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Posted April 10, 2003 

[This article is outdated. 
Coronado Academy closed November 28, 2004.]

Playa Esterillos, Costa Rica
Lori Armbruster, Admissions

Lon Woodbury’s Visit on February 4, 2003

Coronado Academy just passed their one-year anniversary, and during that time has gone through many of the typical growing pains that would be encountered by any school attempting to create a modern approach to 21st century education. Their vision is to establish a quality residential co-educational college preparation experience that emphasizes quality academics, personal growth and Global Citizenship. At the same time they are building a facility designed to both take advantage of modern technology as well as to exist in another culture. A further challenge is that they are serving students who have previously been floundering in school, so Coronado Academy might be considered as a sort of “transition” school.

The staff is making progress in learning how a school can balance the opportunities provided by being fully wired to integrate computers and the Internet in to the academic program, with some students’ tendency to abuse this opportunity. They are also attempting to balance the students’ tendency to “dress down” to cope with tropical heat, with the need for appropriate standards of attire. These are two of the topics that came up as the staff and I discussed the ways students are testing limits, and how they can adjust the structure of the school to ensure that the students keep the proper focus. Successfully balancing these opposing tendencies while providing a quality education is a very high aspiration indeed!

A key to the future of the school is their new Headmaster, Dr. Stuart Young. Unfortunately, he had briefly returned to the states while I was visiting the school, so I didn’t have a chance to meet him. However, his presence was very obvious even in his absence. Every student and staff member I spoke with had a favorite “Dr. Young story;” his energy, vision and leadership in the few short weeks he had been there had left a very strong impression on everybody. All were trying to anticipate, in a very positive way, what leadership initiatives he might start upon his return, or how he would continue to build on what he had already set into motion.

The facility is impressive. A little over a year ago, there was very little on the property except grass, palm trees and a fantastic ocean beach. All the current buildings have been built from scratch, designed specifically for use as an ultra modern 21st century school. Since my visit, construction on the new academic building has been completed, along with the kitchen dining hall, 4 dorms, student store/ hair salon, fitness center, and pool. And, the campus is self-sufficient for power, sewage treatment and water, phone, and Internet service. Covered walkways connect all the buildings so the students can move throughout the campus and keep dry during the rainy season.

Each student’s laptop computer is an integral part of his or her academics. The whole school is wired for computer access, especially in classrooms and dorms. This allows students to carry their work with them, giving access to schoolwork and teachers from anywhere on campus by simply plugging in their laptop into any convenient outlet.

The dining hall has a large, fully equipped kitchen that would be the envy of many restaurants, complete with a small bleacher section for culinary students to watch cooking demonstrations. A large covered patio is used for student meals as well as for individual student-staff sessions and various classes, including the student-taught English classes for the locals.

The dorms are large with plenty of personal pictures on the walls indicating students had settled in comfortably and were keeping their rooms relatively neat. Each building had several computer outlets for laptops in the lobby for newer students to do their homework in the evening, and outlets for older students to do their homework in their dorms. At the time of my visit there were twenty-five students, about evenly divided between the boys dorm and the girls dorm. The school considers 80 students to be an optimum size.

The students’ security is important; to enter campus visitors must first go through a checkpoint station on the edge of the property, which serves to control the flow of people onto the campus. Although Costa Rica is a very peaceful society, the owners of the school do not want to chance disruptions from rubbernecking visitors curious about the school, or casual visitors intent on interacting with students.

To be accepted by Coronado Academy, applicants must convince the school that to at least some degree, they want something they have not been getting in their previous schools. Though they might feel reluctant about coming to Coronado Academy, suitable applicants know they want something more out of life than they have been getting so far. They may either have been floundering and underachieving in their previous school, or beginning to act out in a way that concerned their parents, or perhaps have successfully graduated from a highly structured Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic Boarding School. Several of their current students had completed a short term wilderness program with such success that a highly structured Emotional Growth/Therapeutic Boarding school or a treatment program would have been excessive. In these cases Coronado Academy provided a more appropriate, lighter level of intervention.

On the surface, Coronado Academy looks and conducts itself like a typical residential boarding school, incorporating many of the standard rules. In addition to schoolwork, student laptop computers provide intra-school communication; students wear jewelry and can listen to their own music. However the staff is very quick to respond to even minor abuses of these privileges by seeing them as triggers for other issues that need to be addressed. For example, when music is played so loudly that it bothers others, it initiates a discussion in group or in individual therapy about respect, and perhaps, why the student needs to be the center of attention.

Currently the school is accredited through Summit school in Mississippi, but is working on their own accreditation. Typical class size is 7-8 students, and since students have laptops, instruction can be individualized for each student. As they hire more teachers, they are planning to move to more experiential instruction and reduce the amount of online classes in which the students are now participating.

This school is unique in that it requires their students to learn Spanish, and study “Global Citizenship”, which includes activities as diverse as teaching swimming to the young children, and English to children and adults in the local population. We watched two female Coronado students teach English, using Word Bingo as a tool. The girls as well as the adults in the class seemed to be having a great time; the girls’ instruction was fun for everyone. Other female students at the pool were teaching the local kids to swim, and they all seemed to be having a great time.

Once students have a working knowledge of Spanish and have reached a level of trust and responsibility, they are allowed to participate in another part of Global Citizenship. They are allowed to work and live part time with a local family, under close observation, of course. We visited one girl who had just started this phase. She had stayed the previous night with a local Costa Rican family, and then waited on tables in the family-owned restaurant the following day. We stopped by on her first day at the restaurant and ordered something to drink. It was obvious that taking orders and communicating with the customers was a real challenge for her, yet not only did she do it well, it was also something she was having fun doing.

Recreation is an important part of the students’ daily life. The school works hard to help the students take full advantage of being in a foreign country. Being on the beach gives the students frequent access to the ocean and I was told that 80% of the students were taking surfing classes. Also, there are frequent trips up and down the coast as well as to Costa Rica’s rain forest and national parks. This environment also allows the ocean beach to be used as a backdrop for various trust exercises that are used to help promote personal growth for the students.

Coronado Academy is being built based on some very ambitious aspirations, some of which are cutting edge educational techniques. For example, although computers have been in American classrooms for some time, I am not aware of any Emotional Growth School that has tried to take as full advantage of computers for academics as Coronado Academy has been doing.

This is not a school for students who are seriously acting-out or who are in full-blown rebellion. Rather, it is a school that provides a college prep education for students who are floundering, and need a little more structure and support than most students need in order to achieve academic success.

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