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Colombia, officially known as the Republic of Colombia, is a large country in the northwestern part of South America, measuring 441,000 square miles in total land area.  A unitary constitutional republic comprising thirty-two departments, Colombia is bordered to the north by the Caribbean Sea, the northwest by Panama, the west by the Pacific Ocean, the east by Venezuela and Brazil and the south by Ecuador and Peru.  The capital and largest city in Colombia is Bogota, and the country’s economy, which is the 4th largest in Latin America, is anchored by staple exports such as coffee, flowers, emeralds, coal and oil.
 
Colombia has a population of approximately 46 million, making it the third-most populous country in Latin America, trailing only Brazil and Mexico.  While Colombia census data does not include a reference to or a breakdown of ethnic ancestry, according to the CIA World Factbook, nearly 60 percent of the population is Mestizo, a terms that means a combination of European and Amerindian heritage.  Roughly 20 percent of the population is of European ancestry, primarily Spanish, but also Italian, Portuguese and German.  Another 14 percent of the population is of mixed African and Amerindian heritage.  Spanish is the official and most widely spoken language in Colombia, and after Mexico, the country is home to the largest number of Spanish-speakers in the world.  Roman Catholicism is the religion of choice for most Colombians, accounting for 91 percent of the total population.
 
Because of its location—at the crossroads of Latin and North America—the culture in Colombia is made up of many different ethnic and linguistic influences.  Cultural elements of Spain and the Native Americans are most prevalent and play a huge role in shaping the music, dance, sport and cuisine in Colombia, but there are also pockets of the country in which elements of other European, American and Caribbean culture are more the norm.
 
Education in Colombia
 
For many Colombian children, education begins at a preschool academy and lasts until age 5.  However, this particular level is not mandatory. Basic education in the country is compulsory and is free for children between the ages of 6 and 14.  Basic education is divided into two distinct stages:  Primary Basic Education and Secondary Basic Education.
 
Primary basic education spans five years and serves children between the ages 6 and 10 in the first through fifth grade.  In these schools students learn basic skills in core subjects such as mathematics, science, social studies, language arts, history and geography.  Primary schools in urban areas are attended at a much higher rate than their rural counterparts, and are much better equipped as well.
 
Secondary basic education spans four years, serving children between the ages of 11 and 14 in the sixth through ninth grade.  These schools also offer a broad curriculum featuring many of the subjects mentioned above, albeit at a slightly advanced level.
 
The compulsory stages of primary and secondary basic education are followed by a non-compulsory stage known as Educacion Media Vocacional, or Middle Vocational Education.  This stage, which spans 2 years and represents the 10th and 11th grades, focuses on vocational instruction and training in many different fields, with specialties ranging from academic to business to technical, depending on the core curriculum adopted by each individual school.
 
Students who successfully complete each of the aforementioned levels of education are eligible to enroll at the university level in a professional program of their choosing.  Programs are offered at both the undergraduate and graduate level, although the majority of university students tend to conclude their studies after the 5-year undergraduate professional program, which ultimately leads to the issuance of a professional diploma and/or technical certificate.

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