Using new teaching methods in his own schools, Jorge is creating an alternative school system designed to spur improvements in education throughout Guatemala.
The New Idea
Jorge is building a parallel school system that challenges the pace of education reform in postwar Guatemala. Rather than changing the school system from within, as others are trying to do, he wants to escape the confines of government bureaucracy, create alternative schools, then use his successful examples to influence state-run education. He realizes that one or two schools, no matter how good they are, will not be enough to change an entire country; his plan is to create a network of schools that compete with government education and force it to improve.Jorge's schools differ from ordinary Guatemalan schools by taking responsibility for students' overall social development and preparing them to participate in a democratic society. Equality and participation are central to what children learn and how the school is organized. Not only are themes such as human rights and democracy built into the curriculum, but students vote on the topics they want to study. Parents also take part, by sitting on the school board, and sometimes joining their children in the classroom.
The Guatemalan education system is unable to do its job adequately because it lacks the money, scope, and a philosophical approach needed to meet Guatemala's needs. For one thing, there just aren't enough schools–a scant 1,371 schools for a population of six million, much of which is spread out in small mountain villages. Moreover, Guatemala is an ethnically diverse country, with more than 22 indigenous languages, where many people do not speak Spanish, the official language.
It is clear that the education system has failed to serve indigenous Guatemalans: 66 percent of indigenous children are not in school, and the average adult has spent only 1.3 years in a classroom. So it is not surprising that 65 percent of this population (85 percent of which is women) is illiterate. In contrast, only 30 percent of urban people of European descent cannot read. While the civil war that ravaged Guatemala for thirty years was responsible for holding back progress in education, the peace accords that ended the war promised major improvements. The government committed itself to increasing funding for education, opening more schools in rural areas, serving indigenous people, improving access for girls, and creating a more egalitarian education system. But for various reasons–foreign debt and politics among them–the state has not kept its promises. The World Bank and other organizations have tried to work with the government to improve education, but have either stayed within the existing system or toyed with small, isolated projects that have brought no significant systemic change.
Jorge has begun his alternative education system with an initial school, a primary school. The school serves one hundred forty students aged five to thirteen and their families. Progressive in format and curriculum, Jorge's school is also rigorous: It is open one hundred eighty-five days per year, compared to government schools' one hundred ten days.Adapted from Paolo Freire's adult education philosophy, Jorge's methodology actively involves students in their own education and relates learning to the students' real world experiences. The goal is to offer children a better understanding of social realities, their individual talents, and their ability to change society for the better.
At the beginning of the year, the school assigns a theme for each month and a sub-theme for each week. Themes include such subjects as community, family, environment, the "Mayan nation," human rights, health, and democracy. In addition to reading and doing class work, students and teachers hold discussions that relate the themes to their own lives. Social equality is the curriculum's guiding principle, determining what children learn and how they study. Wealth and poverty, cultural diversity, and equality of the sexes are all part of the curriculum. For example, sports teams are coed, and boys are taught to do household chores. Other guiding principles are democracy and participation. Students not only hold elections, but they vote on how to organize student leadership.
Having established one successful and sustainable primary school, Jorge now seeks to expand across Guatemala. He plans to fund construction and start-up costs through foundation grants (support from the Daniele Agostino Foundation has been crucial to launching the initial school). Each new school will have to cover its own operating costs, however. The initial school serves as a model. Student fees are one source of revenue, but since Jorge's mission calls for the needier half of the student body to be able to attend on scholarship, earning sufficient revenue from fees is not possible. Jorge has therefore sought to establish other sources of revenue as well. One such source is sponsored tuition. The initial school has a "godparent program" through which foreigners attending a Spanish-language institute that Jorge also directs can sponsor children's annual tuition. Another source of revenue is commercial activity. For example, at the initial school, Jorge spreads the commercial benefits of his Spanish-language institute to the school as well, in a corporate sponsorship arrangement of sorts. Accordingly, Jorge expects each new school to affiliate itself with a local business, and for parent boards to manage small enterprises, such as textile and handicraft production, to help fund their schools. He envisions school communities accessing government-administered microfinance funds to launch these revenue-generating affiliates.
Since Jorge wants his schools to figure into the government's long-promised education reforms, he pushes for policy change while he promotes his work. He disseminates information about his methodology and builds relationships with universities. He sits on a committee of private school leaders, in part to advocate collectively for government reform, but also to be able to discuss his plans and ideas among peers. By government invitation, he participated in an exchange with public-school teachers. Given the success of his school thus far and his existing connections, Jorge's system is well positioned to benefit from government reforms designed to address commitments under the civil war peace accords.
Jorge grew up in a Mayan family with seven siblings, two of whom became teachers. His father–a brick-layer–and mother tried to shield their children from discrimination by refusing to teach them k'iche, their native language, or anything about Mayan culture. However, Jorge still faced prejudice in school. Teachers focused their attention on the nonindigenous students and even joined them in joking about indigenous people. But Jorge was a determined child. He stayed in school and earned top grades, resisting his family's wish that he drop out and go to work. He later became president of the student council and vice president of a national student group.
At university, Jorge was a student leader and activist. When Guatemalan politics worsened, Jorge's activism led to threats on his life, and in 1982 he fled the country. Over the next decade, Jorge returned to Guatemala and had to flee twice more, but did not give up his commitment to social change in his homeland. Returning in 1983, Jorge began practical training in a government primary school, where he witnessed the precarious state of public education. Many teachers would simply not show up for work, he observed. Jorge began to work in educational initiatives outside of the public school system as well. He joined "teacher-practitioners" who worked with students who couldn't attend school. He also began teaching poor adults in rural areas. Here, he was exposed to the Freirean philosophy he would later adapt for children.