Mary Anne Müller has developed an alternative secondary school model for low-income, at-risk children which integrates classroom learning with attention to each student's personal development and hands-on training in sustainable agriculture.
The New Idea
Mary Anne Müller recognizes that while the educational system is adapting–albeit in many cases too slowly and with great inequity–to the demands of a changing economy, it is doing little to adjust to new social pressures, changing family structures, and an especially acute sense of disillusionment among economically disadvantaged youth. Through the introduction of personal development into all facets of the learning process, she is enabling youth in her native Chile to see themselves as important agents of change in their own lives, regardless of the violence, poverty, and other social ills that surround them. Focusing on the secondary school setting, Mary Anne has developed a methodology which fosters responsible decision-making, builds students' self-esteem, and encourages them to understand the importance of respect for their natural environment. Much of the success which Mary Anne and her team of teachers has been able to achieve is due to the unique blend of tools created to help students become responsible decision-makers. The students are told from day one that although they can't change the circumstances of their lives (abusive parents, crumbling homes, peer pressure, etc.), they do have the right and the opportunity to build positive futures for themselves and ultimately for their own families. Unlike many of their peers in other Chilean schools, youth graduate from Mary Anne's high school with a strong grasp of Spanish, arithmetic, history, and other more traditional subjects, but also skills in business administration, organic agriculture, conflict resolution, and even meditation, which together help them move into adulthood as productive, responsible citizens.
Growing up in Chile isn't easy. Across the socio-economic spectrum, record levels of stress-related mental illness, child abuse, drug and alcohol consumption, violent crime, depression, and suicide are woven into the fabric of everyday life. Children and youth, like their peers around the world, face daunting obstacles en route to adulthood–such as the AIDS epidemic, gangs and other forms of violence, an uncertain job market marked by fast-changing needs, and so on. According to a recent study by the Ministries of Education and Health, by age 13 over half of the students in metropolitan Santiago have begun consuming alcohol and using tobacco. Moreover, those living in Santiago suffer from unrelenting air pollution, while environmental degradation abounds nationwide as a by-product of fast-growth economic development. Improving school infrastructure, teaching computer skills, adding new didactic materials, and extending the school day, to name a few changes taking place in education today, are important measures, but not the catch-all solution to rewriting the future of disadvantaged youth. Without first the determination and desire to change and improve their own quality of life, without seeing themselves as capable protagonists, youth will be unable to overcome the challenges of contemporary urban life. Unfortunately, sparking this desire and instilling this sense of responsibility and self-confidence is not happening either in the home or in the classroom for and ever-growing number of youth. Secondary school, which for most young people is the last rite of passage before formally entering the labor force, does not always provide students with the skills–personal or practical–to succeed in the job market. Employers are frustrated by the low-quality of labor available, and the Ministry of Education is struggling to find new ways of injecting education with a sense of purpose more intimately linked to contemporary realities, particularly those of disadvantaged youth for whom education has long since lost much of its value.
Hoping to transform the lives of disadvantaged youth through education, in 1990 Mary Anne founded the Agroecological School of Pirque, in the southern outskirts of Santiago. It is a "technical-professional" secondary school, co-ed, and free of charge to the roughly 250 students who attend each year and who come from the most impoverished sectors of society. The curriculum, which has been experimented with and refined over the years thanks to a cadre of committed and creative professors, includes the standard subjects such as Spanish, mathematics, science, and history, as well as organic agriculture, personal development workshops, computer and business courses, and an array of other elements to help build the self-confidence and skills needed for insertion in the workforce. Responsibility for oneself and one's environment is taught both inside and outside of the classroom. Using a system of rotating tasks and later specialization, the students maintain the School's organic farm, complete with livestock, barn animals, vegetable and herb gardens, fruit orchards, and a greenhouse. Each day, the students must register their attendance using a time-card machine like those found in the workplace. They participate in personal development workshops in which they discuss their problems with their peers and learn how to make responsible decisions about their future, sexuality, drugs, and other issues. Although there is always a professional counselor available, most often it is the students themselves who help one another: they point out when one of their friends is being unusually short-tempered, and work together to get to the root of the problem, be it an abusive parent, a pregnant girlfriend, economic pressures, or otherwise. Students are selected on the basis of a standard written exam, interviews with the child and his or her parents (or other caretaker), and a 3-week trial period during summer vacation, in which the child participates in the school's agricultural activities to see if this type of work interests him or her. Priority is placed on admitting poor campesino children, since they already have the land needed for future income-generating activities. However, as the School has grown and become more well-known throughout Santiago, kids from within the city, who see few opportunities for themselves within the urban economy, have also begun to apply. Since its inception, the School has educated over 1,500 students of limited economic means to become responsible, productive citizens. It has graduated students with histories of delinquency (robbery, drug-trafficking, violence), teenage mothers, and youth who had been rejected from other institutions because of poor conduct or low levels of academic achievement. The Ministry of Education, at first highly skeptical of the school's methodology, has become one of its biggest fans. Local business is also impressed; the nearby Concha y Toro Vineyard, producer of some of Chile's finest and most popular wine, is the first to recruit graduates of Mary Anne's school each year, preferring the students for their initiative, their intellectual curiosity, and their excellent work habits. To help teach practical skills that can be used later by graduates when they enter the job market, each year the class of third-year students transforms itself into a small company (for example, garlic cultivation or floral production). The students must develop a business plan and budget, based on which the school provides a small loan to cover start-up costs. They write up their own résumés and apply for the different jobs within the company based on their skills and interests. The group elects a general manager, and together the students learn the ups and downs of running a business. They almost always turn a profit, which is then invested back into the school. The experience is further enriched by a Business Administration course which all fourth-year students take. Mary Anne also tries to link up students with members of the community who are struggling with their own micro-enterprises. Recently, for example, a pair of students helped an older woman who had been running a money-losing luncheonette for local workers. By teaching her how to plan, week by week, what meals she would serve and how to do her shopping more cost-effectively, they helped her convert the small business into an income-generating venture. Using the skills learned at school and through work with the community, many graduates go on to form their own small enterprises, such as gardening services, fumigation companies, and greenhouses.Because Mary Anne herself does not have formal training in education, the teachers are a key ingredient in the School's success. They are encouraged to be creative, to establish affective bonds with the students, and to continuously build their own skills through participation in professional development workshops, usually organized and funded by the Ministry of Education. Over the years, Mary Anne has learned that hiring effective teachers means not looking to those with the most impressive background, but seeking out those who believe in the School's mission, are passionate about their work, and are committed to making a positive difference in the lives of its students. To finance the School's costs, Mary Anne relies upon a blend of Ministry of Education funding (at present roughly 65%), scholarships provided by local businesses, grants from the European Union and other European foundations, and an array of income-generating mechanisms that she has developed over the years, such as the sale of student-produced jams and renting the School's facilities for outside events. Another one of these mechanisms, the "Day in the Countryside" program, allows the School to partially self-finance its operations while at the same time ensuring that the experiences it offers reach beyond Pirque. Each year, over 5,000 children from Santiago's private and public schools visit Pirque and spend the day learning about farm work, through direct contact with the animals, lectures on planting and harvesting fruits and vegetables, and workshops on baking bread, recycling paper, and other such activities. Children whose only contact with nature might be on occasional walk through the park or a smog-tainted view of the Andes mountains begin to learn hands-on about the importance of preserving their environment. Moreover, teachers from Santiago who spend their days and energies trying to simply maintain order in the classroom begin to see that it is possible to attain a tranquil learning environment even among children whose lives are otherwise far from tranquil.While the "Day in the Countryside" program is an important bridge for spreading the message of her work, Mary Anne is anxious to expand her educational model even further. Thanks to widespread press coverage, the Pirque School is already well-known in Chile, and has been visited by a number of foreigners interested in replicating the model. Her strategy for spreading is two-fold. On the one hand, she hopes to build new schools similar to the Agroecological School of Pirque, both in Chile and beyond (for example, an organization in Costa Rica has already expressed interest). To facilitate this process, Mary Anne has begun systematizing the Pirque experience, and is working with a team of educational experts to evaluate the School's first ten years. She hopes to spawn the creation of new schools by taking advantage of a solid relationship with the Ministry of Education, the funds it has set aside to build new schools, and growing interest from businesses interested in getting tax credit for investments in education. In order to reach an even larger group of young people, not only those students interested in agriculture and those viewed as troublemakers or otherwise hopeless, Mary Anne has also begun efforts to integrate the personal development and environmental elements of the Pirque curriculum into a broad range of educational institutions, from public to private schools, liberal arts to technical-professional. To this end, she is working with various networks, such as the National Network of Environmental Action, the Chilean Organic Agriculture Movement, and the Chilean Association of Technical-Professional Schools, to further spread her methodology. Thanks to the "Day in the Countryside" program, hundreds of teachers visit the School each year. Moreover, as the Chilean Ministry of Education embarks upon a far-reaching educational reform package, which includes incorporating the teaching of "values" such as solidarity and environmental protection into the classroom, she is finding that the moment is right for introducing her model to an ever-broader population.
Born in Santiago, Mary Anne comes from a family of land-owners with close ties to the countryside and its magic. She lived in Chile until the age of seven, when the family moved to France. Two years later, together with her younger sister, she was sent to boarding school in Switzerland following the separation of her parents. She reacted with rebellion to the loneliness and the rigidity of boarding school, getting kicked out of one institution after another until finally arriving at a school which changed her outlook on education forever. It was a small school, where students spent a great deal of time outside and benefited from personalized attention from professors who taught with passion and care. Mary Anne recalls that, for the first time since she entered boarding school, learning had become fun. After years of being the worst student in schools, she was suddenly the best. Unfortunately, because that school did not offer secondary education, Mary Anne was forced to resume her academic journey through different countries and schools, finally returning to her native Chile at age 16. Back in Chile, she was faced with another type of disciplinary structure: the military government, with its nightly curfews and continued social polarization and violence. But after years of living abroad, she was determined to remain and become reacquainted with her country. Upon completing secondary school in Santiago, she found herself "horrified" by the prospect of remaining in the classroom. At the age of 17, she moved to rustic Easter Island, off the coast of southern Chile, where she lived for one year with a family of native islanders. She learned to live off the land, to shear sheep, to collect rainwater for drinking. She explored every nook and cranny of the island on horseback, with each new discovery fortifying her spiritual connection to the land. She returned to the mainland a bit afraid of "reality," and decided to travel to Mexico and Central America, where while working as an interpreter for a French documentary, she found herself in the middle of civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Her travels then led her from top to bottom of Chile, where she continued to work with and learn about animals and agriculture. She then moved to Switzerland, where she married, gave birth to her first daughter, Aymara, and later separated. In 1987, she returned permanently to Chile. She began working as the Fashions and Decorating Editor for Caras ("Faces") magazine, which provided her with the salary she needed to support her family, but very little personal fulfillment. She then began working as a volunteer in a center for malnourished children and a juvenile detention facility in Puente Alto. The more time she spent with children and youth who at such a young age already had no hope for the future, Mary Anne began to ask herself what she could do to prevent such disillusionment from affecting even more children. Reflecting back upon the impact of her own school experiences, the answer she found was education, and thus was borne the idea of a new type of school for disadvantaged youth. She began talking with families in and around Pirque about what they felt was needed in a school. They decided that they wanted an agricultural school, which would combine for the first time in Chile organic agriculture with formal education, and which would provide marginalized youth with a new sense of hope for the future. Despite being scoffed at time and again by education officials who thought her dream was crazy, Mary Anne persevered and the first class of 120 students enrolled in March of 1991. Since then, she has continued learning from and improving upon the School, and has now begun spreading her dream beyond Pirque. Mary Anne is now re-married and the mother of four children. In addition to her work at the School, she is an active participant in the Chilean environmental movement and a teacher of Reiki, a Japanese healing technique.