Carmen Cisternas

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1999
Colegio San Luis Beltrán
This description of Carmen Cisternas's work was prepared when Carmen Cisternas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999 .


Carmen Cisternas is improving learning among poor youth by engaging the community as a whole in the educational process and converting the school into a center for addressing a broad array of community needs.

The New Idea

Carmen Cisternas recognizes that cycles of poverty will not be broken without a substantial improvement in the quality of education available to disadvantaged youth and a concerted effort to address simultaneously the wide range of problems faced by poor communities. Therefore, Carmen is challenging educators, policy makers, community groups, and students themselves to adopt a new vision of what a school can and should provide. The model which Carmen has developed and is piloting in a notoriously poor corner of Santiago has at its epicenter a school which caters to each student's individual learning needs and styles through a pedagogy of personalized education and which serves as a dynamic point of contact for dealing with an array of community needs. Within Carmen's model, it is the school, not the soccer field or the corner store or the neighborhood bar, that is the focal point of the community. It is where working parents come to take nighttime classes, either to complete their elementary or high school degrees or to take training courses to help them advance in the job market; where families come for medical attention; where children, teenagers, and adults alike come for evening and weekend recreational activities; where workers come to check the latest entries in a community job bank; and where troubled couples, abusive parents, or addicts can come for counseling and treatment. Moreover, it is a place where children of all ages and skill levels are encouraged to maximize their learning by developing their own programs of study and working at their own pace to reach the goals they have set for themselves, all the while supported by specially trained professors.

The Problem

At first glance, the statistical evidence paints a rosy view of education in Chile, particularly in comparison to other countries in Latin America. As of 1997, a reported 96.3% of Chileans had graduated from elementary school, and 82.5% from high school (up from roughly 50% in the 1970s). Elementary and high school drop-out rates have fallen from 7.9% and 6.2%, respectively, in the 1980s to 1.6% and 5.8% today. What such statistics fail to illustrate, however, is the tremendous degree to which the quality of education varies according to socio-economic status. By placing the administration of primary and secondary education in hands of the municipalities and creating a structure whereby wealthier communities could supplement the minimal state subsidies, or could simply set up new and better private schools, the Ministry of Education set the stage for a growing divide in the quality of educational opportunity and results. An entire sector of schoolchildren whose families are unable to provide the additional financial resources needed to ensure a quality education are sent to publicly-funded schools which fail to prepare them for moving on to higher levels of education and for competing in the job market with their more advantaged peers. Children in the poor community of Pudahuel, for example, achieve standardized testing scores some 50% lower than those attained by students at private schools. The educational limitations found in economically disadvantaged communities are matched by a host of other problems, ranging from inadequate or nonexistent health care, to rising levels of drug abuse and violence, to broken homes and unemployment. Though the government and community-based organizations do offer responses to these problems, rarely is there an attempt to tackle them collectively, from a vantage point that recognizes that just as the problems are in some way interconnected, so must be the solutions. A single mother, for instance, often must travel across town to the free clinic to get medicine for her sick baby, then take another bus to sign up for a job-training program only to find that there is no child care provided during the program. The available antidotes to the host of problems faced by impoverished individuals and families are in no way coordinated, leaving many people to either ignore the solutions altogether or to resolve one problem at the expense of another.

The Strategy

After identifying the Santiago neighborhood of Pudahuel–marked by high levels of poverty and low levels of educational attainment–as an ideal setting for creating a new brand of school, in March of 1994 Carmen and a friend founded the San Luis Beltrán School. With private sector and foundation support, they were able to erect a modest structure and began to provide schooling at the pre-school, kindergarten, first and second grade levels. From the outset, Carmen recognized that school must not be seen by parents and the community at large as simply a place to drop off the children and be rid of them for the day. Despite the vandalism, stolen materials, and disinterested parents, she worked steadfastly to build respectful, trusting relationships between parents and teachers and to begin opening up the school to the community. Over the course of these first five years, Carmen has converted the school into a thriving hub of community activity, a place where learning and community development coexist and feed off of one another.The recipe to Carmen's success is two-fold: first, she has been able to boost learning through the introduction of personalized learning–a pedagogy first developed by educators in France and England, and later spread and adapted worldwide–into the classroom. According to this methodology, which stresses the development of individual decision-making capacities and the building of a sense of responsibility from a young age, each child is recognized as having a unique learning style and rhythm. Within the standard subjects of reading, math, sciences, art, etc., the students develop their own daily and annual work plans, which allow them to attain the core knowledge just like any other student, but at a pace and in an order self-tailored to their own abilities and interests. Teachers serve as guides and reinforcement throughout the learning process, keeping track of each child's progress and facilitating group learning activities designed to complement individual endeavors. The school now includes 350 elementary school children (since its inception the school has grown to include first through sixth grades) and 150 pre-school students. .Secondly, and based on an insistence that learning in the classroom must be combined with a healthy and cooperative external environment, Carmen has developed an array of parent, family, and community-focused programs, each of which responds to a distinct need but is linked within the unifying framework of the school. For example, to promote the development of children's cognitive faculties from an early age while fomenting community involvement in education and allowing mothers to work during the day, Carmen has organized a network of in-home nurseries run by local mothers. To meet the community's health needs, the school boasts a medical clinic which is staffed by professional nurses and doctors and attends over 600 families per year; provides dental attention to some 500 families; and offers nutritional meals to 400 children and adults per day. To keep kids off the streets and to encourage the development of artistic talents, Carmen has organized a series a popular extracurricular activities (typically scarce in such low-income communities due to lack of resources) that includes ballet, choral and theater groups, and field-trips to downtown museums and parks. In a list of services and activities that seems to grow by the month, thanks in large part to Carmen's boundless energy, creativity, and talent for listening and responding to community needs, there are also personal development workshops for women; family counseling services; tutorial help for children with learning disorders; a recreational club for senior citizens; a modest community library; computer-training courses for children, adolescents and parents alike (the first of its kind in Chile); and a vocational training program for teenage drop-outs.The San Luis Beltrán schools' unique pedagogical approach and its ability to integrate the community into the educational process has captured growing attention and praise from within and beyond the educational sector. In 1996, the school was awarded the Academic Excellence prize from the Ministry of Education. Teachers from other institutions regularly visit to learn about personalized education. The school has been featured on the Ministry of Education-sponsored "TELEDUC" program, a nationwide television show aimed at teachers and other educators, and receives regular press coverage, particularly around special events involving business and foundations. The school has received financial and in-kind support from 16 companies, as well as from foundations, and Hogar de Cristo, as well as from private schools who have organized fundraising campaigns on San Luis Beltrán's behalf. In the short term, Carmen hopes to extend the school to include seventh and eighth grades, while doubling the number of students at each level through the construction of new classrooms and hiring of new teachers. She also hopes to create a high school which combines principles of personalized education with practical vocational training, while adding to the courses available to parents in school's nighttime education program and expanding the scope of its community outreach and support initiatives. Though continuing to experiment and build upon the San Luis Beltrán experience is one of her top priorities, Carmen's sights are by no means limited to Pudahuel. She believes that the successes already achieved at San Luis Beltrán can and must be extended to schools in other communities afflicted by high levels of poverty and low quality education, particularly as Chile embarks upon a new educational reform movement led by the Ministry of Education. Recognizing that the spread of her idea will rest upon a diagnosis of the needs and available services in each particular community, Carmen has already identified and is in conversations with the next community in which she hopes to build a similar school. In cooperation with CIDE (The Center for Investigation and Development of Education, a nationally-reputed think-tank and leader in initiatives related to education), she is exploring the possibility of a systematic evaluation of the San Luis Beltrán experience, to be followed by a systematization of its methodology and results which could be disseminated among other educators interested in reproducing the model. She is also working with national teacher training programs to incorporate aspects of her methodology. Moreover, a foundation led by the Archbishop of Santiago has expressed interest in creating 15 new schools, modeled after San Luis Beltrán, throughout the city and reaching a population of some 20,000 students. At the international level, the school has been visited by fifteen American educators as part of a "best practices" tour organized by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Carmen hopes that this relationship will help spawn contacts with U.S.-based foundations who support education and could assist her in the further spread of the model. She also plans on presenting the experience to representatives of international entities such as UNESCO and UNICEF.

The Person

Education and helping others have been Carmen's twin passions since she was a young girl: from volunteering at the age of 10 in a house for children with cancer, to building homes and participating in church activities in poor communities, to working as a tutor for kids in the slums of Santiago. Though an intelligent child, Carmen's high school years were marked by disciplinary problems and constant "probation" status. Years later, during a talk with her father, she realized that improvement in conduct must be a product of one's own desire to change, rather than the imposition of strict rules and controls. This realization has since guided Carmen's view of education and serves as an important backdrop for San Luis Beltrán's insistence on not punishing its students. At the age of 18, Carmen entered the Catholic University to study elementary school education. Through her studies, she became fascinated with the Montessori movement in the United States, as well as a pedagogical model known as "personalized education," which was new to Chile but with years of practice in England and France. Upon graduating, she began working as a kindergarten teacher in Santiago, and immediately began implementing the theories of personalized education within her classroom. Subsequent trips to visit schools in France and Mexico afforded her with a first-hand opportunity to further explore the model. Whereas education in Chile continued on a conservative track, the methodologies that Carmen discovered through her travels inspired her experiment with and promote new techniques of teaching and learning.As the move to incorporate elements of personalized education into the classroom began to gain momentum in Chile, particularly among those interested in improving education in poor communities, Carmen left teaching and spent five years training and supervising pre-school teachers in this methodology, largely in the low-income Santiago neighborhoods of La Florida, Cerro Navia and Quilicura. She then worked for one year as the Director of Training for the INTEGRA Foundation, a government-sponsored organization aimed at improving the quality and equity of education in pre-schools located in poor areas. Through this position, she was able to train some 2000 educators in the pedagogical strategies of personalized education, and to create a manual financed by the Ministry of Education for all of the pre-schools in Chile.Shortly thereafter, and anxious to implement her own ideas within the school, Carmen mobilized the necessary resources and founded the San Luis Beltrán School in 1994.