Crunch Time

At some point, in the financial realm of scholarship programs, we arrive at Crunch Time - those stressful days when coordinators are still scrambling to find sponsors, and committees worry that they have not raised sufficient funds to fulfill the promises made, and in-country coordinators suddenly add students to the program, and church treasurers are out of town and dates to make international wire transfers arrive, and the students need to register for school and then suddenly it is the first day of school and pastors and leaders start asking, "when are you sending our quotas?"  Crunch Time.

And the thing about Crunch Time is it arrives in December, when life is already crunchy enough with Christmasy things.

So, now that it is January, let's talk about scholarship programs - specifically, scholarship programs which support children and youth in El Salvador and are lovingly funded by churches (or similar charitable entities) in the United States.  Scholarship programs come in as many styles and sizes as there are communities that benefit from them.  I think we can agree that scholarship programs DO help children and families step up economically, and scholarship programs can actually save the lives of children and youth who are growing up in a risk-filled environment.  I could share countless stories of lives and families and communities which have been positively impacted through scholarships. 

We could raise up some questions about the divisiveness of providing scholarships to some families but not all families in a community.  We could raise up some questions about individual student support vs. community education support.  We could raise up some questions about the sustainability of scholarship programs.  But not right now.

This Crunch Time conversation is not so much about best models, but more about how sponsors and funding churches/organizations can benefit from a little more information which will help them to support whatever kind of scholarship program they have in a smoother, less crunchy way -- less crunchy on all sides.  This is a big point:  those of us who are on committees and coordinate scholarship programs rarely hear about the crunchiness on the Salvadoran side.  Scholarship recipients and leaders in El Salvador are so grateful for the support, the letters, the prayers and all the other connections they experience through scholarship programs, and Salvadorans are typically so polite, that sponsors simply do not know about how their management of programs creates challenges for Salvadoran students, families, pastors and leaders.

Ending the School Year in El Salvador
Let's begin with closing out the school year in El Salvador.  Public schools end classes in October.  If students' grades are poor, or (especially for older students) if projects or exams are missing, students attend summer school in November.  Grades are based on a 1 to 10 scale, and unless a student earns a 6 (some schools require a 7) or better in a class, the student must go to summer school and may have to repeat the class.   November is also the month filled with closing ceremonies, graduations and registration.  Parents must go to their children's schools, in person, with the children's birth certificates and the parent identity papers to register -- every child, every year. 

University students have classes throughout the month of November.  As families prepare for Christmas and celebrate graduations of younger children, university youth are finalizing big projects, taking exams and helping out in their churches to plan Vacation Bible School and big Christmas events for December.

December in El Salvador
Graduation ceremonies continue through the first part of the month.  University students take final exams and register for their January classes.  At the time of registration, university students must pay for the new semester of classes.  If they cannot pay in December, they must pay a late fee.  A typical late fee is between $60 and $80.  Some families borrow money to pay the registration fees.  They typically pay a high interest rate, which accumulates until the time the loan can be repaid (which, for many, is the time when the scholarship money arrives).

In the United States, many scholarship programs operate with a "give a kid a scholarship for Christmas" model.  The challenge of collecting money in November and December from donors is that it often does not get sent to El Salvador in time for university students to register for their classes.  One way sponsors can alleviate some of the stress at year end is to thing about a September collection campaign.  "Back to School" campaigns that correlate August/September beginnings in the United States can raise funds for smooth December/January beginnings in El Salvador.  Of course, this does require a bit of a leap of faith because it may not be clear at this point in the school year whether or not a particular student will continue the following year.  Clear communication with sponsors regarding potential adjustments (especially if the model is a one-to-one student sponsor relationship) is important.

Wiring Money to El Salvador in December
Christmas vacation in El Salvador is true vacation.  Offices in churches and humanitarian organizations close several days prior to Christmas, and often remain closed until sometime between January 4th and 10th.  All businesses and government offices are closed between December 24th and January 2nd.  Salvadoran Banks are tricky institutions, and especially during the holidays will take 7-14 days to process a transfer (and will not do anything between December 24 and January 2).  We recently had an experience in which the Salvadoran bank held funds for one full month around the time of the holidays before releasing them into a church account. 

The New School Year in El Salvador
The Salvadoran school year begins in January.  University and some high school students start classes during the second week of the month.  If university student scholarships have not yet arrived, students need to borrow money to pay late fees.  If high school student scholarships have not arrived, students borrow money to take the bus and to pay whatever fees are required at the start of the year.  Public education is tuition free, however, many schools require students to purchase specific equipment and pay field trip participation fees and food fees at the start of the year.  Most Salvadoran students begin classes in the third week of January.  The Lutheran elementary schools begin the last Monday of the month.

Loss of a School Year
The last thing a sponsor or sponsoring organization wishes to cause is the loss of a year of study because a promised scholarship did not arrive on time.  Sometimes, this is the fault of poor communication on the Salvadoran side.  For example, if the funding organization requires copies of report cards or other data and the Salvadoran program leader does not provide this information in a timely fashion, the sponsors may not be sending funds.  Sometimes, it is the result of the sponsors simply not understanding that poor families cannot float a loan for a couple of months or cannot come up with bus money for their students.  If students miss out on classes into February, the year is lost.

University is Expensive
University students pay balloon payments in December (for January) and also in June (for July).  During the rest of the year, students pay a monthly quota.  If sponsors send funds periodically during the year, it is important to recognize that this June payment is a larger sum of money.  The period of study at the university is 5 years.  The 6th year is filled with seminar courses, graduation requirements (such as area-specific exams and practicums) and group projects.  Depending on the advisor (who is assigned by the university and must be paid), the 6th year has additional costs between $1500 and $2000 (based on numbers at the National University of El Salvador).  Students are also required to spend one year in an unpaid internship (social service hours) which may coincide with the 6th year or may be an additional year.

Scholarships make all kinds of wonderful opportunities possible for students.  And despite the best of intentions, there will be crunchy moments when things just do not work out as smoothly as we would like.  With good information and communication on all sides of the scholarship equation, hopefully we can avoid the crunchiest of times, and celebrate the learning and successes achieved by Salvadoran Students.

Little ones beginning their scholastic careers
Bonus Info:  School Vocabulary
Sometimes it is difficult for US scholarship sponsors to understand at what level students are studying.  Here is a little guide to help:
Kinder 4 = 4-year old kindergarten (in some places still called parvulario or preschool)
Kinder 5 = 5-year old kindergarten
Kinder 6 = 6-year old kindergarten formerly known as preparatorio or preparatory
Primer Ciclo = First Cycle = Grades 1-3
Segundo Ciclo = Second Cycle = Grades 4-6
Tercer Ciclo = Third Cycle = Grades 7-9
Bachillerato General = General High School = 2 years and then technical school or university
Bachillerato Técnico = Technical High School = 3 years and includes a specialization; each local high school has 1 or more specializations such as accounting, healthcare, hotel and restaurant
Universidad Técnica = Technical University = 3 years of study with a 4th year of service hours, exams and graduation requirements
Universidad = University (6 years) ending in with a title "Licenciado" or "Licenciada" which is the title given to people with undergraduate degrees

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