Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Fine Morning in Conchucos

The sun was shining brightly at 9:00 am and the humidity had thankfully dropped overnight when we started out for the village of Conchucos to deliver these school supplies plus 24 chairs, 6 tables and 2 whiteboards to the pronoei and primary schools.

We stopped at the pronoei first. This is how it appeared during our first visit. On that day there were exactly 2 students, no school supplies, a room full of broken furniture and a teacher very worried about the future of her school.

This is what it looked like when we left there this morning. What a change! All 15 registered students were there plus 3 happy moms. The only negative was that Fanny, the director was hospitalized following emergency surgery but we’re told she is on the mend and will be back soon. We know she’ll be pleased.

And speaking of pleased, I’m not going to tell you that the kids went nuts over their school supplies, but they sure got a kick out of strutting around the room wearing their school bags. The woman is a seamstress from Chiclayo who makes the bags and uniforms for us. She was there to measure the kids for sport uniforms that we’ll be furnishing.

Our next stop was the primary school where we dropped off the remaining school supplies and whiteboards. There were 19 students there today…better than the 11 during our first visit but still short of the 35 registered. Ed, the director is confident that the others will return now that he has school supplies for them.

The kids staged a brief ceremony thanking us for the donations. As part of the ceremony the boy in the bright yellow shirt stepped forward and gave a short speech. I don’t remember his exact words, but what he basically said was… ‘Thank you for helping us. We know that education is important for us, our families and our country. We promise you that we will come to school and use the things you have given us.’  Those words had an impact on me and Maribel. We sure hope they turn out to be true.

In addition to the 15 sport uniforms for the pronoei kids we’ll also be furnishing 35 t-shirts for the primary kids, and we’re trying hard to find a way to include 35 pairs of matching pants. We plan on delivering the uniforms in mid-April. We need to thank Clifton B, Chris R, Amy B, Yescenia, Pablo and the Alice Cool Foundation for helping us to help the kids of Conchucos.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Role of Uniforms in Peruvian Schools

Last week in the village of Conchucos we were not prepared to respond when both school directors asked for uniforms for their students. We probably should have been because they did mention them during our first visit. Uniforms are required in all Peruvian public schools.

This is the standard formal school uniform across Peru. The girl’s uniform consists of a pleated skirt, white blouse and tie. Boys wear pants usually matching the dominant color of the girl’s skirt, a white shirt and tie. In cool weather a matching sweater is added to the uniform. In poor villages uniform requirements are waived, but even in the poorest village you will see one or two kids in formal uniform. The cost can range from $25 to $50 or more depending on the material and who is making them.

Another popular uniform is the ‘sport’ uniform. In city schools students usually have both. A complete sport uniform consists of pants, t-shirt and jacket. This uniform is usually less expensive, starting at about $15. Other, less expensive options might be just pants and t-shirt or shorts and t-shirt. 

The Conchucos primary school has 35 students officially registered – the pronoei has 15. The cost of 50 formal uniforms would be over $1000. Sport uniforms would be $700. Just pants and t-shirt would be about $500. We have donated uniforms just one time previously, in the village of Eureka last June and as I mentioned in a recent post I personally was a little uncomfortable with that because I don’t see a direct link to uniforms keeping kids in school. Of our group I am the only one who has reservations. Maribel and the other Promesa Peru members see a clear relationship between school attendance and uniforms, and apparently so do the people who donated for the Eureka uniforms.

During our visit last week I challenged the two Conchucos school directors and four mothers to convince me that uniforms help to keep kids in school. I started the conversation by saying that school uniforms do not exist in the United States, and I don’t understand why they should be necessary in Peru. A lot of discussion followed but their responses came down to four basic reasons:

1) Parents can’t afford ‘proper school clothing’ and are reluctant to send their kids to school in tattered worn clothing.

2) A school uniform with sweater or jacket protects the kids from rain and the early morning desert chill, especially those who are walking long distances.

3) A school uniform doesn’t need to be washed every day. The kids put them on just prior to going to school and take them off immediately upon returning home. When I asked why they couldn’t do that with regular clothing…why they couldn’t designate a child’s best pants and shirt as school clothing and not wash it every day, their answer was that they don't have enough clothing to reserve one set for school use only.

4) A uniform identifies the students with their school. Parents and teachers were surprisingly emphatic about this.

I still feel that uniforms are more tradition than necessity, but I also understand the practical benefits mentioned by the directors and parents. The pronoei in Conchucos is little more than a teacher with a building. Providing school supplies and furniture will essentially resurrect  that school, and in the words of one of our group, supplying uniforms “would be the finishing touch to that project.”

We’d like to provide 15 sport uniforms to the pronoei kids. They’re younger and we think more in need. That will cost $210. We want to give 35 t-shirts to the primary students at a cost of $175. The shirts will provide some help to the parents, and we’ll see about providing pants later. If you can help us, please visit the Promesa Peru webpage. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sometimes it is difficult

Over the years I’ve learned to harden myself to the poverty in the villages we visit. Everyone is poor and everyone is in need, but occasionally we come across someone whose conditions are so wretched that it’s difficult to remain detached.

This woman is the sole support of her four grandchildren.  Her daughter abandoned the kids to run off somewhere with a man. She hasn’t heard from her and can’t understand why she did that. Three of the kids attend the Conchucos primary school. An older girl refuses to attend school and won’t leave the house. The woman says the girl is “rebellious”. She doesn’t know what to do about her.

The woman comes to the school every weekday for free government food that is supposed to be cooked at the school for the kid’s lunch. We were told the villagers ‘look the other way’ when she takes small amounts for home.

Her frame is too thin….her tattered and stained clothing hangs on her. She was obviously self-conscious about her appearance and yet judging by the way she sat erect and looked all of us in the eye when speaking there is still some strength of character remaining.

I didn’t ask the woman’s name because I don’t want to know it. I don’t know where she lives…it’s not in the village, and I don’t want to see whatever it is she and her wards call home. And yet I can’t help but imagine what it must look like.

Her three grandchildren registered in school will be receiving school supplies and t-shirts. That seems like a pathetic gesture given her circumstances, but there isn’t anything we can do to meaningfully improve her and the kid’s lives. I hate that.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A second visit to Conchucos

We were in Conchucos today to speak with two school directors to decide what exactly we would be providing to their schools. Thanks to Clifton B, Chris R, Amy B, the Alice Cool Foundation and others we have the money to begin this project.

For the primary school we’ll be providing 2 whiteboards and 35 school supply kits. For the pronoei (pre-school) it will be 15 school supply kits, 6 tables and 24 plastic chairs. Fanny modified her original request for 8 tables and 32 chairs, deciding that she’d probably been too optimistic about the number of new students she would have. She knows a carpenter in Chiclayo and will visit him next week with a ‘committee’ of the village parents to negotiate a price for the tables. The same committee will be responsible for purchasing the chairs. We’ll be providing 15 school supply kits to Fanny’s students. We have already placed the order for 50 school bags with our seamstress and will start buying school supplies tomorrow.

During our visit last week both directors casually mentioned uniforms but didn’t specifically ask for them. Today they did. Uniforms are expensive. We did not budget or ask for donations for them. As we were discussing uniforms, four women entered the classroom. They were at the school waiting for the government donated food to arrive so they could prepare lunch for the students. I took the opportunity to ask them for their thoughts about school uniforms. Promesa Peru has donated uniforms only once, and personally I was a little uncomfortable about that, not seeing a direct link between uniforms and kids staying in school. I began the discussion by saying that in the USA school uniforms don’t exist and that I don’t understand why they seem to be so important in Peru, and that if I don’t understand, I can’t expect potential donors to understand. What followed was an interesting discussion, one that I want to save and expand on in a separate post probably in the next few days after we’ve made a decision about the uniforms.

Now the work begins. We’d like to deliver the school supplies next week but that’s probably not realistic. Hopefully everything promised will be in Conchucos the week of March 29. If you’d like to join the others who are contributing to this project, please visit the Promesa Peru webpage. Thank you from us, the school staff and the kids of Conchucos.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

“……and please, we need a whiteboard.”

Locally whiteboards are referred to as “pizarra acrilicos “, and nearly every school and pronoei we visit asks for them.

The older schools in remote desert villages were equipped with essentially two types of ‘chalkboards’. The most basic and least expensive was simply an area on the wall of raised, smoothed and painted plaster outlined with a wood frame. This type of chalkboard dates back to the mid 1800s. The purpose of the wood was to hold thumb tacks and to attach a shelf for chalk and erasers. When cracks or pitting developed, all that was necessary was to add another coat of plaster and paint. The primary school in Conchucos has plaster chalkboards. It’s been a few years since they’ve been refreshed but based on the readability of the writing they seem to be serving their basic purpose quite well.

The second type of chalkboard is the more familiar one constructed of fiberboard. This too is an old technology, dating to the late 1800s. Most of the schools we visit have fiberboard chalkboards. And most of them are decomposing and pitted and no longer serviceable, like this one we replaced with a whiteboard in the village of Casa de Madera. I do not know about the availability of new fiberboard chalkboards in the Lambayeque Region. Based on the number of whiteboard manufacturers in Chiclayo, my guess is fiberboard availability is limited.

From a basic need prospective, plaster and fiberboard (if available) are probably the more practical options. Plaster and paint is cheap. Colored chalk is cheap and available everywhere. There are no environmental issues that I know of with those options, though some teachers have complained about chalk dust (that reminded me of my days as an ‘eraser monitor’ which means I had the privilege of taking erasers outside at the end of the day and banging them together to remove the dust). Whiteboard markers are plastic, more expensive and the aroma is pungent. So if the old technology is less expensive, less complicated, serves essentially the same purpose and is perhaps more environmentally friendly, why do school directors want whiteboards?

Part of the answer to that question is that school directors and teachers naturally want the most modern teaching aids available in their classroom, and in remote villages the relatively new whiteboards are considered state-of-the-art. Another reason can be found in Chiclayo classrooms.

Some classrooms in a few of Chiclayo’s newer and remodeled schools have electronic interactive whiteboards. Directors and teachers from the small village schools occasionally attend conferences in Chiclayo schools. They see these electronic marvels in use. They hear about the learning advantages for students. Perhaps they know a teacher who is lucky enough to have one. And they dream that maybe someday they will have one in their classroom. But until that day comes, to them a “pizarra acrilico“ is a step up and the next closest thing.

When discussing needs with school directors we do offer suggestions, and sometimes negotiations take place but ultimately the decision as to what they want is theirs. Our role is to say either yes, we can help you, or no, we can’t.
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My thanks to Amy for prompting this post

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Conchucos…a pleasant little village with problems

Conchucos is a 30 minute combi ride from Chiclayo. At first glance it’s an obviously poor village but one that is clean and reasonably maintained. That is unusual for a village located on a major road. The large principal park is trash free and has a colorful variety of flowers and shrubs.

The village has a good look and feel to it but it also has problems. No agency wants to accept responsibility for the operation of the village’s primary school. The root of the problem goes back to the 1960s when a military government decided that cooperatives…mining, agricultural and other associations was the way to relieve the poor and give them individual freedom. And it worked…for awhile.   

The economy of the Tumàn District is based mostly on sugar cane. Many villages in the district were incorporated into sugar cane cooperatives. The workers owned shares of the fields and the processing factories. They formed management committees and generally were autonomous communities. The cooperatives invested in village’s infrastructure and even had forms of welfare for needy families. And they built, equipped and maintained schools, and therein lies the problem.

Most of the cooperatives that formed in the 1960s and 70s no longer exist. Rusting, abandoned sugar cane processing factories are common sights.  Those cooperatives that still do exist are facing tough times financially. Late last year one of those cooperatives informed the office of education in Tumàn that it could no longer support any of the schools it had previously sustained. The district claims they were caught unaware and has no funds to support these ‘abandoned’ cooperative schools. Conchucos’s school No. 11570 is one of those schools.

Eduardo is an accountant by profession. Forty two years ago he agreed to temporarily teach a finance course. Twenty years ago he agreed to be the temporary director at Conchucos. He’s still there. He has 40 students registered but only ten to fifteen are attending because parents can’t afford school supplies previously donated by the cooperative. Notebooks from last year are being erased and used over. The cooperative is paying the salaries of Edwardo and the other teacher but has said it cannot provide anything more.

There is a second problem Eduardo faces that is unique to Conchucos. Splitting the village is a narrow irrigation canal (canal is center – school is on the left). The canal is the dividing line between two administrative districts; Tumàn and Patapo. Technically the school sits on the Patapo side of the canal but that district refers Eduardo to Tumàn, claiming that historically Tumàn has administered the school. Tumàn refers Eduardo’s requests to the cooperative. It’s a classic ‘pass the buck’ situation. Ed has put together a budget detailing the school’s circumstances and needs but he can’t get anyone to look at it.  

The school has three classrooms and a restroom. The furniture is ancient but sturdy and serviceable. Everything in the classrooms looks old and tired. Two of the classrooms have gaping holes in the roof but neither the staff nor students mentioned them.  Another classroom is being used for classes and as an eating place for the noon lunch, which is cooked outside in a mosquito and wasp infested grassy area.  Wasps have invaded the classrooms. The office of health in Patapo has promised to fumigate next week.

Somehow the issue of who is responsible for the school will get resolved and repairs will be made but it will take time and right now the kids of Conchucos and those who normally come to the school from surrounding areas are not attending classes. Eduardo is positive that if he can put out the word that he has school supplies, the kids will come back. He’s asked for our help.

Conchucos has a pronoei (pre-school) that also has problems… more severe than the primary school. The holes in the floor are the least of the troubles.

Fanny (center) is the director. Like most pronoei directors we’ve met, she takes ownership of the school. She spent her own money to provide a primitive restroom…no water; just a toilet over a hole in the floor, and to paint the interior and to provide the few learning supplies the school has. She has 15 registered students out of about 35 village kids eligible for pre-school. 

Not being able to afford school supplies is one reason why the other kids are not attending. The other reason is that Fanny is not able to seat them. Of the 8 tables and dozen or so chairs, less than half are serviceable. Fanny’s main concern beside the kid’s safety is that with the deteriorating furniture and lack of school supplies, the villagers are no longer viewing the school as a viable learning environment. Like Ed at the primary school, Fanny is certain that with school supplies and furniture her classroom would be filled with students.

Without outside help the pronoei situation is going to get worse. The parents association doesn’t have money to replace broken furniture. Individual families cannot afford school supplies. Fanny doesn’t have the resources to provide those things herself. In our view this is a critical situation.

Our visit to Conchucos convinced us that both the primary school and pronoei are deserving of our help. Ed has asked for 2 whiteboards and 40 school supply kits. The 2 white boards cost $160…the school supplies about $260.

Fanny has asked for 15 school supply kits for her existing students. She wants to replace the 8 tables and has asked for 32 chairs. The school supplies would cost $215. Eight tables cost about $185, and 32 plastic chairs $115. More seating will mean more students which raises the issue of more school supplies needed, but we’ll worry about that later.

We need $420 for the primary school, and $515 for the pronoei. We don’t have it. We need help to get the children of Conchucos back into the classroom. If you’d like to help us do that please visit the Promesa Peru webpage. Thank you.