Maricela Luna wants to become an architect, but has temporarily put her plans on hold.
After finishing high school, she attended a university for two months, but found she didn’t have enough resources to continue. “The money I had for a month was spent in a week,” she said.
To secure aid for college, this practical young woman joined a program sponsored by the Mexican government for youths with at least a 9th grade education. In exchange for two years of teaching school in a small rural community, she’ll earn a stipend to attend a university for six years.
Similar to the United States’ creation of public schools, such as charter schools or alternative schools, that operate outside the regular public school system, the Mexican government has established an informal set of schools intended to improve education for two groups of Mexicans—children in rural communities and youths who can’t afford the living expenses and fees required to attend even a public high school or university.
The informal schools provide “community education” in some 30,000 Mexican communities, mostly in towns with 100 or fewer inhabitants. They are run by the Consejo National de Fomento Educativo, or CONAFE. The agency, launched in 1971, is a separate branch of Mexico’s Ministry of Education, or Secretaría de Educación Pública in Spanish.
Most of those schools provide an education from preschool through the 6th grade, but some communities also offer courses at the junior high level, which are open to adults as well as children.
In the largely rural Mexican state of Oaxaca, where San Isidro is located, about 10 students attend each CONAFE school. At the age of 20, Ms. Luna is thus a teacher in a school setup that was common in the United States more than 100 years ago.
She’s the sole teacher in a one-room schoolhouse (with an outhouse about 30 steps away) for 15 children spanning six grades. All but one of the youngsters live within a 10- minute walk of the school and are related to one another. And they share the same surname: Jiménez.
Every child at the school not only is related, but bears the same last name, as the attendance list shows.
Ms. Luna, a soft-spoken and energetic woman, receives room and board and money to travel home on weekends and to attend teacher- training sessions. During the week, she is housed by the school president of the community, which means sitting down to meals of rice, beans, and tortillas with a family and sharing a sparsely furnished bedroom with children.
The depth of community involvement in the CONAFE schools sets them apart from regular public schools, said Luis Madrigal Simancas, who oversees the alternative education system in the state of Oaxaca.
“The community is the owner of the course, and the instructor knows that,” he said. “Since the instructor is fed by the community, he has the commitment to the community and does his best in teaching the children.”
Ms. Luna loves her job and her pupils, she said, and she tries to keep them engaged. She has a repertoire of songs and games that she acquired at CONAFE training to help children learn and to energize them between lessons. On a recent morning, the children sang heartily, if not always on key, as Ms. Luna led them through a tune to review the days of the week. The song involved tasks many of the children do every day in their homes, from grinding corn to ironing.
Marciela Luna leads students in marching songs at the CONAFE school in San Isidro.
“On Monday, before eating, I spoke with a child who told me she wasn’t able to play because she had to wash clothes,” the children sang in Spanish, making scrubbing motions with their hands.
In the classroom, the children—some of whom wear clothing with holes— sit at three different tables, grouped by every two grades. Throughout the day, Ms. Luna moves briskly from table to table, teaching each group a lesson based on the same subject but adjusted according to grade level. The littlest ones frequently call out, “¡Maestra!” (“Teacher!”), demanding her attention even when she’s not standing by their table.
On this particular day, she launched the 3rd through 6th graders on projects related to the atmosphere and climate, using books in a small library, while the 1st and 2nd graders studied a simple sentence about the seasons of the year. The older students eventually wrote what they’d learned on poster paper and made presentations to the whole school.
Ms. Luna intersperses book learning with hands-on activities. At midday, she guided the children in tending a small garden in which they’d planted beans, squash, cilantro, and radishes under a brilliant sun. At day’s end, she led them in a finger-painting session.
A lot of teachers don’t last long in the CONAFE schools, Ms. Luna said. They find they don’t like teaching, or they get lonely living in remote areas, she noted. Ms. Luna’s family lives an hourlong walk from this community, in the small city of Miahuatlán, so she visits her home on weekends.
Fifteen percent of teachers quit before finishing a year of service, the minimum amount of time they must participate to receive a scholarship of any kind, Mr. Madrigal said. No one teacher works for CONAFE more than two years, so all schools have high turnover. The two 6th grade girls at the CONAFE school in San Isidro ticked off the names of seven teachers they’d had in their six years of attending: Adriana, Ana, Atanacia, Teresa, Eugenio, and two Maricelas.
Some students here have received an inadequate education, something that is more common in rural regions than urban areas in Mexico, according to statistics from the national ministry. The school here has a 10-year-old in 1st grade, for example, and a 12-year-old in 3rd grade. (“Educating Mexico,” March 20, 2002.)
Pros and Cons
Much in the same way that U.S. parents see pros and cons in sending their children to an alternative school, Mexican parents disagree about whether CONAFE schools are better or worse than regular public schools. Most parents here in San Isidro, a community of 90-some people, say they prefer to send their children to the CONAFE school rather than have them walk several miles to Miahuatlán to attend a regular public school.
They say CONAFE makes fewer demands on their household budgets than they anticipate would be the case with the regular public school system.
“CONAFE gives us more resources for the children,” said Celedoña Santos Cruz, who has a 2nd grader and a 4th grader in the school here. “They don’t ask us for uniforms or fees.”
“CONAFE sends notebooks and pencils. We don’t have to buy hardly anything,” agreed Vidalia Mendoza Santiago, the school president and the mother of three pupils in the school.
But some other rural parents regard the CONAFE school system as inferior.
“The regular public school system is better,” said Juana Ruiz, who lives in San Pedro Coatlán, another rural community near the city of Miahuatlán, and sends her son to a regular public school. “They send teachers who have more preparation than the CONAFE teachers. The CONAFE children are usually lagging behind in their schooling.”
National evaluations show that the academic performance of students in CONAFE schools is slightly lower on average than that of children in regular public schools in rural Mexico.
Two families here in San Isidro, in fact, choose to have their children walk into Miahuatlán to attend regular public schools.
With the exception of the school president, who has a 6th grade education, none of six women in this community who chatted with a visitor about their children’s education at the CONAFE school had ever attended school themselves.
“I had to make tortillas and wash clothes,” said Ms. Santos, who is 37, in explaining why she never went to school.
‘Better Than None’
The Inter-American Development Bank has supported the CONAFE schools with a loan that began in 1995 and ends next month. The bank expects to approve a second loan for $210 million next fall that would support the schools for three more years.
“If CONAFE doesn’t get there, no one does,” said Paulina Gonzalez-Pose, a senior social-development specialist for the bank. Though based in Washington, she visited about 20 CONAFE schools while temporarily working in Mexico last year.
“CONAFE is focused on what we’re supposed to do, and that is help the poorest of the poor, especially in Mexico, which is very developed in many ways, but has all this inequity.”
Besides, she added, “I personally believe some education is better than none.”
Language Note: Teachers, students, and parents at the CONAFE school in San Isidro were interviewed in Spanish, while CONAFE official Luis Madrigal Simancas was interviewed through an interpreter.
Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Mexican Schools Give New Meaning To Student-Teaching