A school where children from shantytowns and gated communities learn together

A school where children from shantytowns and gated communities learn together

Be they Dominican, Haitian or the children of expats, the 36 pupils place no barriers between their everyday exchanges.

(3 Mariposas Montessori)

His hands clasping a metal ring, Wailyn, a Dominican child from the elementary class, prepares to put all his energy into pushing open the long gate to his school. Bright and early every morning, from Monday to Friday, he takes the recently paved track from La Cienega, one of the poorest shantytowns in Dominican Republic, 40 kilometres east of the port town of Puerto Plata.

Minutes later he is joined by his Dominican and Haitian classmates who also live in La Cienaga, and the children of expats who live just 100 or so metres away in gated communities protected by armed guards. The school is not far from Cabarete, a former fishing village now famous for its beach, popular with kitesurf enthusiasts. It is a tourist resort full of contrast, depending on which side of the street you live.

At first glance, it looks like any ordinary school. Some children arrive on foot, like Wailyn, whereas others arrive in their parents’ four-wheel drives or are dropped off by motoconchos, motorcycle taxis. The 36 pupils, aged between one and 11, are welcomed by their teachers and the school head, Sarah Ludwig-Ross, who founded the project. Altogether, there are fourteen people working there. Nine of them are Dominican or Haitian, with Dominican Republic and Haiti sharing the same island, Hispaniola.

Ludwig-Ross, from Michigan in the United States, came up with the original idea of introducing what may seem like a surprising system of funding: only half of the pupils pay tuition fees. The Dominican and Haitian pupils who live in La Cienaga are schooled for free. The school is partly funded by the fees paid by expat families – with higher incomes – who live in Cabarete and send their children to this school. It is a totally transparent system.

Inequality and poverty

Ludwig-Ross set out on this adventure in 2009 after attending a Montessori conference in Louisiana. At the end of the conference, she stood up in front of over 3,000 people and presented her project: to set up a multicultural school with a strong focus on the local community.

“I came to Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, in 1997. I taught at a university for three years before moving here to Cabarete to work as programmes director for an NGO. After resigning, I decided to open this school, because although the country’s northern coast is known for its numerous international schools, none of them welcomes children from different socioeconomic backgrounds in this way. According to Oxfam, this country of 10 millions inhabitants has a high level of inequality, with 50 per cent living below the poverty line, despite the sustained growth it has enjoyed over the last four decades.

The school started out with one primary class for three to six-year-olds, but was quick to grow, helped not only by the parents but also various donors and volunteers.

Casira, a Canadian humanitarian cooperation organisation, has been particularly active: “Their enthusiasm for our project is very heartening. Thanks to their support for our new building projects, we now have three classes, a library, a small shop with clothes and toys and, last but not least, a feeding pen for our animals: seven chickens, twelve chicks and even a goat,” she says with a hearty laugh.

During the 2016-2017 academic year, the school raised US$133,302, 22 per cent of which came from tuition fees. The remaining 78 per cent came from funds donated through online campaigns or charity events. An expat family pays US$1500 in annual tuition fees, as compared with the US$5000 fees for the private international school of Sosua, a resort town next to Cabarete. The money raised is directly reinvested into the school and its numerous programmes, such as providing balanced school meals, ongoing teacher training or construction projects in La Cienega itself, expenses all essential to the school’s philosophy.

Working together, quite simply

“People sometimes ask me how I manage to convince some families to pay for the others,” explains Ludwig-Ross, “But the truth is, I don’t try to do that. The parents are free to come and visit the school, to see the advantages associated with the Montessori method and this multicultural environment that’s difficult to find elsewhere. We decided to call ourselves 3 Mariposas Montessori (3 Butterflies) in reference to the three key actors in this community: the children, the parents and the teachers, all working together to move things forward.”

Juan José Jr Stabilito, a musician and kitesurf teacher from Venezuela, and his wife, a teacher, decided to send their daughter Sara to 3 Mariposas for several reasons: “Depending on the person’s state of mind, the place and the weather conditions where I’m giving my classes, I have to be able to use a range of methods to pass on my knowledge. It’s the same thing here with a system that nurtures respect and encourages the children to go at their own pace at the same time as taking on board their surrounding environment. When we came to Cabarete, a friend of our told us about the Montessori teaching method in detail, and it wasn’t long before we succumbed to its charm. Our economic situation wasn’t great when we arrived, with the crisis in Venezuela, and Sarah Ludwig-Ross helped us by giving us the option of paying the tuition fees in installments. We’re very happy to be taking part in this local community.”

Belkys Inoa, whose daughter Gerson is in the elementary class, confirms the strong relationship between the school and the families:

“My son has been here for five years and I’m sure that this opportunity will open doors for him in the future, especially thanks to the English he’s learning, which is essential if you want to find work in Cabarete. Mariela, my eldest daughter, is also an assistant in one of the classes. It helps to pay for her university fees. She seems much more confident since she started working here.”

Autonomy, concentration, curiosity and a love of learning are amongst the skills valued at 3 Mariposas Montessori. Tolerance and respect for people of different cultures and nationalities is also keenly promoted. In a country marked by the racism towards Haitians, who some Dominicans accuse of coming to “steal their jobs”, and the segregation between the expatriates living in gated communities and the locals living in poor neighbourhoods, the school embraces all this diversity, contributing to a gradual change in attitudes.

Building a new Tower of Babel

Based on a photo of a typical family from Panama, presented by elementary class teacher Patty Anton, from the United States, the children, sitting in a circle, imagine the similarities and differences with their own families. Group exercises of this kind provide the pupils with an opportunity to share their day-to-day experiences at the same times as learning about their classmates’ lives.

Conversations in the classroom or during playtime are held in Spanish, English and sometimes even French. Gina Andrade, an American of Colombian origin, a teacher in the primary class, quotes the example of Blu, a five-year-old French boy with a shock of curly blonde hair:

“He speaks French with his family, Spanish because he has been living in Cabarete for a few years and English with his friends at school. He even started learning German a few weeks ago. The children here are able to switch very easily from one language to another, depending on who they are talking to. It’s amazing!”

The children have their lunch between 11 and 11.30. The dozen or so pupils aged between one and three stay in their dedicated area whilst the primary and elementary classes come together to eat at a large outdoor terrace giving onto the playground. There are no set places, the children are free to sit where they wish, and have to wash their plates before they can go and play in the garden.

The vast play area gives free reign to the imagination. Whilst some play kickball – a mix of baseball, football and dodgeball – Félix, Sarah Ludwig-Ross’s son, Bo and Estevenson are busy with a project they’ve been working on for a number of days: building a fort out of bricks and planks of wood. They have been allowed to use hammers, nails and buckets filled with sand for the task.

They work as a team, talking in Spanish or English, cooperating with each other to ensure no one is injured. The sight of them busy at work, brick after brick, conjures up images of the mythical Tower of Babel being reconstructed. The 36 children at the “3 Butterflies” school appear ready to spread their wings, emblazoned with tolerance, and fly.

This story has been translated from French.