Officially named Colegio Mayor Secundario Presidente del Perú, “Colegio Mayor” was the first school of its’ kind in Peru: a publicly funded, boarding school exclusive to high-achieving students. Today, there are 23 such schools spread all throughout the country, connected through what is called the COAR network.
The schools were created in an effort to support highly talented students in the poorest regions of the country. The hope was that these students might be able to attend a university, which would not only to mobilize and escape poverty, but also to acquire knowledge, skills and experiences that would aid them to return to their home regions to help make a positive impact.
Colegio Mayor is located just two hours west of downtown Lima in the dusty, desert community of Chaclacayo at the edge of the Andes Mountains. When the school was founded in 2009, students traveled thousands of miles to attend, but today there is a COAR school in nearly every province of Perú.
While students who attend traditional Peruvian liceo (high school) attend for five years, the COAR schools only house students for their third, fourth, and fifth years of high school. Students are able to apply for admission to a COAR school following completion of their second year of studies at a local liceo. However, only students ranked in the top 5% of their local liceo are eligible for admission at COAR schools. Even so, entry in a COAR school is ultra competitive and the application process is extremely thorough, as students must students complete entrance exams, psychological exams and formal interviews.
In 2016, over 2,500 students applied for admission at Colegio Mayor and just 300 are accepted each year. It goes without saying that the students who attend a COAR school are remarkable. Not only are these students gifted intellectually, but also socially, artistically, musically and athletically. They recognize the incredible talent they possess and willingly leave their families behind at age 12 or 13 in hopes that the rigorous education at a COAR school will enable them to reach their fullest potential. (In Peru, students graduate when they are 15 or 16 years old.)
We got the chance to be there for 10 days, and the kids absolutely blew me away.
While the school day at a typical Peruvian liceos begins at 8:00 am and ends around 1:00 pm, classes at Colegio Mayor begin at 7:30 am and run until 5:00 or 6:00 pm, depending on the day. Yes, the students get a significant break during the afternoon, but they also attend classes and workshops on Saturday mornings, from 8:00 am to roughly 1:00 pm.
The students receive over 10 hours per week of English instruction, and by the time students have completed their first year at Colegio Mayor many have acquired intermediate to advanced fluency. In addition to Spanish and English, a handful of students are competent in an indigenous Peruvian language such as quechua or aymara. I had a conversation with a 13 year-old boy who is fluent in three languages. Amazing.
Beyond the classroom, students are involved in athletics (soccer, basketball, and volleyball being the most popular), the arts (dance is extremely popular), and other clubs (forensics, robotics, debate, community service organizations, etc.).
While there were treated like celebrities and had the autonomy to visit any classroom we wanted during the school day. Students begged and pleaded us to visit their classes, sit with them in the cafeteria, read their English papers, etc. I certainly expected that students would have questions for us about Wisconsin, or the United States, and I anticipated they would ask, “What is life like in Wisconsin?” or, “What foods do you eat in Wisconsin?”
Nevertheless, the students were well-versed in US popular culture, geography, history, politics, sports, and asked us the most insightful and curious of questions. What is the central issue regarding race relations in the United States? What’s my prediction regarding the future of immigration in the United States? What’s my opinion on Trump?
Once again these kids are 12-15 years old, discussing – in their second language – the state of a country 3,000 miles away they have never visited. By comparison, many people in the US would struggle to place Peru on a map and would have little more than “Hola, ¿Cómo estás?” in a conversation with a native Spanish-speaker.
I was in awe of these children and I will never forget their curiosity about the world; their radiant personalities and smiling faces; their overwhelming desire to make life better for their families and for Peruvians; their fearlessness; their insistence on open-mindedness and coexistence; and most of all: the intense love for learning each student possessed.
Although we were there for little more than a week, these kids and this school will forever hold a place in my heart. As we walked towards our vehicle following our last day at Colegio Mayor, a chorus of 100+ Peruvian schoolchildren wished us off, singing:
Cuando pienses en volver,
Aquí están tus amigos, tu lugar y tu mujer
Y te abrazarán y dirán que el tiempo no pasó,
Y te amarán con todo el corazón.
When you think about returning again,
Here awaits your place, woman, and friends.
They’ll embrace you as if no time has past,
And love you with all their hearts at last.