Monday, March 19, 2012

How the School System is supposed to Work

The political structure in Peru that ultimately determines the quality of education and the environment in which learning takes place is comprised of three parts… the Regional Director of Education; the school Director; and the Parents Association.

The Lambayeque Region has three Regional Directors located in the cities of Chiclayo, Lambayeque and FerreƱafe. Their job is to administer to hundreds of National schools located in their districts. In theory it is their responsibility to distribute funds annually to the schools for maintenance and improvements based on need, and to insure that school staff is qualified and competent.

The school Director has primary responsibility for day to day operation of the school. The Director’s job is to insure that Regional policies are being adhered to; that students have adequate learning materials and that the teachers are doing their job. In theory, the school director regularly meets with the regional director and parents association to discuss the status and needs of the educational system.

I’m not certain if it is mandatory, but I do know that every school we’ve visited, from the most remote village to schools here in Chiclayo has a Parents Association. Its primary purpose is to work with the school’s director for the betterment of the school and students. Election of association officers is held annually in November at which time a President, Treasurer, Secretary and two “Vocals” (advisors) are chosen. In theory members of the Parents Association donate to a monetary fund to be used for school related purposes. In theory the officers meet regularly with the school director to identify needs and establish priorities.

That is the way things are suppose to theory. In practice it can be vastly different. Regional directors feel overwhelmed (understandably) by requests for funds they simply can’t supply. Some school directors are little more than bodies occupying a position, either accepting the status quo or feeling helpless to do anything about it. Parents associations almost never have money and often exist in name only. Compare the following photos of entrance-ways and restrooms of three different schools in three different villages.

The three villages are located in the same Regional District. All three are isolated; have approximately the same population and are agriculturally based. All three schools were originally constructed at about the same time. And all three have an equal opportunity to apply to the Regional Director for funds.

What accounts for the differences? When I ask that question the standard response from school directors and parent association officers is, “The Regional Director will not give us money.” The reply from regional directors is, “We don’t have money to give.” While both responses are basically true, a large part of the problem in my view is a lack of leadership by the school director or the parent’s association and in most cases, both. It doesn’t require Regional money to pick up garbage and clean up the school entranceway, or to ask a paint dealer to donate a can of paint and a brush, or to ask for volunteers to do the work.

Two years ago a school director stopped us on a Lambayeque street minutes after being denied a request for project funds by the Regional Director. He had no idea who we were, but he knew we weren’t locals so pitched his project right there on the street. He got his money and the project was successful. Another director literally ran after our moto taxi to ask for help with school supplies and clothing for kinder kids. We met with her recently; she convinced us and we were able to help. Both of these directors are well known throughout the region for their persistent and aggressive approaches for assistance. And not just for their schools. They are also community leaders; working to improve the health and financial well-being of their community.

We’ve met other directors and association members who are as dynamic as the people mentioned above. But we’ve also met school directors and parent association members who simply bemoan their fate, lacking either the vision, ambition or ability to work for change. The differences between the communities with leaders and those without are readily apparent even to the most casual observer. The former have a vibrant look and feel to them; a sense of community that seems to reflect the intent behind the slogan sometimes seen in local government town halls... “Poor does not mean dirty!” In the leaderless towns there is almost a palpable feeling upon entering of Dante’s... “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” That may sound extreme but it’s true.

I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps leadership qualities in candidates for the position of school director and teachers should receive more emphasis in the hiring process. Maybe Regional authorities can provide training sessions for parent association officers. I know for a fact that the successful school directors mentioned earlier would willingly work with their counterparts who need guidance if asked. Whatever the answer is, something has got to change because until it does, the kids and ultimately the community will continue to pay the price.


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