Jorge Renderos (left), Principal of the Oscar Arnulfo Romero School, and Oscar Armando Cruz (right), math teacher, celebrate finishing the day's school work with their fourth grade students. Photo credit: Karen Azucena, USAID

I live in the Zaragoza region, one of the poorest areas in central El Salvador.  We have limited economic development opportunities for our people, yet one of the highest rates of population density in the country.  While grappling with poverty, our municipality must also deal with gang activity and school violence.

In order to respond to this situation, my school joined with 12 other schools to form a cluster under the Ministry of Education’s Integrated System for Full Time School (SI-EITP, its acronym in Spanish).  SI-EITP is supported by USAID/El Salvador’s Strengthening Basic Education Program.

We share limited resources so that we can equitably offer educational and extracurricular services to all students, especially those who are at risk of joining a gang or dropping out of school.  For example, my school shares its sports auditorium with all 1,670 students coming from those 12 schools.  The group of schools provides extracurricular activities in areas such as technology, baking, dressmaking skills, school gardens, art, culture, sports and recreation.  Because of these activities, our students are more excited to attend school and learn new skills.

Teachers are also using new resources, materials, and techniques like more group work that allow students to more actively participate in their lessons.  The response from students has been very positive.  The lessons have been so successful that students from the Barillo school, who previously had spotty attendance, said that they were excited to go to school each day.

And this integrated system doesn’t end at the school gate. Parents, teachers and school principals all participate in the school cluster.  For instance, parents are walking to school with their children every day, as they need to cross dangerous areas where gangs are prevalent.

School principals are also working together in new ways.  Because of SI-EITP, the principals of the Corralito and Canton Guadalupe schools collaborated to improve transportation for their students.  As a result, 56 students who finished sixth grade, but did not have a secondary school close to their home, are now able to travel to neighboring secondary schools and continue their education.

With the support of the Ministry, USAID and its implementers, we have made a lot of progress but we must acknowledge the leadership of the students.  When the educators were worried about gang clashes, the student governments mitigated our concerns. They formed a “Peace Band” with participants from all of the schools.  Today the Peace Band has 300 members whose purpose is to promote healthy living and a culture of peace. We are proud to say that, not only are the student working hard to reach their own potential, they are showing real leadership skills and giving back to the community.