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Advocacy Project Blogs - 2007 Fellow: Jessica Boccardo

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07/30/07

Parents: the value of voice

Posted By: jessica

“What does a good education mean to you” was one of the questions that we posed to more than 50 of the “SKIP mothers”. It was Saturday morning and they had arrived at SKIP at 8 am to attend the Saturday talks organized by SKIP’s staff. That day they had organized a game where all mothers were divided into groups and a member of each group had to go to the front and make an expression with her face. Her group had to guess what she was trying to express. They were all laughing as one of the mothers was trying her best for her group to guess: her face looked sleepy, bored, frustrated but the right word did not come up.

And then we distributed the questionnaires. They contained, first, a section on defining education, its objectives and what the children’s right to an education meant ; a second section asked for details on what the costs to education were, what money went to the Parents’ Association (APAFA), what happened if they did not pay to them or to the teachers ( yes, teachers also charge almost every week, for copies, school decoration and some other unclear urgent matters) and finally, a section, where we tried to evaluate their experience with SKIP.

The guessing game continued. It had taken a different form though; now the mothers had to deal with a question they seemed they had never been asked and had to guess, perhaps looking at their children’s face while they were playing around them or remembering their own faces when they first understood that their kids could get a better chance.
Many mothers approached us asking for help because they could not read. We had anticipated this problem with Sara, the other Advocacy Project Fellow, but we never expected so many mothers would be in this situation. However, it was because we could read the questions with them that we could get a better glimpse of their feelings. What a written answer never shows: the pauses, the tears, the doubts that come with a question. When we got to the part of what a good education meant to them, as if they were afraid of saying the wrong answer, they spoke lowly, almost to themselves. There were options like “many years of schooling or quality of education” but that did not reflect what they thought. I read the options to them and they kept looking at me for more, waiting for me to come up with the right word. “Being able to be someone else” a mother said. “To have another life”, “not this life” others completed. At that moment, as they started to talk about the problems and dangers of living in El Porvenir, about how they had not been able to study because they had to work since they were kids, I started to sense a feeling they all seem to share: they felt trapped. This reminded me of the “poverty trap” some economists talk about and I thought to myself that no Economic journal could explain better what this meant than these mothers’ experiences.

Education, as the way to escape from this trap. If not them, their children. If they all agreed on this topic why were their voices not stronger in demanding a better education for their children. “We have the right to a free education?” , I heard several mothers asking in disbelief. They did not know or those who knew thought that what they paid to the schools did not contradict their right to a free education. At this moment, the problem of voice, or lack of it, seemed evident to me.Parents are not aware of what they and their children are entitled to. If they knew and acted accordingly, things might be different. In this context, improving education requires the emergence of a new source of pressure that could demand their right to a free education to schools’ authorities and public officials: the voice of the “users”, parents and their children.

In PERU each school has its parents’ association (APAFA) which collect “voluntary” contributions as a way to reconcile fees with the constitutional mandate that basic education is free. Parents meet once a year and choose APAFA’s members and president. Apart from that they have no control on where or how their money should be spent or a way to know if their money has not been misappropriated. What happens if they don’t pay the fee demanded by APAFA? Their children can not take the school’s exams which, in the end, means they get kicked out of school. This does not represent the parents’ voice that is needed as a catalyst for change.

The case of Fe y Alegria (FyA) may give a hint on how parents’ involvement can benefit the schools.FyA is a Catholic organization that manages schools financed by the public sector and aims at children from low-income families They are established in several Latin American countries, including Peru. They have been widely cited as success stories because performance evaluations regularly show results better than those in public schools, even though costs are about the same,

FyA schools involve the community from the beginning. Schools are placed largely where communities demand them and the commitment to involve the community and to respond to communities is the major pillar of the schools’ organization.

It is mainly in public education where the link of accountability is so blurry, that parents’ awareness and pressure can be the most important catalyst of change. Their voice can draw attention to performance and achievement, expectations and failures; in the end, to making sure schools can actually be the way out of such a thing as a poverty trap.

07/16/07

The face of change

Posted By: jessica

I was discussing with another SKIP volunteer today about how we believe we can, if we can, change what we feel is unjust.

He argued that what he worked for was the few kids that would get out from the life that they seemed otherwise predestined to have. He said that if these kids could step into a city that moved in a parallel dimension, its back against them, out of El Porvenir, their steps would make a difference.

For him then, educating these kids, meant not only giving them an opportunity for a better life but also making sure they could make a larger, more profound impact in the future for others.

I wanted him to be right. The indefinite Teacher's strike continues and is starting to seem indefinite though. That, plus my few years doing research warned me against this version of the story which so easily fit into the reasons behind why we are here at SKIP.

But he has a point. The thing is that the valuable work that SKIP is doing does not match the feat they are facing. SKIP and its windmills. Because did I mention that SKIP helps children go to PUBLIC schools? Where had I read before coming that in Peru there is free primary education for all? Ah in the Constitution. “It is more complicated than that,” I am told when demanding to know more about this. “But who pays for schools, who allocates the money, under which formula” and the answers get more and more contradictory.

Peru's infamous low-quality education with an international test in 2000 which placed Peru last out of 43 countries, can be mostly blamed to the extremely low expenditures per student in Peru. In fact, Peru’s public spending on education is low, around 3 percent of GDP and still below than the Latin American average.

So who pays for the school if the government doesn't? Families. A recent study on the role of families on education in Peru concluded that almost one third of the cost of having children in public schools comes from the families’ pockets. This cost includes books, uniforms and school materials, financing of other school activities, apart from matriculation fees and payments which need to be made to the parents association, called Asociacion de Padres de Familia (APAFA).

Public utilities, additional teachers and capital and consumer goods and costs of school maintenance have to be paid from sources such as APAFA or local and international organizations. This is where SKIP comes in.

The indefinite strike that teachers have now declared since July 5th is a good reminder of how the problem of education in Peru runs deep into entrenched interests and into a labyrinth of obstacles and proposals. All of which fail to acknowledge that the main losers are the kids. They who do not have a voice in the conflict between the government and the teachers.

So then again, my friend is right: a way to change what we feel is unjust is to focus on what is feasible, in these kids who need us, who are coming to our Talleres de Teatro and Manualidades every day, workshops we created to replace the vacumm left by the strikes.
Still, I believe we should not cease to look further beyond SKIP and understand that what we are actually working for is for the recognition of the right of every children to have a good education. Change can happen but maybe there are many ways for it to happen. Just as Borges wrote of a man who set out to draw the world only to discover, just before dying, that what he was drawing traced the line of his own face. Maybe change also has the face of the person who sets out to generate it.

07/06/07

En política, un absurdo no es un obstáculo

Posted By: jessica

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I should tell more about our English classes. Two other volunteers and I started teaching English classes at a public school, el Indo-Americano. SKIP had committed itself to providing English classes in exchange of the use of the school facilities for mothers' meetings and workshops on Saturdays. Three different courses, four days a week, ages 9 to 11.

After each class we felt as if we were leaving a boxing ring, we had left everything, all our energy, inside the classroom, fighting mainly against that inevitable tedium that children suffer if you repeat the same activity for more than 10 seconds. And that contagious chaos, which can start from one laugh, one noise out of the ordinary. You understand the "Butterfly effect" never better than in a classroom full of kids.

Just when you are about to give up, you hear someone pronouncing after you corrrectly and then another student looking at you intently, like trying to absorb all you know. Then, teaching, something you have never done in your whole life, becomes easy, so natural. You realize you are in front of 30 kids and that if you try a little harder, they will listen to you and perhaps, just perhaps, they will want to listen more and learn more and someday they will be able to break the circle, make their own destinies, and leave El Porvenir.

After classes, the kids run towards us. They all want their goodbye kiss. And hug. Some of them bring a pen and booknote and want us to write our names on it. We feel like movie stars but most of all, we are confused. We are in this low-income neighbourhood where most kids return to their house to face grim realities: a house too small for the average of 8 people that inhabit a El Porvenir house, or a house that has half of its roof and may remain like this for some time ( a house?) or a house where a family of 6 lives with less than US$6 a week. These and more are the problems that the "typical" family in El Porvenir has to face day by day.

By the way kids look up to teachers, remain quiet when they realize you really want to teach and are not there just to be an English tourist who will play games with them; by the drawings and other small hand-made gifts you receive after leaving a classroom with at least three kids hanging from your arm and wanting to walk with you, you would not be able to tell that this is El Porvenir, that these kids are in more need of help than any other kid in Trujillo.

Today I missed them. From the 5th of July the Teachers' Union declared "Huelga Indefinida", which basically means that teachers are protesting, not working, until they get what they want. I told the Director of the school that it was a pity fo the kids but he started telling me about a similar protest some years ago and how it had lasted almost all year. He looked proud of his and the rest of the teachers' fight.

I need to explain a little bit more about the Law they are opposing and the many riots and movilizations that have been occuring in Peru even before this Huelga was declared.

I can not today. Today I needed to talk about these children. Take a look at some of them.

07/02/07

First impressions

Posted By: jessica

Trujillo introduced me with the Peru of contradictions, the Sierra and the Coast, those 500 years of new history on top of what was thought to be old but is now, it always was, everywhere and present.

The Central Market dispaying lucuma, an ancient fruit unique to Peruvian soil, names like Rupa-Rupa reminding everyone quechua is still a living language and stories about playful gnomos who tie horses' hair into knots that nobody can untide but go away on their own after some years, are just some of the myriad of reminders of the strong grasp of their past.

It is especially here in El Porvenir, the neighbourhood where SKIP works, that I stop myself to think more and more about these and other contradictions, on how it can be that parents have to pay for public schools, that we have been trying to go teach English for the last week to a school but most of the times we have just encountered an empty classroom( "the teacher did not come today") or a closed School's entrance door ( "Huelga de Hambre" and other manifestations).

I believe that most unjustices are inherited from the past. No memory for indigenous people, no second thought for the poor. But it is in today that things show all of their absurdity. "A laptop for every child", that is what the Peruvian government is thinking of introducing as a national public policy this year. But where is the money that should be going to these public schools and that would allow the rest of the kids in El Porvenir that SKIP cannot help (around 2000) to go to school?

I just wonder. And think more and more about these and other contradictions.

06/26/07

Posted By: jessica

When I arrive to Trujillo this morning, I did not know exactly what to expect.

I knew about SKIP, about this NGO that made a commitment to get a good education to a large (always larger) number of low-income kids in Peru. As an Advocacy Project Fellow I was given a certain idea of what I needed to achieve during my stay here. I had, however, to be here, in El Porvenir, the neighborhood where SKIP's office is located (some classrooms and a small playground) to understand why it is that SKIP needs us and all that we can do to help.

They say that Peru's Constitution guarantees free education for everyone but they also say that nobody really knows who is in charge of paying what. In the end, the public schools must do all there is in their power to get enough income. This leads them to charge a fee aside from another payment "almost compulsory" that parents must make to the Parents Association responsible for the school mainteinance. The sum of all this plus other small costs such as uniforms or school materials, create insurmountable obstacles for parents at the moment of deciding whether to send their kids to school or not.

Up to now, SKIP has gotten around 200 kids into public schools, providing the money to cover all of this costs. This is just a first step though. There are all other reasons behind the fact that a kid does not go to school : parents that don't know what is best for them, or don't find it convenient or unfeasible and teachers who don't know what is best or don't find it convenient or cannot do it....

SKIP had to face the problems of this kids' reality: many kids missed schhols or SKIP's tutorials because they were sick so SKIP started a health program that includes sporadic health exams and treatments. Moreover, another group of SKIP's volunteers has begun an alfabetization program for adults. Several meetings between parents and teachers have been organized as well since one of the main problems that this program encounters is teacher's reticence to change

And there are so many ideas, many more. SKIP is thinking of organizing teacher's trainings, expanding the help to more kids in the El Porvenir neighborhood...but resources are lacking. All of this is sustained just by the strength and good-will of volunteers of different parts of the world: Spain, England, USA and others from Peru.

Let's see what comes out of this experience...

If you want to make a donation, take a look at:

06/25/07

Primer dia en Trujillo

Posted By: jessica

Cuando llegue a Trujillo hoy a la manana, no sabia bien que esperar.

Sabia de SKIP, de esta ONG que se propuso tratar que mas y mas chicos sin recursos reciban una buena educacion. Como una Fellow de Advocacy Project me habian dado una cierta idea de lo que esperaban de mi en este tiempo. Sin embargo, necesite estar aca, en El Porvenir, el barrio donde esta ubicada la oficina de SKIP( unas aulas y un jardin con hamacas y otros juegos) para entender porque SKIP nos necesita y que podemos hacer para ayudarlos.

Dicen que la Constitucion aca en Peru garantiza la educacion gratis para todos pero tambien dicen que nadie sabe a quien le toca pagar. Al final los colegios publicos deben rebuscarselas para tener un cierto ingreso. Esto implica que deben cobrar una cierta cuota a los padres, ademas de otro pago "casi obligatorio" a una Asociacion de Padres que es la que se encarga del mantenimiento de las escuelas. La suma de esto, mas pequenos costos como los uniformes o los utiles, crean obstaculos impresionantes para los padres que deben decidir si mandar a los chicos al colegio o no. SKIP, hasta el momento, se ocupa de mandar cerca de 200 chicos a escuelas publicas, consiguiendo el dinero para pagar todos estos costos.

Pero este es solo un primer paso porque estan todas las demas razones por las que un nino no va al colegio:los padres no saben, no les conviene, no pueden y los profesores no saben, no les conviene, no pueden... SKIP se encontro con que muchos chicos faltaban porque estaban enfermos entonces comenzo un programa de salud, que incluye un chequeo de salud esporadico. Ademas otro grupo de voluntarios de SKIP organizo un programa de Alfabetizacion de adultos y ya se hicieron un par de reuniones entre padres y maestros porque uno de los mayores problemas que encuentra este programa es la reticencia de los maestros.
Y hay tantas ideas, mas, muchas mas. Se esta pensando en organizar entrenamientos de maestros, expandir la ayuda a mas chicos del Barrio de El Porvenir... Pero faltan los recursos. Todo esto esta sostenido solo por las fuerzas y ganas de voluntarios de distintas partes: Espana, Inglaterra, Estados Unidos y muchos de Peru.

Veamos que sale de esto.



Jessica Boccardo is an AP Peace Fellow for SKIP who will be working for Supporting Kids in Peru (SKIP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to enabling children to access education.

Originally from Argentina, where she obtained her BA in economics, she came to the USA in 2004 to further her education in international development and other pressing socioeconomic issues. She completed her master’s degree in public policy in Georgetown University in 2006 with a concentration on international policy development.

During her graduate studies she worked as a research assistant at Georgetown where she worked for the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP), a federally funded education voucher program for low-income families.

Her job was divided between statistical analysis and an important qualitative component since she had to conduct interviews and focus groups with the different actors involved, mainly students, parents and teachers. This experience gave her a first-hand experience with educational problems and helped her understand the multi-dimensional constraints that families face when needing to send their children to school.

Lately, she has been working at the World Bank in the Poverty Reduction Unit (PREM), focusing on trade diversification and growth, studying mainly Sub-Saharan African countries. In her job she has also explored other issues of educational policies; more specifically, she has studied the links between tertiary education and development through export growth and the necessary technological capabilities needed to catch up with other countries’ performance.

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