Lucero Martinez Colque is carefully and skillfully de-boning a whole rabbit as she pays close attention to what her cookery teacher is saying. "I’m trying to take it all in," she says as she attempts to slice and dice more of the rabbit, which will be used to make a stew for herself and her classmates to enjoy at lunchtime.
Lucero comes from El Alto, the sprawling mega city adjacent to La Paz, where the young student admits "there’s not a lot of opportunities for girls like me."
El Alto is one of Bolivia’s most impoverished cities, a place where people have to work long hours just to earn a couple of dollars to keep themselves and their families afloat. "My parents couldn’t afford to send me to a cookery school but I’m smiling everyday because I got a place here."
Lucero is one of 3,000 students from low-income families who won a place on the 2016 Youth Metro Stop Program. The local council in El Alto has rolled out the initiative in 11 centers, offering free classes for the brightest and best students in the city.
"We offer advanced programs in cooking, English and football," explains Marco Quispe, one of the directors of the scheme. "It’s all completely free for the students. The only items they have to buy for themselves is their aprons and hats for cooking classes."
The free education scheme has proven to be a huge success in El Alto. The English classes are the most popular, with students praising the teachers for helping improve their written and oral English. "In this class I can speak at a high level and all my classmates understand me," says 16-year-old Douglas.
The young student is eager to practice his English with a native speaker. "How are you doing?" he nervously inquires as I greet him during his class.
"Very good" I reply, adding "thanks for having me here today." Duncan seems confused and immediately says "You’re not American, are you?" perhaps thrown off by hearing a European accent for the first time. "No I’m Irish" I tell him, "and we speak very different to Americans!" Duncan seems pleased. His English is not the problem after all, it's the strange Celtic accent that he’s struggling to understand.
"A few months ago he wouldn’t have been able to have a conversation like this with a native speaker" his teacher tells me afterwards. "We teach American English here and watch American movies but he recognized the difference straight away!"
Duncan is one of the top students in his class and wants to study systems engineering. "It’s important for everybody to have another language," he says earnestly. "You can travel to other countries and speak to people about their lives and views."
The project was launched in June 2015 and is aimed at children and young people aged between six and 19. It costs US$100,000 to run annually and there’s plans to increase the scope of the program by offering more classes in more locations.
"We are developing a social program with core values that is leading to the construction of a safe city with a good quality of life for the next generation," says Marco Quispe.
"The youth metro stop initiative is the best thing that has ever happened to me," says cookery student Lucero while her fellow students nod in agreement as they wrap up their cookery class for another day. They’ll all be back tomorrow to learn yet more new skills.