By engaging mothers in the academic lives of their children and creating more effective and mutually reinforcing partnerships among schools, communities, teachers, and parents, Adriana Briozzo is stemming the high dropout rate among Uruguayan primary school students.
La idea nueva
Adriana has found that the nonparticipation of parents in the education of children living in Montevideo's poorest areas is the single greatest detriment to their performance in school. Having seen that efforts made by schools and citizen sector organizations to retain at-risk pupils without the full and active support of students' mothers achieve minimal success, Adriana is bridging the divide that keeps parents from becoming participants in their children's education. Through her initiative Tejiendo Redes ("Weaving Together Networks"), Adriana is introducing "community teachers" both to connect mothers to their childrens' schools and to teach them how to motivate their children through stimulating home activities. By also establishing networks between neighbors, this approach creates a supportive environment for both mothers and children, while simultaneously helping reinforce community development and provide women with the tools to become better educated and more engaged.
While poor children make up 42 percent of Uruguay's urban youth population, they constitute a decreasing proportion of school-going students. According to the National Administration of Public Education, the percentage of children failing the first or second year of primary school rose from 22 to 38 over the past 10 years. Less than half of all first-year public school students attend class at least 80 percent of the time. Low attendance and high failure rates often lead these poor children to drop out of school, increasing the likelihood they will spend their time on the streets and become involved in dangerous and clandestine activities. The implications of this trend in Uruguayan society are important. While public education has historically been a key to social integration and democracy in Uruguay, high dropout rates among poor children are making schools symbols of growing social fragmentation.
Yet while there is a clear correlation between students' home environment and their school attendance, Uruguayan schools have traditionally treated home and the classroom as entirely separate domains. Since outside factors like family life or living conditions are regularly considered threats to the school's academic mission, the special needs of poor children are often ignored, contributing to the widespread perception that school is a barrier to inclusion and that the poor are not welcome. Moreover, even when poor people want to become actively involved in the academic lives of their children, the authoritative social position assumed by school faculty and administration often discourages them from doing so. This is particularly true of mothers living in the marginal areas of Montevideo, whose own lack of education leaves them feeling unable to question the position or approach of their children's teachers. Without a supportive environment either at home or at school, many poor urban youths have little motivation or encouragement to overcome the many obstacles they face on the path toward academic success.
Through the program she founded, Adriana is applying a two-part strategy: linking parents with teachers to create a supportive home environment for study; and creating networks within the community to reinforce these family efforts.
Adriana places parents, particularly mothers, at the core of her strategy. Having seen that mothers can motivate their children to stay and succeed in school by simply taking an active interest in academic progress and daily lessons, Adriana trains "community teachers" to link mothers with the classroom. Each community teacher serves as a liaison between the classroom and home and works jointly with mothers and teachers to develop relationships that foster academic responsibility and a shared commitment. The community teacher helps mothers become more integral to their children's education, developing new interest in students' progress, a better space for at-home study, and activities specific to the young people's personalities and needs. The partnership grows over a period of three months, during which the community teacher meets with the parents of failing students to engage them through simple projects that show commitment and support, like creating a family garden, sharing life stories, or writing résumés of past achievements.
Realizing that mothers, like their children, need a supportive environment for their efforts, Adriana also focuses on the creation of networks between mothers. By bringing neighbors together, she helps mothers prevent reversal of habits and collaborate on new initiatives. Group participation adds value to the project, as women working together to produce a good learning environment for their children tend to launch new projects that are absent in poor communities and require team orientation and leadership like libraries, early child development organizations, community centers, and job training facilities.
The effectiveness of Adriana's strategy has been demonstrated through her pilot project in Casavalle, an underserved town on the outskirts of Montevideo. Since it was initiated in 1997, Tejiendo Redes has helped 500 children return to school, 250 adults become education and community leaders, and 100 teachers better apply community values to aid social integration. Based on this success, Adriana's methods have already become public policy in Uruguay. The Board for Primary Education will begin applying her program in 8,300 homes next year to help children failing, or having failed, the first two years of primary school succeed in the classroom and in critical sociocultural environments. Adriana has already secured funds from national and international donors to cover the national scale launch of Tejiendo Redes from 2002 to 2008. During this six-year period, a team of 50 new community teachers will be trained in Montevideo and Rivera during the first phase, and 100 more trained in inland Uruguay during subsequent phases.
Adriana knows that the major challenge she has to face now is the adequate replication of her training and implementation methods. To systematize her efforts, Adriana conceived and launched a civil society organization, Al Abrojo (The Thistle) four years ago to support initiatives like Tejiendo Redes. Her core multidisciplinary team is made up of four teachers, a graduate student in education studies, a psychologist, a sociologist, and a social worker who offer consulting to the growing number of schools and community teachers involved in the project. Moreover, Adriana has exhaustively documented her experience in a book, including specific tools to assess capacity and needs, measure social impact, and facilitate the model's adaptation and spread. She continues training community members as community teachers and is working with various universities and the National Teachers' Professorship to integrate her methods into the curricula of teacher training courses as well.
Adriana was born to a middle class Uruguayan family. Attending a suburban school in the outskirts of Montevideo, she mixed with classmates from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, helping to develop her sensitivity to social inequality. Having inherited her social commitment from her father, a political activist, Adriana began to demonstrate it in student associations and human rights organizations. After volunteering to help poor children with their homework during holidays, Adriana decided to become a teacher, eventually teaching in a public school in a low-income neighborhood. It was in this environment that she saw for the first time the school administration's resistance to family participation in the development of curricula or activities.
While serving as a teacher, Adriana also worked in a program that helped a large low-income community that had been relocated to Casavalle adapt to its new environment. During her work with the families, Adriana observed that mothers in poor households were often illiterate and did not take an active role in their children's schooling, despite active leadership in the domestic context. She started teaching a group of mothers how to motivate their children to succeed in school by simply taking an active interest in their academic progress and daily lessons. She witnessed significant changes in both the mothers' and children's selfesteem and attitudes toward social institutions. Many students that had dropped out of school even reenrolled. Although she faced resistance from her own team of sociologist colleagues, who viewed schools as exclusive and detrimental to the education process, Adriana launched Tejiendo Redes in Casavalle in 1997.
In 1998 Adriana was awarded the International Literacy Prize by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for her outstanding work and the success of her project. In June 2002 the Environmental Prize for Montevideo gave her a Special Mention for her project for its contributions "on the frontiers of school, environmental education, and urban poverty."