A few ideas about IDEAS

Editor’s note: The following is an open letter to Rosario Murillo and Carlos Pellas submitted by reader Ternot MacRenato about Nicaragua’s Institute of Academic Excellence (IDEA), a high school for exceptionally bright students started by former President Enrique Bolaños. When the Sandinistas returned to power, they added Sandino’s name to the school, making it IDEAS. The school is located in Diriamba.


Estimada Rosario and estimado Carlos,

I am taking the liberty of addressing both of you because we know that you, better than I, can achieve some necessary changes in the society we all love. I was born in Nicaragua but have lived in California most of my life. First let me describe the changes I have in mind and second, why these changes are necessary for the advancement of Nicaragua. Since I don’t depend on either of you for my livelihood, this letter is honest and without any expectations of personal rewards.

When I learned of the existence of the high school known as IDEAS, I was impressed to see such a revolutionary educational experiment being launched in Nicaragua. I believe that if this experiment succeeds, it can, with obvious adjustments to the local cultures, be applied to the entire third world and even in the United States.

For years, I have discussed such an idea with friends in this country and my hopes that I could build such school in Nicaragua. Hence my enthusiasm to learn that such a valuable project is off and running. Unfortunately, as I reached out to the director/principal of the school, I had the most disheartening experience. I’d like to briefly explain what I found horribly wrong and what I think we can be done do to set this right. I say we because I am interested in helping out by raising funds for the school anywhere I can find them, here in the U.S. or in Europe.

I first contacted the principal by phone. I introduced myself, and expressed my enthusiasm for the school. As I have over 35 years of teaching experience in the Community College system in California, I explained my particular interest in the school, which is to raise funds for the school. I emphasized that I could not approach prospective donors without having the most detailed knowledge of the school. As such, I expressed my desire to visit the school and learn as much as I could and find out about its most pressing needs.   

 I expressed my desire to meet with students and faculty regarding their needs and share my enthusiasm for the school and what it represents. After several phone conversations with the principal, I sent several emails with detailed requests for more information and details of what I would like to see and do during my visit. I cannot explain to you how disheartening it was waiting for answers from her. She never responded to a single email I sent her.

In spite of my misgivings and deep disappointment at the principal’s behavior, I decided to go to Nicaragua from San Diego, where I live, and visit the school at a personal cost of about $1,500 dollars. So as not to go with empty hands, I quickly collected several hundred dollars from friends and relatives.

As soon as I arrived in Nicaragua on Aug. 1, I made an appointment with the principal and arrived at the time and place she indicated. The first words out of her mouth were “You cannot visit any classroom. If you want to observe, you’ll have to stand in the hallway outside the classroom.” When I asked her why she didn’t tell me this during the several months I tried to communicate with her, she would not answer me. However, she did say that if I wanted to visit any classroom I’d need permission in writing from the minister of education or one of the two vice ministers. Later that day she also informed that I could not hold a dialogue with the students. I was dumfounded, to say the least.

On our first visit in her office, she told me I could present the donations I brought and that the presentations would be held in an “acto cívico” in front of the cafeteria. During our phone conversations in response to my questions she mentioned that I should bring some flash-drives. I bought over a hundred dollars’ worth of flash drives for the students. I also brought school supplies and cash to be presented in the form of scholarships for the neediest students. Prior to my arrival, as a courtesy and common sense, I let her know that she should decide who should get these donations. During our meeting she showed me the list of students and all I asked was for each student who received a scholarship (cash donation) and a flash drive, to write a thank you note. I’m happy to say I received the heartfelt thank you notes and that I shared them with the donors.  

The next time I met with the principal she informed me that the civic act had been cancelled and that the donations would be presented in a conference room next to her office. The next day, she called me on the phone and told me that she would not allow the donations to be presented to the students without written permission from their parents; an impossible task since the parents, most of who are of very limited resources, could not travel to Diramba in such short notice.  

During my brief contacts with faculty and students I learned, for example, that the school needs more computers. I also realized they should also have a scanner. The students have to share their text books, because there aren’t enough text books to go around. The holdings in the library are woefully inadequate. Among some of the other needs I saw and heard about include no toilet paper in the lower level bathrooms.

During my various contacts with students, I learned that they valued their teachers and liked and respected their educational methods. The faculty seemed very committed to the mission and has created an admirable rapport with their students. The school lives by a code of conduct that promotes good behavior and forbids sex and the use of drugs.

I have a few suggestions about how the school could be improved with visionary leadership:

  1. A visionary and enterprising leader would go to every embassy in the country. He/she would introduce/advertise/promote the school. Explain what the school is about, what its goals are; invite them for a visit and casually mention the school most pressing needs. The leader could also reach out to the Peace Corps and explore the possibilities for cooperation. These are the exact kind of projects Peace Corps volunteers look forward to engage in.
  2. The students’ diet is extremely poor. It was one of the concerns I heard from the students. The food is limited to rice, beans, some cheese spread over the beans, a tortilla and a glass of juice. Once in a while they are served a small amount of chicken or beef; servings of fruits are very limited. No vegetables from what I heard from the students.  An enterprising leader would plead with the ministry of education to increase the amount of money allocated to this particular need. I am very cognizant of the fact that the country has limited resources but it shouldn’t stop an enterprising leader from continuing to remind the Ministry of this pressing need. There are other resources in the country that can and should be tapped. I’m sure many farmers would be willing to donate to the effort if asked.
  3. Hardly anybody in the community knew anything about the school and those who did, their knowledge was very limited. The school administration ought to make every effort to be known in its own community, not just in Diriamba but at least in Jinotepe and San Marcos. The administration and teachers need to make an effort to better interact with the various cultural groups, citizens and local officials including the mayor and city council.
  4. The principal should or delegate someone to reach out to every mayor/alcalde in the country, particularly those communities that have students in the school. Nothing but good can come out of it.
  5. The school should establish a close relationship with the National Assembly. Every member of the assembly represents several students who come from his or her district. Extend an invitation to each member to visit the school. Let them interact with the students and meet those from their districts.
  6. Better use of the land would include planting fruit trees and a vegetable garden. The garden has started but the fruit trees are nowhere to be found. It’s been five years.
  7. An enterprising principal would have during the first year invited the presidents of the main and most prestigious universities in the country.
  8. A competent, visionary and enterprising leader would have reached out to the many international organizations that have offices in the country.  During the last few years in my visits to Nicaragua I have met several church groups, nurses from Denver to train local nurses; doctors from Sweden who came to study and help alleviate the high incidence of stomach cancer in Nicaragua.  Habitat for Humanity had their international convention in Managua.  I have interacted with all of them and I’m sure they would be interested in helping or contact someone in their communities who can.
  9. A program that would allow local families to welcome in their homes one or two students for a home-cooked meal, and perhaps an overnight stay on weekends, would do a great deal to alleviate the sometimes painful separation from the parents, especially among the younger students. I was told by some of the students that it’s not unusual for the younger kids to cry due to their loneliness. Likewise, the school could also ask local citizens if they could put up visiting parents so they don’t have to worry about paying for a hotel or meals. These parents lack the means to visit their children. The school could also invite musical and artistic groups, such as poets and painters, to visit the campus. These activities would do wonders for the morale of the students.   

These are just a few observations and suggestions for the improvement of such a great educational enterprise.

Thank you for reading,

Ternot MacRenato, a native Nicaraguan, holds a Ph.D. in Latin American History. He has taught History and American Government in the San Diego Community College for the past 30 years


  • robert

    Sad, infuriating, deeply disturbing and unfortuneately right on target.
    The educational system in Nicaragua is designed from top to bottom to create rigid performance and adherence to the ruling bureaucracy. It is the antithesis of what education is all about.
    The best resource of any nation is its human intellect and Nicaragua has consistently made sure that that this resource is squandered.
    In my six-year experience attempting to teach concepts to small business people and train employees I have essentially given up. The level of dysfunction in the society and especially the workforce is breathtaking and, I hate to say, irreversible. The only hope is to take much, much younger people and educate them in a way that allows and encourages them to think freely and analytically, that gives them the tools to enable a life of accomplishment and attaining goals. That is completely absent from the system today. In fact, if you ask young adults what their personal goals are they will reply with blank, uncomprehending stares.
    I found it ironic that in the same issue of Dispatch there is an article on Nicaragua turning to Cuba for help in revamping the educational system here. While Cuba has a high literacy rate it remains a police state and basically a failed nation which existed for thirty years on Soviet handouts in order to give the appearance of a successful revolution. The economy is in ruins.
    I think that Nicaragua could have picked a better role model for revamping its educational system. I also think someone owes Ternot MacRenato a huge apology.

  • Ken

    Although it may sound strange, one of the biggest problems (yes problems) nonprofits have is dealing tactfully with all those who want to help. The administrators (in this case the principal) are constantly bombarded with these offers, which distracts them from doing their jobs.

    Sadly, many who offer help don’t have an adequate understanding of the program itself, much less adequate respect for those administering it.

    As I read the nine recommendations Ternot offers, I’m afraid I see a fellow who wants to take charge of the school as much as he wants to help it. He is coming from the outside–from a community college teaching background in the US–yet presumes to make recommendations for how a school in Nicaragua ought to be micromanaged.

    If he believes that his recommendations haven’t already been considered by those responsible for operating the school, he is surely mistaken. These are the kinds of things that those responsible for running the school have already considered. Perhaps they have found reasons to reject them, or maybe they haven’t gotten around to implementing them (in part because they’re too busy fielding offers of help from outsiders), but I seriously doubt that they are surprised by any of them.

    So really, the principal in this case would have to take a lot of time to explain the history of decision making to Ternot, bring him up to speed about various other pressures and issues with which Ternot is unfamiliar, all in exchange for a few hundred dollars in donations? It’s not worth it.

    What the school obviously lacks is a volunteer coordinator–namely someone who devotes themselves just to guys like Ternot. Many successful nonprofits have these folks, who relieve those responsible for running the programs from being distracted by all those who want to help.

    My recommendation is therefore for the school to considering offering Ternot the position of US-based volunteer coordinator. He is obviously more committed to the school than the average helper, so it would probably be worth the effort to bring him up to speed in order to have a guy who could handle others like him.

    But people who come from the outside of nonprofits and expect the administrators to stop what they’re doing, change their policies, and listen to advice are frankly a bother. No CEO of a private company would do this, so why should the principal of a school?

    If you think about it, it’s very insulting for outsiders to presume to give advice to nonprofits. Sorry, simply because they are nonprofits does not mean they are incompetent and required to listen to advice from anyone on the outside who wants to dispense it.

    And it sounds like the school is operating fairly well already.

    I hope the parties involved can work out a way for Ternot to contribute, but I’m afraid that some of the adjustment must come from Ternot.

    • robert

      Sure, everything’s great in this ‘elite’ school aside from the fact that they don’t have enough textbooks for the students…
      There is nothing in MacRenato’s letter that alludes to “wanting to take over” as you suggest. I also find it hard to believe that you really think that this school’s problems are a result of being “bombarded with offers of assistance.”
      To me it sounds as if the principal is just another self-serving figurehead and the school for academic excellence (operating without enough textbooks) is another example of Nicaraguan, puffed up, false pride. Mere lip service with an acronym.
      I would add another item to MacRenato’s list; Scrap the school uniforms (and fancy diplomas the Nicas so love) and buy some textbooks with the money saved.

  • http://www.polylabel.com Fred

    How do you start to explain just how disheartening this Gentleman was received. Here you have an experienced educator with the best of intentions and with Nicaraguan background basically ‘blown off’.

    Yes certainly would require work on part of School’s administration to come up with plan on how to capitalize on the offered support. However given the needs of students and limited financial post they have I’d have thought it was worth seriously considering.

    Maybe it would be a bit disruptive but planning and thought would surely minimize that. Now I have never qualified as a ‘gifted’ student but have had a son and grandson in that category and they need to be challenged and supported more than an ‘average student’ to reach their potential.

    Seem’s pretty obvious to me that the Schools Administrators wouldn’t have qualified as students either.

  • car

    seems fairly typical for nica. ignorant officials who make up shit to appear important/official, while losing sight of their own real purpose.

  • Don

    Let the Nicaraguans live and learn and quit interfering with your misguided academic ideas