URUGUAY: Personal Touch Gets Kids Back in the Classroom

  • by Rogelio Bianchi (montevideo)
  • Inter Press Service

Even though her mother had told her that 'it didn’t matter' if she did not want to go to school, Camila, 14, was not quite convinced that she wanted to give up on her education for good.

That was when she decided to try out the so-called community classroom in her own neighbourhood, Nuevo Colman, in the district of Casavalle. Now Camila is an enthusiastic supporter of this novel educational experiment aimed at drawing school drop-outs back to the classroom. The lessons are easier to understand, things are explained better, and above all, the classes are much smaller than in regular schools.

'They’re less demanding and there are fewer students in the class. I don’t like it when there are a lot of students. And also it’s right in my neighbourhood so I don’t have to take the bus to get there, 'she told IPS.

Educational Centre 2 in Casavalle, a poor outlying district of Montevideo, is one of 18 similar facilities set up throughout different parts of Uruguay by the Community Classrooms Programme (PAC). Their aim is to curb the high number of students repeating or dropping out of the first grade of junior secondary school.

PAC, initially launched in 2007, is a project undertaken by the Secondary Education Council in conjunction with the Infamilia Programme of the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES). It targets youth between the ages of 12 and 16 who have been unable to adapt to the regular secondary school system. Some have dropped out before completing the first year of junior high school, while others did not even get as far as enrolling in junior high after completing primary school.

The programme is aimed at getting kids who have failed to thrive in the formal education system to return to the classroom and stay there. 'For more than 30 years, the repetition and drop-out rates have been around 25 percent in Uruguay,' Secondary Education Council general director Alex Mazzei told IPS.

But according to the community classroom teachers, in critical areas such as the poor districts surrounding Montevideo, the proportion of youngsters who leave the school system because they have flunked or merely out of apathy can be as high as 50 percent in the first grade of junior high school.

Hugs and kisses

The model adopted by PAC to attract kids like Camila is based on six subjects taught during the first semester and five in the following semester, instead of the 11 subjects taught throughout the entire year in the traditional secondary school system, in addition to special workshops in areas like music and art.

However, the real key to the programme’s success, according to its directors and teachers, is the more personalised attention received by the students, as well as the efforts to involve their families in order to gain their support.

'We welcome the students to school every day with a hug and a kiss here. At first they were kind of taken aback,' commented Sandra González, the coordinator of the Casavalle community classroom.

'We get to know all of the kids really well. If one of them is absent, we call their house at the end of the day to ask what happened, why they didn’t come,' she told IPS.

'What kind of trouble did my son get into now?' a student’s mother asked González when she called his house. The teacher responded that he had not done anything wrong; on the contrary, 'I was calling to tell her about the progress her son was making in the classroom.'

Alejandra Scafati, the general coordinator of PAC, noted that girls and boys 'leave primary school, where they have just one teacher, and move on to junior high, where they have 11 different teachers (one per subject).'

As a result, she told IPS, 'in primary school, a student’s mother would be able to come in and know who to talk to, but not in high school. And as soon as kids start doing badly, their mothers pull them out of school, because they think ‘he can’t do this’ or ‘he doesn’t like to study,’' she explained.

'This perception of failure leads to frustration, and from there it’s just one short step to dropping out,' she added.

PAC’s educational efforts are backed by a number of civil society organisations that work in the same poor neighbourhoods.

In Casavalle, for example, the community classroom operates alongside a workshop run by the non-governmental Centre for Popular Participation (CPP), which offers educational and vocational training programmes for teenagers and adults. The students in the community classroom in Cerro Norte, another neighbourhood made up largely of slums, work at Casajoven, an independent institution that also runs an environmental protection project.

With fewer subjects per semester, more personalised attention similar to that provided by primary school teachers, and quizzes instead of exams, the students enrolled in the community classrooms acquire the cognitive skills they need to return to the regular school system for the second year of junior high, or to opt for one of the course programmes offered by the Professional Technical Education Council or the Training and Production Educational Centre (CECAP).

The Council, formerly known as the Labour University of Uruguay (UTU), is a vocational institute that provides training for young people in a range of different fields, while CECAP combines education and work experience to prepare young people for the labour market. Both form part of the secondary education system.

From success to doubts

According to Mazzei, the PAC initiative, promoted by the country’s first leftist government (led by the Broad Front coalition, which took power in 2005), has earned 'a highly positive assessment.' A total of 687 students graduated from the programme in its first year, in 2007, followed by 861 in 2008.

This year, a total of 1,324 students were enrolled, divided between full-time students and others who have graduated but are taking extra courses to be better prepared for adapting to the conventional school system.

Infamilia also offers some encouraging statistics. In 2007, 54 percent of the students enrolled successfully passed the final tests and 30 percent dropped out, whereas this year, 63 percent of the students have successfully re-entered the junior high school system and only 20 percent have dropped out.

Scafati, for her part, estimated that in general, 50 percent of students who graduate from primary school go on to complete junior secondary school, not including those who opt for programmes such as CECAP or the former UTU.

But the success of CAP did not emerge overnight, the programme’s general coordinator noted. It follows in the footsteps of other projects previously undertaken by the Secondary Education Council to lower junior high school failure rates.

In 1999, the Department of Students was created to cater to young people with emotional problems that hindered their learning. This also marked the first experience in working in conjunction with social organisations, in this case, the Casajoven network of the National Youth Institute, which works with 'socially vulnerable' adolescents to prepare them for rapid entry into the work force in the poor outskirts of Montevideo.

One year later, the Pedagogical Classrooms initiative was launched. This was the immediate precursor to PAC, and was targeted at participants in the Casajoven network as well as wards of the Uruguayan Institute for Children and Adolescents, the state agency that cares for minors who are orphaned or removed from their families.

'The kids who are now enrolled in PAC are at a disadvantage in terms of their cognitive skills and self-esteem. It is a complex situation that requires a complex approach. We couldn’t just keep doing what was done in the past,' commented Scafati, alluding to previous projects, 'because they didn’t achieve very much.'

In comparison to the relatively 'ad hoc' nature of previous initiatives, she explained, PAC is much more systematic, and also involves outside actors: the community, the family, and civil society organisations.

But Casavalle community classroom teacher González admitted that the immediate success of PAC is often cut short a year later.

'The vast majority leave here and re-enter the formal education system, where they previously had difficulties. The problem is what happens next. When we are no longer able to follow up on them, they sometimes end up dropping out of the system again.'

As far as Camila is concerned, her mind is made up: 'Next year, whether I like it or not, I’m going to keep going to school, like my mother wants me to. The idea is to get started and then see what happens.'

She still has not decided whether she will settle for completing the three years of junior high school or go on to senior high. And she still has absolutely no idea what she wants to be when she 'grows up.' But thanks to the community classrooms programme, her options will now be considerably wider.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service