‘I SEE EDUCATION AS THE GREAT EQUALIZER’
Superintendent Schaffer helps build school in Guatemala made from recycled bottles
“I see education as really the great equalizer,” said Marc Schaffer, superintendent of the Thompson School District, in his office Thursday morning. He had been back in the United States about two weeks, returning from a trip to Agua Escondida, a remote village in Guatemala, where he helped build a school out of recycled plastic bottles.
He meant the phrase as both an equalizing force, that education can lift people up and provide opportunities, but also to mean that in such dramatically different environments as the Thompson School District in Loveland and a largely agricultural, non-electrified village in rural Guatemala, where the primary language isn’t English or even Spanish, but Mayan, the day-to-day business of educating kids is mostly the same.
“Schools are schools,” he continued. “Schools are places of learning. So when kids were doing their cultural dances, and the kids were showing us arts and crafts that they put together, or showing us things they did in their classroom, it was very akin to being in Garfield Elementary, or Bill Reed Middle School, where kids are quick to show you what they’re learning, and you’ve got that joy. So whether you’re in Guatemala or here in Loveland, I’d say that’s what education is all about.”
Agua Escondida already had a school, but according to Schaffer, much of it was collapsed or otherwise unusable, and the philanthropic arm of Lifetouch, a national photography and yearbook company, employed a novel approach to building a new wing.
A concrete framework is poured, and then chicken wire is stretched across it. Then, with one individual on either side of the chicken wire, old soda bottles filled with other recycled materials and sand are used to create the actual structure of the walls.
Similar bottles are sorted out so that they neatly fit together, and then tied to the chicken wire to keep them in place.
These bottles ordinarily take up space in a landfill or end up
in the ocean, Schaffer said, where they can last up to 100 years. That durability can be put to good use if, instead of clogging the seas, it’s used to create a school.
As Schaffer helped construct a school in Agua Escondida, work continued back home to do the same in the Thompson School District, on a somewhat larger scale.
Construction is still underway at a number of sites across the district, like Conrad Ball Middle School, which next year will become Peakview Academy at Conrad Ball, and will incorporate students from the middle school and two elementary schools in a massive consolidation project.
Much like in Guatemala, where students eagerly observe their new school as it rises out of the dirt, Schaffer said that Thompson students are just as excited about the construction underway here, peering through the holes in construction enclosures at Conrad Ball or watching earth movers dig at High Plains School, the site of another large expansion.
One difference, though: while Thompson students can’t hop into a backhoe and start moving metric tons of dirt, the younger members of Agua Escondida were involved in the construction of their school, placing bottles and running to get more when volunteers, or their neighbors and classmates, ran out.
“I couldn’t communicate in any way with these two young ladies whatsoever, but they were amazing,” Schaffer said in reference to a photo of himself standing with two young residents he had worked alongside. “They were super helpful, and we were truly immersed in working together to put together a school, which was pretty special.”
Even as the “great equalizer,” the purpose served by education in Loveland, Berthoud or Fort Collins is likely different than in rural Guatemala.
For one thing, Schaffer noticed less of a careerist drive in Guatemala, particularly in the rural village, where most households are intergenerational and most are farmers. While there are paths to greater riches and sometimes larger homes or cars on the streets, the drive to achieve those was less apparent in Agua Escondida, he said.
That wasn’t the only difference he noted.
“There are issues, I think, in American schools that we didn’t see in Guatemalan schools,” he said. “There may be levels of anxiety, levels of depression, other mental health issues that didn’t seem as apparent, or at least as visible there. And it’s hard to tell, you don’t know what the story is or what have you, but we wondered as educators. We look at the challenges that face American schools, or even here in Loveland, with the issues that students are facing, and then, what are the challenges that (Guatemalan students) are facing? And it doesn’t necessarily always line up, it looks a little different.”