua for the first time in 2013 and taught sports clinics for coaches and players, working with St. Mary’s PE and Athletic Director Allan Mercado. Rivera was putting building blocks in place to help St. Mary’s President, Jorge Luis Ayestas, realize his vision of making Nicaragua a basketball powerhouse—all the way to the Olympic level. It’s a challenge in a country whose main passion is el béisbol and where courts—let alone basketballs and shoes—can be tough to find. But according to Rivera, that’s just par for the course with St. Mary’s dynamic director.

From La Cañada to Managua

“He has a vision,” Rivera says. “I told him it reminds me of working with Peter Bachmann. There’s just no stopping him.”

The experience has made a lasting impact on Rivera.

“The whole experience was beautiful—the people, coaches, teachers, students and kids, the families,” says Rivera, who was interviewed by the Nicaraguan equivalent of ESPN about the trip. “I got more out of it than I could have dreamed. I walked out of there with the gratifying feeling that the kids and the coaches were hungry for knowledge.”

A little piece of Prep remains at St. Mary’s permanently. This summer, when Prep underwent a major classroom and lab renovation, the school packed up its original lab stations, chairs and tables into a giant container and shipped them to the Nicaraguan school. Now, St. Mary’s boasts one of Nicaragua’s finest science labs.

The connections continue. In September, Ayestas and Karla Obregon, St. Mary’s academic coordinator, came to La Cañada to observe many facets of Prep in action. They observed classrooms, interviewed teachers and administrators and absorbed the dayto-day workings of the school.

From La Cañada to Managua

During the visit, Ayestas kept clasping his fingers together, illustrating how intertwined Prep and St. Mary’s are: through their missions, honor codes and continuing student and faculty exchange. In December, he was back to learn more about the physical education program from Rivera and the whole PE staff. Rivera and soccer coach Esteban Chavez visited Nicaragua in January to start working on next year’s exchange program.

“It’s a real two-way street,” Nuñez says. “St. Mary’s is excited to be mentored by Prep, one of the top schools in the US. They want to expand to high school, to be one of the best schools in their country and to offer an excellent education to people in the lower and lower-middle classes. They are aiming for nothing less than developing the educational well-being of their entire country, to help their country prosper.

“Yet I believe we are receiving more than we are giving. Our kids come home with profound understanding, they are more self-assured and they can handle things better across the board. They have been transformed.”