Education in Bolivia: School System

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Although this section on Bolivian schools and universities was written primarily from a Santa Cruz point of view, the general information it contains applies to most cities and towns in Bolivia. In Santa Cruz there are plenty of excellent private schools, universities, and institutes to choose from throughout the city, and at various price ranges. However, the public education system is another matter:

education santa cruz bolivia

The public Bolivia school system is a disaster. The schools are not maintained, and many don’t have adequate furnishings or classroom materials. Teachers are constantly going on strike (closing down the schools for days or weeks on end) to protest for higher wages or other issues. You’ll most likely just want to stay away from the public school system in general, including the state universities.

Many public schools are being supported, maintained, furnished and supplied by non-profit institutions and these are usually in excellent condition. You can see how the children thrive and their learning level is higher than the national public school average at these schools.

Because of this situation, there is an abundance of excellent private universities and schools to choose from. The government's failure to improve the Bolivia school system, has led to a surge in privately owned institutes, schools and universities in Bolivia (Many of these have agreements with other institutions overseas as well as exchange programs, such as UPSA University's MBA exchange with Thunderbird in Arizona. Many high schools participate in Rotary Club and other exchange programs as well.

Here's what you should know about being a foreign exchange student in Bolivia.

Price ranges at these institutions vary and there are often waiting lists for entry, so it’s always good to begin your search a year or two in advance. Anyone who can possibly afford to send their children to private schools will. There are also specific entrance requirements to fulfill, and these can differ from one educational institution to the next.

The Bolivia, school year runs from February to November and summer vacation is in December and January (these being the two hottest months of the year). Don’t forget that the seasons are reversed in the Southern and Northern atmospheres when making your decision. If you plan to return to your country of origin shortly, you’ll want to plan accordingly. There are a few private schools that observe the U.S. September to June school year.

A few other things to keep in mind about education in Bolivia: Elementary and high school students attend school either in the morning or in the afternoon, depending on which shift they are assigned. Therefore, the school day is short and working parents must arrange for child care for the remainder of the day. Because each school day shift is only 4 hours long, students may also attend school on Saturdays as well. There are several good daycare centers for preschool children in Santa Cruz, and many families also have a housekeeper or nanny who picks up and drops off the children.

Most schools in Bolivia do not provide meals, and most require uniforms. Most schools do not provide school buses either, and few provide for after-school or extracurricular activities. (foreign or Bolivian private schools that observe the U.S. school year usually also observe a full Monday to Friday 7-hour school day, and provide meals, buses, and extracurricular programs).

There are many other types of schools in Bolivia including trade and vocational schools, academies of the arts, beauty schools, driving schools, and training centers. For our purposes we will list these under institutes.

Important Note: The current Bolivian socialist government, under President Evo Morales is considering doing away with private schools altogether and converting all private schools into Bolivian public schools. A large portion of the population of Bolivia has protested against this, and so far, this measure has not gone through. There is no way to know how severely this could affect the quality of education in Bolivia; however many think the effects would be negative. Rather than bringing the public school system up to par with private school standards, it is generally believed the quality of education at private-turned-public institutions will decrease overall, given the government's administrative record so far. It will be important to stay informed on this issue as it progresses.

Historical Notes: During the colonial times, only the sons of the elite were educated. Little effort was made to teach the natives. After Bolivia declared its independence, several decrees were passed to make elementary-level learning and attendance within at least the public Bolivia school system obligatory, but little was actually accomplished.

In 1931 Elizardo Pérez founded a large nuclear school (a central school with five to eight grades) near Lake Titicaca which became the prototype for rural education in Bolivia. Today, rural schools are still called "núcleos".

In 1947 the Bolivia government passed a literacy law requiring every literate Bolivian to teach at least one illiterate person to read and write and in 1956 legislation was passed that founded the public school system that still exists today. Several changes were made in 1969 and 1973 making education through age 14 compulsory. The Bolivian education system currently has a 5-year primary cycle (1st - 5th grades), followed by 3 years of intermediate school (6th - 8th grades), and four years of high school. All students follow the same curriculum during the first two years of high school. During the last two years of high school students choose to graduate with a degree in humanities or one of various technical fields. A baccalaureate degree is awarded upon graduation and is necessary in order to take the university entrance exam.

In addition, the Ministry of Education and Culture of Bolivia established several hundred adult literacy centers, most in urban areas. Spending on education is not well-organized and most goes to operating costs, leaving little for expansion. About 87% of children attend primary schools, but only about 35% make it to high school. Drop-out rates are very high, especially among the poor. In rural areas, only about 40% of children attend school beyond the third grade, where many speak Quechua, Aymara or other dialects and have trouble taking classes in Spanish. Private schooling is beyond the reach of the majority of the population and university entrance exams, for those who can afford to attend, are extremely competitive and difficult. Most upper class families send their children to private Bolivian universities (which are very good) or to Europe, the U.S., Argentina, Brazil or Chile to study.

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