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Costa Rica

Preprimary & Primary Education

The government placed a priority on primary education, so few preprimary programs are available. The largest number of preprimary programs are found in the capital city of San Jose. Children from the ages of two through six are enrolled in instructional programs, and two meals a day are provided. Preprimary educational curriculum consists of instruction in arts, crafts, music, and language development.

Children enter school at the age of six years and six months. The academic year begins in March. Based on special testing or attendance at preschool programs, age requirements may be waived by three months. Currently, 525,273 children attend kindergarten to sixth grade in 3,671 primary schools. Current figures indicate that 96 percent of school-age children are enrolled in primary schools. In rural schools, only 50 percent of enrolled students might attend on any given day because attendance depends on whether or not the students are needed at home to work for their families.

Students receive a certificate called a "Conclusion of Cycle" after grades three and six. The grading scale for the standardized tests is based on a scale from 0 to 100 percent. Students must score at least 65 percent for a minimum, passing grade. The Ministeriod de Educacion (Ministry of Education), establishes the contents of the exam. Students must pass standardized Ministry of Education tests in fifth, ninth, and eleventh grades to receive a high school diploma.

The number of students enrolled in elementary schooling increased dramatically within the two decades after the 1948 revolution. In 1950, 66.5 percent of school age children were enrolled in primary education. That number rose to 92.6 percent by 1960, and 100 percent by 1970.

Although the primary language in Costa Rica is Spanish, daily English lessons are offered to most students beginning in preschool. By high school, most students take English language lessons for 80 minutes a day. School classes, however, are taught in Spanish.

Since 1972, under executive directive 3333E of the National Plan for Educational Development, students are given mandatory education for nine years, consisting of three cycles of three years each. This education is compulsory and funded by the government. The first two cycles correspond to primary education in the United States, and a certificate is awarded on completion. The third cycle corresponds to the junior high school years of secondary education in the United States.

Classes are half a day with some grades attending in the mornings, while others attend only in the afternoons. Grades are combined in some schools. Taking into account recess and lunchtime, students spend as little as three hours a day in the classroom. Costa Rica has one of the shortest school years in the world: 180 days. Teachers teach different classes and different grades in the morning and in the afternoon. The curriculum is developed by the Ministry of Education and is identical throughout the country.

Because of cutbacks in government funding in the 1980s, parents now contribute an average of 1000 colones annually for each child. By the 1990s, the total family contribution to send a child to public primary school was about 7000 colones annually. Parents directly bear about 30 percent of the public primary school costs. Urban schools often have 50 students in a classroom. Rural schools have the fewest computers, libraries, and supplies. Though children are required to wear school uniforms, many come to school without the uniform, often an indication of lower socio-economic status.

Costs for attending school include uniforms, notebooks, pencils, pens, rulers, and transportation. Additionally, students in primary schools provide their own lunches and/or snack. Students in high school pay for all their food and bus transportation. Unfortunately, most schools do not have enough textbooks for all their students. Schools lack books, notebooks, audiovisual equipment, libraries, gymnasiums, and workshops.

Costa Rica has excellent primary education in most areas. At the secondary level, the coverage is lower than some other Latin American countries. Only two of every three enrolled students in first grade complete sixth grade, and only one in every three students complete secondary education. These enrollment percentages drop with declining family incomes in all age groups. The grading scale in Costa Rica consists of: S—Sobreasaliente (outstanding); N—Notable; Suf—Suficiente (sufficient); and I—Insuficiente (insufficient).


The qualifications for primary teachers are higher in Costa Rica than in many other Latin American countries. In Costa Rica, teacher education takes place in universities rather than secondary schools. Primary-teacher candidates must earn a high school diploma before gaining admission to the two-year normal school teacher education program or to the School of Education at the University of Costa Rica.

The first special education school was established in 1939, the Centro Nacional de Enzenanza Especial Fernando Centeno Guell. In 1968 a special education department opened in the Ministry of Public education. By 1986, there were 19 special education schools and more than 200 regular schools developed special education classes. In 2001 more than 400 regular schools integrate special education classes, and 15 special education schools exist. Two main universities, the University of Costa Rica and UNI, offer bachelor degrees in special education. The University of Costa Rica also offers masters degrees in integral rehabilitation. While most teachers average 14.1 years of experience, special education teachers average 3.5 years of experience.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceCosta Rica - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education