Cultivating Cross-Cultural Competence in Costa Rica

By Abel McClennen
Imagine a PreK-12 two-way immersion International Baccalaureate (IB) school in a rural, ecologically and ethnically diverse Central American country, where all cultures, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels are openly embraced and celebrated. Sound impossible? It’s not.

La Paz Community School in Guanacaste, Costa Rica was founded in 2007 to address fundamental socioeconomic and cultural gaps prevalent in a regional economy struggling to find a balance between the historically agricultural and the emerging tourist economies. With over 300 students representing 28 nationalities, eight languages and all socioeconomic levels, the school is an incubator for effective Place-Based Education (PBE) strategies to promote cross-cultural competence in multilingual, multinational communities.
With over 300 students representing 28 nationalities, eight languages and all socioeconomic levels, the school is an incubator for effective Place-Based Education (PBE) strategies to promote cross-cultural competence in multilingual, multinational communities. Using the lens of the La Paz Peace Practices, which emphasize the authentic discovery of Self, Family, Community and World, students explore through a balance of academic and socio-emotional learning (SEL) experiences.
Dr. Elizabeth Howard explained in her presentation at the Fifth International Conference on Language Immersion Education that cross-cultural competence is an essential subset of SEL, particularly in the globalized economy of the 21st century. Cross-cultural competence is the ability to comprehend and embrace one’s own culture as well as the cultures of those around them in the context of the 21st-century global cultural diaspora.
At La Paz, the leadership team views cross-cultural competence as a fundamental aspect of a successful PBE program. Both monolingual and dual immersion schools grapple with how to authentically and systematically integrate cross-cultural competence into rigorous content requirements. At La Paz Community School, a 50/50 blend between locals and ex-patriots supports a balanced linguistic exchange; however, the challenge remains how to intentionally acknowledge and celebrate diverse customs, approaches, and communication styles within the school community.

Creating a Safe Learning Community

The fundamental ingredient to fostering a high level of cross-cultural competence in any academic setting is creating a safe learning community where all perspectives and opinions are openly welcomed and shared. La Paz strives to achieve this starting in the most formative years: A two-way immersion preschool model that uses a Vygotsky-based approach to promoting SEL. With a significant focus on behavior self-regulation, students are taught a variety of SEL skills through intentional play, mindful listening practice, peer problem solving and child-initiated explorations.
Students who have completed the two-year preschool program then enter the La Paz K-6 program with not only the bilingual skills necessary to achieve biliteracy, but also an SEL skill set to tackle more complex challenges associated with cross-cultural discourse. The emotional well-being of the students is honored, preserved and cultivated through consistent teaching and reinforcement of eight core problem-solving strategies (walk away, find a new friend, compromise, wait it out, ask other person to stop, just ignore it, talk it out and laugh it off), empowering students and teachers to use a common, school-wide bilingual vocabulary when solving problems.
Students then advance to the secondary school with the literacy and SEL skills needed to meet the challenges of the rigorous and rare bilingual diploma offered by the International Baccalaureate Program (IB). With problem-solving strategies and self-regulation ingrained from their primary and preschool experiences, secondary school students are well prepared to face community and global challenges that require a dynamic form of cross-cultural competence, including a delicate balance of leadership and empathy.
Above: IB Visual Arts is a core course for La Paz 11th and 12th graders. Here a native Costa Rican whose family originates from the capital city demonstrates higher order creative cross-cultural competency by creating traditional local pottery which she will then display in photographic form; the silhouettes of the pottery represent the urban landscape of her family’s past. 
Above: A whole school morning meeting to celebrate the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Students, teachers, parents and community members are all enjoying a moment of silence (daily practice to support self-regulation and reflection) prior to an open sharing session related to the theme of the day.

Cross-Grade Learning Opportunities (C-GLO)

The concept of C-GLO is essential to La Paz’s success in creating a cross-culturally competent school community. Rituals and routines such as Morning Meetings, the Big Buddy/Little Buddy Program, Secondary Advisory and Creative Block are integral experiences contextualized within the prek-12 thematic curriculum that focuses content into eight core themes that are fundamentally rooted in Place-Based Education; Peace Ambassadors, Sustainability, Origins, Land and Sea, Wellness, Energy, Creative Expression and Gratitude.
These annually repeated themes allow for language learners to use and develop a common academic language during C-GLO. Carefully planned thematic units culminate in schoolwide exhibitions where students share their learning while receiving oral and written feedback from multi-grade peers and community members. For example, during the Origins unit, cross-cultural competence is meaningfully displayed through a final exhibition of learning where each student shares various aspects of their culture in the context of the curricular content.
The Morning Meeting is a daily practice that naturally fosters effective C-GLO at La Paz. Students, teachers, parents and community members start each day by meeting in a large circle for 20-40 minutes. There are three core components of the meeting: 1) peaceful silence; 2) social/cultural/logistical discussion; and 3) core academic presentations and discourse.
The students and teachers co-construct the routines and expectations of the meetings; in addition, the older students serve as leaders and mentors for the younger students. This multi-age, multilingual and multicultural meeting time provides students a safe platform and authentic audience for taking risks and sharing diverse and unique cultural experiences. It is common for celebrations, individual family stories and important cultural figures to be both purposefully and spontaneously discussed.
Moreover, meetings provide a comfortable, meaningful environment in which children can utilize their knowledge to support and create community interconnectedness. A recent review found that feeling a sense of belonging results in higher student engagement, motivation and academic performance, validating the importance of investing time in a community meeting where all cultures not only belong, but are celebrated.
Above: Local mothers work with a cross-grade group of children during the theme of sustainability during the Creative Block C-GLO.  


As a prek-12 TWDI school accredited by the Costa Rican Ministry of Education and the International Baccalaureate program, La Paz Community School must ensure that a diverse set of standards are met. Through best practices in PBE including, but not limited, to thematic curriculum planning and C-GLO (to name a few), the Professional Learning Community at La Paz is committed to ensuring that the place and people of Guanacaste drive the curriculum, thus leading to meaningful learning experiences that inspire students to be lifelong learners.
This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education see:

Abel McClennen is a founder of La Paz Community School and School Director. Follow them on Twitter: @lapazschool.

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1 Comment

Jim& Sue Priga

We are very pleased , that our grandson Julian is attending La Paz school.
The academic and social aspects of LaPaz is wonderful.

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