An official website of the United States government

Remodeling English language education in Costa Rica
January 15, 2020

people work around table

By Jewelle Saunders

By luck when he was young, Alex Solano took an English language course that would change his life. One inspiring teacher forever changed the way that Alex viewed education, and he received a scholarship to continue taking courses on teaching English. His drive and passion for education eventually led him to establish an innovative English language school in Costa Rica, where he now provides life-changing courses to his community.

Creating unique lesson plans

2018 YLAI Fellow Alex founded El Árbol English School in Costa Rica, an institution where students of all ages learn English and develop critical thinking skills.

After taking courses on his scholarship, Alex taught in Costa Rica for years before receiving his master’s degree in the United States. Taking the principles he learned in his studies, he was inspired to return to Costa Rica and design his own curriculum. “I wanted to approach teaching seeing all students as human beings rather than numbers in a classroom,” Alex says. “I wanted to establish one-on-one time to get to know them.”

Hoping to develop more opportunities for people in his Costa Rican community to become more knowledgeable and compassionate, Alex originated unique lesson plans teaching English through a variety of topical issues and global concepts. He “wanted to establish a way to create a change in the way people think and behave” for the better.

people pose with certificates

His unique lesson plans are structured in 18 different levels, all establishing practices in better understanding English grammar, and developing reading, listening, writing and speaking skills. Each level has an accompanying book leading the lessons, and topics overarching the lessons include self-sufficient living, equal rights, healthy eating habits, identity, feminism, and climate change. While learning the structure of the language, students also receive lessons and activities based on meaningful topics.

Encouraging a shift in education

“Education is a tool for change, and more than just for gaining knowledge, education can help people to free their minds,” Alex says. When training other teachers, it is important for Alex to convey and encourage the same level of energy and passion that motivated him to start this school. Wanting a paradigm shift in education, he is encouraging a humanistic approach to teaching, for teachers to concentrate more on learning together, rather than executing any power over students. He continually asks, “What can we do together, and what can we learn together?”

people sitting around tableThirty percent of students are offered scholarships, or work exchanging skills, such as food service or architectural help, including one student who is an architect helping to design the classrooms. One student began at El Árbol by helping to paint the school in exchange for lessons. He worked hard to go on to tutor students and apply for a job that he now works at in San Jose so he can earn money to continue studying at the best university in Costa Rica.

Connection is the most important aspect of this organization for Alex. Getting to know these individual students, letting them know you are there for them to learn and to be an encouraging presence, and being a part of their growth are the reasons he is so passionate about this work. Teaching them English and these various instrumental global topics gives them more opportunities to learn and grow.

Building sustainable societies

From the humble beginnings of running lessons out of his own house, Alex is looking forward to the continued expansion of El Árbol, with a trained and dedicated teaching staff, more classrooms and a website coming in 2020.

Alex’s time as a YLAI Fellow allowed him opportunities to build connections and open his mind to how best organize a business. His advice to YLAI Network members looking to make a difference in their community is to really work hard to get to know their community first. Know the individuals, know the families and the cultures, and know the stories to better understand their needs.

To commemorate this year’s International Day of Education, the YLAI Network celebrates Alex’s passionate and innovative approach to education, understanding that education plays a key role in “building sustainable and resilient societies.”