Life-changing Schools in Panama

September 26, 2023

The stories and dreams of more than 10,000 children and teenagers are the inspiration for a USD 100 million operation for the construction, renovation, and furnishing of eight schools in Panama. Showcasing and empowering beneficiaries, that is the impact of better environments for the teaching-learning process and human capital mobility.

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Cheers of excitement! Boys and girls wait their turn in a small space to jump rope. It is the morning of a cloudy day, but the sun peeks out on the horizon with faint rays that foretell a nicer weather. A few yards away, a new, modern multi-purpose gym awaits them. The bustling rush of gym class is disrupted by the bell announcing the change of period at the José Encarnación Escala School. And everything changed!

This life-changing process is described by ninth-grader María Fernández: “We are very happy because it is the first time we will receive such a beautiful project. I feel very proud of the José Encarnación Escala because it will no longer be an elementary school, but also a high school,” she notes. “I am most excited about the beautiful synthetic turf field and the gym. For us here, sports are very important because they are good for our body.”

The mega-project rises majestically in the heart of Santa Rita, a semi-rural township in the district of La Chorrera, disrupting the paradigm of the classic school structures: a commitment of the Ministry of Education (Meduca) and its strategic partner, CAF—development bank of Latin America and the Caribbean—, a multilateral entity that backs with specific actions its claims in its Economy and Development Report: Inherited Inequalities: “Policies for greater mobility of human capital include: 1) Lifting restrictions that limit investments at the homes of children and teenagers; 2) improved supply (coverage, quality, and relevance) of elementary, technical-vocational, and higher education, and 3) focus on the habitat and accessibility to key facilities for the development of children and young people in the most segregated and disadvantaged communities.”

Equipment, connectivity, and coverage

Tenth-grade student María Gabriela Pérez is also proof of the relevance of this human capital mobility stressed by CAF, which is also Panama's aspiration. She says: “I'm most excited about the Library, which is of great help for students who do not have a cell phone or another device to do research, for exercises, etc. I also have problems to do research for homework. I don't have the means, so the Library is what I'm most excited about.”

Infrastructure also includes laboratories, which is what most inspires Jean Carlos Villarreal: “Because it is a practical way to learn, and we will better understand physics, chemistry, and biology lessons,” he said.

Furthermore, “students who live far away will have the boarding school, one of the best renovation projects in Panama, with bedrooms, bathrooms, bunk beds, and a diner,” explains the school's principal, Dalys Solís, who assesses the impact of the project in terms of educational coverage: “We have a population of 1,084 students, but for next year we expect to have an estimated 1,500.”

A small sample of the operation

After an on-site follow-up mission, Chief Executive of CAF's Social and Human Development Department (GDSyH) Jesús Istúriz explained that this visit considered a sample from three (out of eight) schools that are part of the Ministry's Program for the Expansion and Modernization of School Infrastructure (PAMIE): José Encarnación Escala School, Altos de San Francisco School, and Moisés Castillo Ocaña High School, all in the district of La Chorrera, the main town in Panama Oeste province.

We are pleased to see these schools, with new facilities, which will help improve the quality and coverage of education in Panama,” said Istúriz, and stressed “the importance of the facilities that many previous schools did not have. Here they have large, fully equipped sports fields, roofed gyms, a diner, laboratories, nurse station. We believe this breaks traditional paradigms and that education should be aimed at that direction.” The program shows an overall average progress of 85%, four schools are completed/operational and three show progress above 90%,” he added.

After the long school closures in Panama as a result of the pandemic, Keneth Marigmón, a tenth-grade student at the Altos de San Francisco School, is “very excited to go to a classroom every day in this new infrastructure, in order to learn subjects better in a practical way.”Marigmón stresses the “renovations for high school students, particularly in the area of Science, with laboratories. I am very excited to work in one and learn a lot about how organisms function.”

Inclusion and all-inclusive facilities

At that same school, seventh grader Noemí Barber is pleased about the new classrooms “because of their size and furniture.” Accessibility is guaranteed with ramps, which “are fitted so our students with any type of disability can attend classrooms for in-person lessons,” says principal Víctor Raúl Casazola.

Casazola explains that “with the expansion of the school premises as part of this project, we will have new facilities, such as computer workshops, laboratory classrooms, for natural sciences, biology, physics, chemistry, a library, a spacious teachers' lounge, a psycho-pedagogical office, a dentist office, and a large administrative that the school did not have before. This is a great opportunity for this community and for our young people—who join the education system starting at pre-school—to pursue their studies in one school until they finish high school and head off to college.”

Teacher Erika de Méndez describes the impact of the new, comfortable spaces on the teaching-learning process: “We will be able to provide better teaching, move around in a place, where we will have a dedicated classroom for each grade.”

Key combination: commerce, music, and tourism

The scope of the impact of the new CAF-funded school infrastructure throughout the region reaches also the iconic Moisés Castillo Ocaña School (MCO), renowned for its musical achievements domestically and internationally. Apart from all the renovations, which are similar in other schools, at the MCO the works feature “a room built with all the proper acoustics to host the Moisés Castillo Ocaña orchestra, where they can store the instruments and rehearse,” said Eduardo Villarreal, National Project Director at MEDUCA.

Villarreal describes other benefits of the MCO project: “Sports areas, because we have a synthetic turf soccer pitch, a roofed basketball and volleyball court; a super large gymnasium with all the facilities that this school deserves, and an all-purpose square that can also be used as a sports area.”

Moisés Pérez, an eleventh grade student at MCO, is particularly pleased by “the mini-hotel that they will give us for the Tourism degree. I feel this is great for young people studying Tourism, to be able to practice and learn about hotels,” and takes the opportunity to “thank CAF and MEDUCA for the inspections” on the project, which stands at 60% progress according to the report prepared by Project Manager Lim González. González believes that during the one-week mid-term break between the second and third quarter, they will be able to make progress in areas that are normally used by the school community.

These testimonials are part of CAF's long-standing impact on inclusive social well-being in the education sector in Panama, with projects in knowledge and financing school infrastructure, teacher training, assistance for higher education, technical vocational training, job skills, and entrepreneurship literacy.