When High School Graduation is the Most Dangerous Time (El Salvador)

I arrived in San Salvador yesterday afternoon. I’ll be in Central America through next week studying immigration and then a few days at the U.S. – Mexico border.

As our group sat around in an open-air sanctuary debriefing our day, YMCA was blasting from the bar across the street.

This morning we visited a Juan Calvino school in Soyapango, a city adjacent to San Salvador. Their mission is to reduce insecurity [threat of violence] by reducing social and violent risk through education. The school began as a pre-K through sixth grade, they currently have 165 students in the morning. Sixth grade is the required level of education in El Salvador. Tuition is approximately $6 – $14 per month, although 50% of the students are on scholarship (supported largely by churches in the U.S.). The students look like elementary students anywhere. Some smile toothless grins as we entered the classroom; others turned shyly away.

1st grade learning numbers in English.

Members of the school come from the local community. Some of the students are children or family members of gang members. There is an “agreement” that the school is a safe space. Sometimes the adults of these children will come to the school for parent-teacher conferences and other events, but they usually stay away.

Pre-K class art project.

After sixth grade, these students will go to a local public school for seventh and eighth grades, if they continue their education. Many or most will not.

Several years ago, they began a high school because there was no safe high school to attend in the area. This high school is considered a public high school. The government takes free space from the school (they would not pay rent and the school allowed this because of the importance of having a safe high school) but pays the teachers directly. The high school has 120 students (of the 5,000 high school eligible schools in the zone). The graduating class the last three years has been 50-70 students. Almost all of these students will go on to further education or find a job.

Computer class.

Graduation is the most dangerous time for these students. In their community, at the school, they are in “safe” territory. The zone is gang-controlled, but the real danger comes when they leave their zone and have to cross other gang-held territory. Even at work, they can be identified as from a certain location and be at risk by rival gangs. Students have been beaten up, disappeared, extorted, and even murdered.

Everyone in the neighborhood knows who belongs to the gang and who does not. It is an uneasy and unreliable peace. There are still issues in this area of threats and forced involvement (often girls are claimed by the gang). The school itself is only four minutes from the notorious La Campaneraone of the deadliest areas, in a country that has the highest murder rate in the world, as two rival gangs fight for territory. Because of the stress, a local university brings psychology students in to help the students process their anxiety and fear. We saw them working together when we visited.

High school poetry class.

These students are all at risk. Some are already gang members. Even those who graduate from high school and go on to university or a job at graduation still have limited opportunities in this country. Someone in our group observed that the teenagers at the school looked like teenagers in the U.S.

The truth is, any of these kids could be my kids — or your kids — if we had been born here rather than in our country of origin. And their parents want the same thing for them that we want for our children. For many, border and migration policies are what prevent this from happening.

I understand borders and the need for different laws in different cultures because we have different circumstances. I understand being proud of your country and wanting to protect a way of life. At what point, though, are these things trumped (!) by our shared humanity?


Youngest is graduating from high school this year. We are excited as we plan for college. One of the most dangerous times for the students in El Salvador is at high school graduation. What if this were true for our own children? Would we finally respond?

What you can pray for:

  • The school to receive enough funding to pay their teachers a living wage and to provide scholarships for all students who need them.
  • The work of religious and other organizations who are working for peace between gangs would be effective.

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