Hidden across Managua, away from the dirt, grime and bustle of the city, are secret worlds of academia tucked behind tall gates and lush shrubbery.
These private school campuses are oases of scholastic excellence and extracurricular activity. Soccer fields, science buildings and swing sets dominate the scene as teachers and students move about campus from class to class.
For wealthy expats and well-heeled Nicaraguans, enrolling students in a private school can be a harrowing experience. There are nearly a dozen reputable English-language and bilingual private schools in Managua, varying in size, religious orientation and academic levels.
Many parents start the process early on, enrolling their children in bilingual preschool. There are family affiliations, tuition concerns and application deadlines to worry about. The world of elite private schools is a minefield of glossy brochures, smiling admissions officials and promises of future success.
Even an attempt to profile the top bilingual and English schools in Managua comes rife with issues. As Jose Oyanguren, headmaster at St. Augustine Preparatory puts it, “The top school is the one that is the right match for the students and their family. Ranking doesn’t matter if the school is what the family wants.”
Each private school in Managua believes—as they surely must—that they are the best in their class. The Nicaragua Dispatch has profiled three of them—all accredited in the United States—that are in contention for that claim.
American Nicaraguan School
The American Nicaraguan School has perhaps the longest claim to the throne. Founded in 1944, it is the oldest private school in Managua, as well as one of the largest with an enrollment of 950 students. The school starts for students as young as 3 years old and runs through 12th grade, at which point 98% of the senior class goes on to a four-year college.
“I’d say 88-89% of the students go on to college in the United States,” says director Dr. Gloria Doll. “They find themselves well prepared to apply and be accepted in the United States, as well as compete academically at the Universities in which they enroll.”
Accredited by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), American Nicaraguan School students find it very easy to apply for colleges in the United States. The school, like all the bilingual schools in Managua, operates on a U.S. school schedule (August through June). This stands in contrast to the Nicaraguan school calendar, which has students in class from February to November.
“We do a terrific U.S.-style education,” says Doll. “We rely on Socratic discussion, we use technology integration and we teach English from native speakers. We have a focus on retaining our mainstay teachers and also actively recruiting good teachers from the United States.”
Doll has spent her career as director of American schools abroad. She headed schools in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Argentina and Croatia. While in Costa Rica, she heard about ANS and decided it was time to give Nicaragua a try.
“It sounded like an amazing school that had allowed the weeds to grow up a little,” says Doll. “There were flowers, but someone just had to trim back the weeds. And I realized that it wouldn’t take five years or ten, the school could be back to its prime in a year or two. I like that kind of challenge.”
She has increased technology usage by instituting a “Bring Your Own Device” policy for high school students, which requires them to bring their own laptop to school each day. She has also focused more attention on teacher recruitment.
To remain on par with their U.S. competitors, ANS offers a huge number of extracurricular activities. Through the Association of American Schools of Central America (AASCA), ANS fields sports teams that compete in Panama, Guatemala and Honduras. Doll has increased the number of non-team sport activities as well: dance classes, tae kwan doe and “knowledge bowl” are just some of the groups that have recently started.
“This school just has the longest, richest history,” says Doll. “We never closed, even when students were being drafted at age 16. They were drafted right off the football field, and they had to come back and finish their senior year when they returned. We have the history that no other school can claim.”
ANS towers high in their own minds, and if history is any indication, they are going to be a mainstay of the private school scene for years to come.
“As someone crudely put it to me once, we are just so far ahead of whatever is in second place,” says Doll.
Lincoln International Academy
Lincoln International Academy is prepared to contest ANS’s claim as top school. Founded in 1991, the school is the second oldest and its enrollment of 700 is creeping towards ANS’s hulking numbers. Many families are attracted to Lincoln for its English-language curriculum and Catholic values.
“We were founded in 1991 to offer a bilingual education with a Catholic perspective,” says Alejandro Vogel, development director and member of the Board of Directors. “We were also coming out of a Communist regime, and we had to teach a lot about democratic principles. So democracy is also one of our founding principles.”
Like ANS, Lincoln is accredited through SACS and is a member of Association of American Schools of Central America (AASCA). While they model themselves on U.S. schools, the overwhelming majority of their students are Nicaraguans, including a large percentage of dual citizens. Lincoln also attracts a cohort of Asian expats, whose parents come to Nicaragua for the textile industry.
“These students come from Korea or Taiwan, not speaking English or Spanish,” says Adolfo Gonzalez, headmaster. “They graduate being able to speak both, plus their native tongue. It’s really great to see.”
Lincoln also enrolls many students from other countries in Central America. They come to Nicaragua because it is safe, explains Gonzalez. He said he has seen families where the father stays in El Salvador or Honduras to work, but sends the rest of the family to Nicaragua for school.
Gonzalez knows that he has tough competition from ANS and the other English-language schools in Managua, but his goal is to make Lincoln the best in Nicaragua.
“When we ask parents what attracts them to Lincoln, they always say the academics and the values,” says Gonzalez. “They expect academic excellence from any school, but the values that we teach are the difference.”
Lincoln achieved accreditation in 2009, which has opened countless doors for their students. Accreditation in the United States offers what Vogel calls “insurance” for the families of international students. If they need to leave Nicaragua, they can transfer their credit elsewhere with ease. It also makes applying to college in the United States easier, something most Lincoln seniors want to do.
“Almost all of our graduates this year went to college in the United States,” says Vogel. “They want to go because if they have worked hard here and then have to go to university in Nicaragua, it will be an interruption of their academic progress. They want to continue to work hard in college in the United States and then return to Nicaragua after.”
Lincoln’s 39 graduates this year received $5.1 million dollars in scholarships and awards, according to their website. Doing well at a school as rigorous as Lincoln is a good indicator of future success in college, says Vogel. And accreditation has made it easy to translate that success into financial aid.
Lincoln’s big claim to fame, however, is its teacher program. As the Nicaragua representative for Framingham State University in Massachusetts, they offer teachers the chance to work towards a Masters degree in Education during summer and Christmas breaks.
“Teachers come here, they leave a few years later with money saved, teaching experience and a higher degree,” says Gonzalez. “It’s a win-win for them, and because of that program, we attract good teachers.”
Lincoln also sees their status as the “second” school in Managua as an advantage in recruiting the best students.
“For a long time, ANS was the only option,” says Vogel. “When we started, we offered an alternative to ANS, and I think people appreciated that. We gave families a choice, and now we are at least as strong as they are.”
St. Augustine Preparatory School
Lincoln’s monopoly on Catholic, English-language instruction in Managua came to an end in 2001 with the founding of St. Augustine Preparatory School. Started by José Oyanguren and Claudia Lacayo, the headmaster and elementary school principal, respectively, the school aims to offer a smaller school experience for Nicaraguans and expats.
The school has 480 students enrolled this year, making it the smallest private school in Managua, says Oyanguren.
“This allows the students to be close to the teachers, and the teachers to be close with us, and us to be familiar with the parents,” the headmaster explains.
The school opened initially as K-4 and then added a new grade level each year. Twelve years later, the school has graduated three senior classes, upgraded to purpose-designed facilities and achieved accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Oyanguren thinks they may be the youngest school in Central America to achieve accreditation. As he puts it, “11 years is very little time in a school’s history.”
St. Augustine’s promise is academic rigor with a conscience. A graduate of ANS and an educator in Nicaragua for years, Oyanguren took a lot of his experiences into account when starting his school.
“We had a vision of how we wanted things to be done,” says Oyanguren. “Educating children who come from families of means and social standing can be difficult. It can be hard to teach values, but we wanted to take on that challenge. We are concerned with the type of student that graduates from here, not just what college they get into afterwards.”
When Oyanguren started St. Augustine, he had to confront what he saw as the failings of the public school system in Managua. Going “back to basics,” as he puts it, he created a system that ensures academic excellence.
“At St. Augustine, you are going to learn, and you are going to learn a lot,” says the headmaster. “That seems standard, but not all schools have that core of promoting educational excellence.”
Also a member of AASCA, St. Augustine seeks to offer all the same opportunities found at the larger schools, including a strong teaching staff. Oyanguren himself is a graduate of Georgetown University and Yale University. His teachers come from equally prestigious universities: UVA, Georgetown and Harvard, to name a few.
The school offers these teachers a smaller community to work with, and promises close connections with students. Teachers also benefit from a Saturday community English class program. They get extra teaching experience (and extra income) when the school opens its doors every weekend to local public school students interested in learning English.
Other private schools
Though ANS, Lincoln and St. Augustine are the only three schools in Nicaragua affiliated with the AASCA, Managua has countless other private school options, all of which offer something special for the right family. Colegio Teresiano and Christian Academy are also accredited and reputable high schools as is Notre Dame Academy. All three are usually considered by parents deciding which school is right for their kids.
“There is nothing more important than choosing a school for the right reasons,” says St. Augustine’s Oyanguren. “Parents need to put in the research to make sure they make the right choice.”
And with tuition and fees running $10,000 or more per annum, it is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly.