I will start out by stating that I am no expert about the school system in Panama so I won't even begin to try and describe what goes on in the educational system. My comments here are merely obsservation from an outsider.
We were in Panama to witness the first week of the school year. As an educator here in the U.S. many of the things I observed made a great impression on me. Here are some of those things:
1) Uniforms: EVERYONE wears one. NO EXCUSES! I love this. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this. Girls wear a skirt or jumper (usually navy in color)- no pants. Boys wear slacks (also navy)unless they are very young and then they wear shorts (light blue) . Everyone wears a button up white shirt except for the junior high kids, they wear a light blue shirt. There are strict requirements on the length of the skirts and jumpers. There is no deviation to the button up shirt except to add a school emblem or tie. The uniform guidelines are very clear and people don't really think twice about not following them.
On the second day of school, I read a summary of the First Day of School happenings. There was mention of girls who were sent home because there skirts were not the right length or that the shoes were not appropriate, etc. I shared this information with my aunt and my cousin and asked there opinion on it. They fully supported the enforcement of the uniform guidelines and said that most people would as well. They thought that it was just silly that anyone would waste their time and try and get away with trying to bend the uniform law. My aunt said "why waste your time with that when you should be worrying about studying?" I couldn't agree with her more!
I love seeing all of the kids in their uniforms in Panama. The kids look so fresh and clean. They also look like they are young professionals who are focused on their studies. Something that surprised me was how clean the kids looked, even after school!
I am not really clear on the daily schedule and how it works but I do know that the schools don't run on the same type of daily schedule that we do here in the U.S. Students in Panama don't have a full day like our kids do here in the U.S. There are two shifts, a morning shift and an afternoon shift. I believe the morning shift is from 7 - 12:30 and then the afternoon shift is from 12:30 - 6:00. (something like that) Students from different grades go at different times. I imagine that this allows the school to be able to accomodate more students. It also gives the students more time in the day to study. A friend of mine in Panama is the mother of two high school students who are on two different shifts. I asked her if this wasn't a nuisance. She said that she really liked it because she was able to dedicate time for each child.
Books and supplies are not supplied by the school or government. Parents are responsible for this. The school or teacher chooses the texts that they want to use and the kids receive a list of things to purchase. This is HUGE! When you make parents responsible for the materials, ownership and usage of the materials has to be much higher. I went to El Machetazo on the Saturday after the first week of school to buy some books for Sabi to use. BIG MISTAKE! EVERYONE was there at the same time to buy for their kids. I can't even begin to explain the mayhem. It was 100 times worse than a Day After Thanksgiving day sale at Wal-Mart! I learned how to push and shove on that day! Parents bought everything that the kids needed. (books, erasers, pencils, crayons, paints, paper, pencil boxes, and more)
The total price for the school materials was shocking to me. I picked up about 5 books at around $12 a piece. It wasn't super cheap but it was affordable for me. I looked was wondering how these parents were able to do this for their kids in a country where most people make $8-$10 a day. Imagine if they have more than one child in school! How is it done? I asked my cousin this question and she quickly responded that parents find a way to get it done because it is important. Some kids may not get all of their books right away or at all. If they can't afford then, the books are available for use or for copying at the libraries. One of my cousins did this last year. Everyday after school she would go to the library to borrow her school books there. I also witnessed another means of gaining access to school books when I was there. A 13 year old boy in my aunt's neighborhood was selling "chance" numbers to earn money for his books. He was selling numbers at 10 cents a piece for a win or $2-$3 dollars. He would profit about $4 in the end. I bought two tickets from him and then later in the day when I found out why he was selling the numbers, I handed him $5 to go toward his book fund.
Promotion to the next grade/Parent Involvement:
You don't go to the next grade if you don't pass the end of year test - no excuses. This is huge! parents get involved in their children's education because they want them to succeed. I have to admit that I feel there is some peer pressure among parents for their kids to pass. I got the feeling from listening to people talk that you are labeled as a bad parent if your child is retained. The children also must feel the pressure because if they don't go on they know that they will be disappointing their parents. I can't help but think that is good pressure! Imagine what it would be like to be a teacher there where all of your students had all of the basic requirements to be in your class. WOW...everyone starts at the same level!!!!