Before class, children file in one by one to greet Sylvia with a kiss on the cheek and a cheerful “hello”. A sweet mix of English and Spanish fills the evening air in Pablo Nogues along with the scuffle of little feet to their classrooms.
Pablo Nogues is a small town on the outskirts of the city, an hour by train from Buenos Aires. Sylvia runs an extra-curricular English school for more than 80 students to help improve their language skills and make them more eligible for future job prospects. She opened the school nine years ago after burning out from a busy communications career. “My doctor said to start doing something to still feel useful, but to slow down.”
The children are always excited to practice their English…and to help the volunteers with their Spanish.
The children generally have demanding timetables from their state schools and come to the English school in their free time for four hours per week to improve their language skills.
The volunteer-student relationship is a strong one built on friendship and mutual learning. Alyssa from Vermont, USA has been volunteering at the school for more than a month now and already has a strong connection with the students. Her tasks at the school are varied but today she teaches her own class of 14-15 year olds whose wide grins mirror her own as they learn new food vocabulary. Alyssa is kind and patient helping students who stumble on grammar or pronunciation – and her students reflect that patience and help with Spanish. The class is run mostly conversationally but with the guidance of a course book, and it’s clear they have all become good friends.
Volunteers are more than teachers. They are role models and mentors for the students. They must be creative and enthusiastic with the kids so that they continue studying and strive to learn. The volunteers are teaching them so much more than just a language! More than just extra credit, the students are shown the value of continuing education and opportunities for their future.
“I had four teachers to start, but couldn’t afford to pay a full teacher’s salary,” Sylvia says. The school runs only on modest student fees and no grants or donations. The small fees make school accessible for the children, especially as many of the families in the area can not afford to pay for a full program with a professional teacher. Five years ago Sylvia started recruiting volunteers to teach the classes. Now, as the older students come through the ranks, they teach the younger classes – and they even earn a small wage
The model of kids teaching kids provides a sense of community at the school – a community the volunteers are welcomed into with open arms.
The school doesn’t just serve as an academic centre. It also offers the children a safe place where they can use their free time productively. They focus on pronunciation, literature, and for those who want to and can afford it, international exams.
The level of higher education among the children’s parents is minimal and therefore they support them in coming to the school to better the next generation’s prospects. Sylvia expressed some concern about the current federal school system saying that the kids come to her school to strive for a better education. “College and university is the goal. Law school, medical school – a better future. That is the main idea.”
Sylvia hopes her school provides a better start for the kids to help them become educated and contributing members of society and their community. “The most important thing a person can have is their kids.”