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EDUCATION-URUGUAY: Teaching Kids Forced to Grow Up Early

Rogelio Bianchi

MONTEVIDEO, Jun 2 2009 (IPS) - Tough and aggressive, 13-year-old José is a leader among his peers, and his classmates steer clear of him when he’s in a bad mood. When IPS visited his school in the Uruguayan capital, he wasn’t in his sixth-grade classroom with the rest of the students, but alone on the patio, which his head hanging down.

But for once, José was not being disciplined. He had been moved by a poem by Mario Benedetti, the internationally renowned Uruguayan writer who had just died. And because he has a reputation to keep up, he couldn’t afford to show any "sign of weakness" to the class.

His emotional reaction to the poem was picked up on by Tania Pereira, his teacher at public school number 317 in the Malvín Norte neighbourhood in Montevideo, one of the 280 primary schools – 87 of which are in the capital – defined as being in a "critical socio-cultural context" (CSCC) nationwide (out of a total 2,062 public primary schools in Uruguay).

José finally admitted that he had been moved by the poem, got himself under control, and returned to class with a stern face.

At school number 317 in Malvín Norte, which IPS visited with permission from the Primary Education Council (CEP), there are 12 classroom teachers, as well as two "community teachers" who visit the homes of children unable to attend school every day.

As the head of CEP, Edith Moraes, explained, the job of the community teachers "is to support students with the greatest learning difficulties, along with their families, in their own homes." The idea is to forge closer ties between the schools and the families, she said.

Each community teacher has no more than 20 students at a time, and the programme exclusively targets schools in a critical socio-cultural context. The principal of school number 317, María Ángela Fernández, said the community teachers basically reach out to children who work all night alongside their parents, scavenging for waste materials. The exhausted children sleep through the morning and often fail to make it to school on time. There are also youngsters who simply refuse to sit in a classroom for four hours a day (primary education in Uruguay is in two four-hour shifts, morning and afternoon). "These are kids who already live like adults," she said.

The 13-year-old lives in a nearby slum, and his parents eke out a living by digging through the large plastic garbage containers scattered throughout Montevideo, scavenging for materials that they can sell for reuse or recycling.

The overwhelming majority of the school’s 252 students are poor, and their parents are unemployed or are engaged in precarious informal sector work. Many of them are waste pickers, like José’s family. And a large number of the children themselves help scavenge for materials to sell – usually an all-night job – or panhandle when they are not in school.

School number 317 was classified as a CSCC institution by the sociologists and demographers who make up the Primary Education Council (CEP) Evaluation and Research Unit.

And this school in particular is in the category of "highly unfavourable" for learning, because of its setting. The other categories are "unfavourable," "good," "favourable" and "very favourable," the director general of CEP, Edith Moraes, told IPS.

Carla Farías, secretary general of the Montevideo chapter of the Uruguayan Teachers Association (ADEMU), criticised the socioeconomic categories for public schools that emerged in 1996 as part of an educational reform initiative by the CODICEN central council, the maximum authority of the National Administration of Public Education.

The current system uses "targeted and compensatory policies" aimed at "patching up" what is wrong, without solving the underlying problems or implementing adequate state policies, said the head of the local chapter of the teachers’ union, complaining about the educational reform policy designed by the conservative Colorado Party government that was in power in 1996.

To classify the schools, the CEP Evaluation and Research Unit takes into consideration factors like whether the students’ households have unmet basic needs, the makeup of the family itself, and the labour situation of the members of the family.

The grade repetition rate is not taken into account, although in most of the CSCC schools it is significantly higher than average.

In the case of José’s school in Malvín Norte, 90 percent of the families have unsatisfied basic needs. There are no middle-class students like in other CSCC schools, said the principal, María Ángela Fernández.

For one thing, right across the street is another school, number 267, which is not classified as CSCC, so many parents get their children transferred there from school number 317. "They think it’s better because it’s not in a critical context," said Fernández.

In this small country sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina once known as "the Switzerland of South America", where the illiteracy rate stands at just two percent, nearly 22 percent of the population of 3.3 million was living below the poverty line in 2008, while 1.7 percent was living in extreme poverty.

Teachers at the CSCC schools work with children at "social risk," such as victims of physical or sexual abuse, and kids who are used to working from a young age to help support their families, said Fernández. In many cases, the kids have not learned basic manners, and they are often aggressive, getting defensive when the teacher approaches them.

They generally show up at school unkempt, and tend to suffer from learning difficulties, partly because of the hunger and cold that are a habitual part of their lives.

"They are poorly fed, they don’t get regular medical checkups, and they have serious housing problems," said Fernández. "They walk around barefoot in shacks with dirt floors and no plumbing or running water. Many come to class smelling of urine."

"We have first graders who are afraid to sit down on the toilet because they don’t know what it is, or have never before held a pencil or don’t know how a doorknob works," she said.

Teachers at the CSCC schools work in more challenging and stressful conditions than their colleagues at other schools, for an extra 1,475 pesos (around 63 dollars) a month.

Teachers in these schools are required to attend a special four-hour work planning session one Saturday per month. If they miss the meeting, they lose their 1,475 peso bonus.

In Farías’s view, "schools should not be categorised based on their location and the population that they serve. That is a concept which arose from neoliberal policies that have contributed, in the educational system, to reproducing social inequalities, by classifying certain schools as schools for the poor."

Moraes, the head of CEP, also disagrees with the system, although no specific proposals have been put forth to eliminate that aspect of the 1996 reform, which was criticised by the governing leftwing Broad Front coalition before it was elected in 2005.

The official said several specific measures are under consideration with a view to minimising the stigma surrounding the CSCC schools, such as providing all of the students with free pencils, notebooks and other materials, instead of handing them out to just two-thirds of the children.

But ADEMU believes that is not enough. "To teach in these schools, support from social workers, psychologists and specialised teachers is needed," said Farias, who called for a multidisciplinary team approach in education, especially among at-risk populations, as well as adequate salaries.

CEP reported that a schoolteacher with a 20-hour weekly classroom load earns 12,992 pesos (562 dollars) a month, while their colleagues in CSCC schools earn 14,467 pesos (625 dollars).

The teachers’ union and educational authorities say that because there tend to be more vacancies at CSCC schools, newly graduated teachers often start their careers there, despite the fact that not just anyone is suitable for teaching in such challenging circumstances.

To teach in these schools, a teacher has to be even-keeled and have a gift for leadership, as well as a vocation for community service, said Moraes.

And since it is often the most inexperienced teachers who end up in these schools, there is a high turnover rate, because the initial romanticism shared by many young teachers wears off fast, said Moraes.

She added that the monthly bonus is another aspect that comes into play when teachers accept a job at a CSCC school.

Farías, however, disagrees. "That’s not it at all, because the difference in salary between the CSCC schools and the other schools is tiny compared to the complexity of the work."

"Nor is it because of altruism," she added. "Teachers just believe education liberates people; they see education as a social tool, a tool for change."

María, a classmate of José’s at school number 317, is not finding it easy.

The tall, heavyset 14-year-old, who was sexually abused last year by a neighbour in the slum where she lives, helps support her family by begging for coins or digging through trash containers. She hardly talks, and when she does she uses monosyllables. Her personal hygiene is poor and her clothes are odd and in bad shape. But "she is a good girl, with noble sentiments," says the school principal.

Fernández knows that after they leave school, many of her students will go on to steal, or become garbage pickers like María. Nevertheless, a smile lights up her face when she remembers a former student who managed to graduate from high school, or when she talks about José.

"That boy is salvageable. Of course things are tough here, but the good thing is that there are many opportunities for helping them get ahead. This work is also very gratifying," she says.

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