José Reyes

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1995
Escuela Francisco de Borja Echeverría
This description of José Reyes's work was prepared when José Reyes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


José Reyes is developing and testing a new model for post-primary schooling that will make better use of limited resources and more effectively address the needs of Chile's disadvantaged youth. His approach will prepare young people from the poorest segments of the country's population to enter the skilled labor market and participate more fully in other aspects of Chilean society.

The New Idea

Having spent the greater part of his life thinking and dreaming of ways to create better schools that would provide better opportunities for Chile's disadvantaged youth, José Reyes has defined an idea that he is testing in a pilot setting and hopes to see replicated throughout the country in post-primary schools serving young men and women from the poorest segments of Chilean society.In focusing on the state-subsidized high school, José is already departing from the prevailing currents of educational reform, which concentrate almost exclusively on "basic education" for the poor. José is persuaded that post-primary education is crucially important in enabling–or denying–poor Chilean youth opportunities to gain access to employment and to become full stakeholders in Chilean society. But in thinking about the kind of high school that would effectively perform that role, José envisages an institution that will be very different from the typical state-funded post-secondary school in present-day Chile (or elsewhere in Latin America). Several characteristics distinguish José's high school from those in which most poor Chilean youth currently study. In his high school, a group of educators and community leaders exercise real responsibility for ensuring that the school meets its educational goals. The school receives adequate state funding for teachers' salaries and educational materials, and local businesses and private benefactors provide supplemental financing. The school's administration is decentralized and functions smoothly, efficiently and non-bureaucratically. Teachers receive ample pedagogical training and continuing support that enable them to enter their classrooms confident and well-prepared. The school's administrators and teachers enjoy mutually supportive relationships with the local community and the surrounding labor market and draw on those relationships to ensure that the school is providing training and skills that are responsive to community and skilled labor market needs. And, in José's high school, the content and style of the educational process address the special psychological needs of poor adolescents and sensitize them to the ethical dimensions of issues that they encounter in everyday life

The Problem

Deficiencies in the quality, efficiency and outcomes of Chile's public school system have reached crisis proportions, particularly as they affect the poorest segments of the country's population. A report issued in late 1994 by the technical assistance committee of the National Commission for the Modernization of Education in Chile noted that the majority of students from the poorest half of the population were failing to acquire even minimally acceptable levels of reading and mathematical skills and that mid-level schools (i.e., institutions roughly equivalent to American high schools) were utterly failing to provide such students with the preparation required for higher education, for the demands of the skilled employment market and for relating effectively to the "contemporary world of information and knowledge."The factors that lie behind those failures are numerous. Some, including inadequate intellectual stimulation in early childhood, are socio-cultural in origin. But many derive from the structure and operations of the schools themselves. Too little time is devoted to learning, curricula and pedagogical models are poorly conceived, student motivation and discipline receive inadequate attention and instruction is insufficiently related to the labor markets and life experiences for which the students are supposedly being prepared.The result, not surprisingly, is mounting frustration among the young people in Chile's marginalized areas over the disjunction between the promises held out to them when they decided to continue their studies beyond the primary school years and the realities they encounter when they attempt to enter the work force. And that frustration is a source, in turn, of attitudes and actions that tear deeply into the fabric of Chilean society.

The Strategy

José is currently engaged in turning his dream into a concrete model for educational reform in Chile. As the newly appointed director of the Borja Echeverria Public School, a publicly subsidized high school in a marginalized area of Santiago, José is testing and refining his concept and building his "dream school." He is working with the school's educational staff to introduce innovative and thorough pedagogical and curricular changes. He is also forging links with local community organizations and business leaders that will provide guidance and assistance in that process. José's plan involves a major restructuring of the curriculum to include academic courses in the sciences and humanities with a marked practical orientation toward the workplace. The emphasis in the new curriculum is less on the accumulation of technical knowledge and skills than on the formation of transferable abilities, including critical thinking, communication skills, teamwork, independent learning techniques, adaptation to new situations and understanding of underlying social conditions. To ensure that the new curriculum addresses the real needs and expectations of the skilled labor market, José has called upon business leaders to play an important role its design. To help spur continued creativity in improving teaching and learning processes at Borja Echeverria, José has formed a "generator group" of teachers and professionals dedicated to the reform process. Although José has his own reform agenda, derived from many years of teaching and administrative experience, he is eager to stimulate others to think of improvements and to incorporate all viable suggestions into the school's reform plan.Once the "generator group" solidifies, José plans to invite a group of community leaders and private-sector entrepreneurs to serve as the school's Board of Directors. The Board will play an important role in marshaling the human and financial resources and educational materials required for the school's development. It will also provide continuing guidance from a group of social actors whose cooperation and commitment are essential for meaningful and sustained educational reform.José is well-known and widely respected in educational circles in Chile for work in which he has previously been engaged. The Borja Echeverria experiment will thus be closely watched for the lessons that it can offer for educational reform at the national level. Indeed, according to the director of one of Chile's most respected nongovernmental organizations, the strategy that José is pursuing has already been identified by the National Commission for the Modernization of Education as the most promising and viable model for nationwide reform.

The Person

José Reyes began his journey into the field of education reform at a very young age. While enrolled as a student in the department of education at the Catholic University in Santiago, he developed several experimental projects that gained the attention of university staff and national education organizations. At the behest of Chile's Education Ministry, he also undertook research and published articles on "integrated adult education" and "informal, extra-scholastic youth education." Along with his university diploma in mathematics, he received a post-graduate degree in educational and vocational counseling.Armed with those credentials, José accepted teaching and administrative positions in the elite schools in which he had been trained, including the Catholic University's department of education. But he soon found himself drawn in another direction, toward applying his skills and offering his services to people of less privileged backgrounds and correspondingly greater needs. For several years he continued to earn his living from privileged academic posts, while channeling much of his energies and passion into the design of innovative educational reform programs for Chile's marginalized populations. But eventually, he resigned from his position at the Catholic University to follow another path within the teaching profession. No longer tied to a post in Santiago, José moved to the southern part of the country, where he and his wife, a practicing psychologist, created a "department of orientation" for the training of teachers in a primary school in Osorno. In that "real world" setting, he developed creative pedagogical techniques and led workshops for teachers in mathematics, science and technology and other fields. And from that base, he continued to develop his analytical skills by participating in national commissions and other projects focusing on curriculum design, teaching methodologies and teacher training.When he received an invitation to become secretary general of an international church organization in Rome, José decided that he could not pass up that opportunity. But he was able to use that post to promote his ideas on teacher training and to implement related projects on an international scale. Although his responsibilities in Rome extended well beyond the parameters of formal education, they further honed his analytical capacities and strengthened his organizational and leadership skills.Now settled once again in Santiago, José is devoting his full energies to developing, testing and implementing an educational model that will effectively address the needs of Chile's marginalized and least advantaged youth.