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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Learning Is Rich at a Poor School in Mexico

Learning Is Rich at a Poor School in Mexico

The dirt road to the middle school was washed out, so we parked a half block away, by a dead chicken squashed flat as a pancake. A parent greeted us at the main entrance of the white-washed, two-story school and asked what we wanted.

I wanted to compare a Mexican public school to a California public school, because so many immigrants say they headed north so their children could have a better education.

David Tokofsky, a Los Angeles Unified School District board member, recently piqued my curiosity when he told me about visiting schools in Mexico and Latin America a decade ago while on a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship.

In Mexico, he had said, there's order in the classroom, students know their math, and they can name a dozen national authors. Los Angeles city schools don't always measure up, Tokofsky had said, even though they're far better funded.

So when I met a gracious Guadalajara taxi driver named Jose Galicia, I asked if he could take me to his 14-year-old son's middle school on the outskirts of town. No problem, said Galicia, who was proud to show off the school.

By chance, we arrived on the day a new principal would be named to lead Escuela Secundaria Mixta #43 Agustin Yanez. The school's 500 students attend classes in two shifts because there isn't room for all of them at once.

If the new principal was expecting private quarters, he was in for a surprise. The walls of his "office" are formed by stacks of boxes and filing cabinets. Nearby, two dozen sewing machines gather dust because the school can't afford fabric, thread and needles.

There is no assembly room, no gym, no cafeteria. Food is served at an outdoor hut next to a blue canopy that covers a mud puddle and two small tables. There are no maps for geography class, and sometimes no paintbrushes for art class.

"In the United States," said academic coordinator Francisco Amezcua Santana, "you have more support, more services, and you can pay for psychologists, doctors and counselors. Here, we can't. Public schools are poor."

And yet it was obvious that inside the walls of this school, teachers were in charge and students were paying attention, even in classes 40 strong. Bells rang, and they marched to and fro in school uniforms, forming neat lines after recess before heading back to class.

Major discipline problems simply don't exist, Amezcua said, although the more urban schools in Guadalajara occasionally have trouble.

He couldn't remember the last time a student was pregnant, and he said illegal drugs and crime foul the streets, but don't find their way on campus. Amezcua was startled when I told him that police are a common sight at some L.A. schools.

This isn't to suggest that Mexico's public schools are superior. Nationally speaking, they're a disaster, with roughly 80% of all students failing to complete middle school. In some cases, as I'd seen earlier on this trip, it's because children as young as 6 work the cornfields. Beyond that, education in Mexico is heavy on rote drills and memorization.

But those who make it through middle school end up studying trigonometry, genetics and statistics. By the time they're 15, Amezcua said, they've read Carlos Fuentes, Miguel de Cervantes and Juan Rulfo, along with Anne Frank.

"I'd give them [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez," said Amezcua, "but his books are too expensive."

When I checked with LAUSD, I was told that eighth-graders are not required by the district to read a single book. English textbooks might give them a taste of, say, Langston Hughes. But "The Diary of Anne Frank," along with works by Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, are recommended, rather than required, reading.

Amezcua said students are encouraged to take school-issued books home too, which is not always possible in California — home of the sixth largest economy in the world — due to shortages.

But given the gargantuan economic disadvantages and other obstacles in Mexico, how was it that I could walk onto a campus of 250 teenagers and find more order, respect and curiosity than I often see on public school campuses in the United States?

It's simple, Amezcua said. In Mexico, with its family-centered culture, the schools have parents on their side. Students generally remain respectful of adults, even into their teens.

So if students blow off a homework assignment or skip school, Amezcua said, teachers call home. Parents are required to review their children's progress every two months, and they're expected to contribute whatever time and money they can to support the school.

Across Los Angeles, you'd have to either track parents down at their second and third jobs, or drag them away from their TV sets, to get them to a PTA meeting. Tokofsky said that in middle schools with as many as 2,500 students, it's often difficult to get a handful of parents to set foot on campus.

Amezcua turned me loose on a class, and almost everyone raised a hand when I asked whose parents had received calls from teachers.

Maria Silva Campos, 13, had to explain to her parents why she forgot to bring her notebook to class. Julio Cesar Mejia, 15, had to explain why he wasn't wearing a proper white shirt with red trim as part of his uniform.

When the new principal arrived on campus, students were called from classrooms to stand at attention in the courtyard. It resembled a military ceremony. Several school officials gave pep talks before the new principal, Gregorio Romero, was formally introduced to polite applause from students.

This story would end there but for a footnote on Jose Galicia, the taxi driver who took me to the school.

On the way back downtown I explained that I had spent the week tracing connections between Mexico and California, trying to better understand two places whose cultures and psyches are so intertwined.

Galicia said that when he was 14, his father went north to find work and ended up in Pasadena.

Never to return.

In a country where you can always hear the endless patter of human traffic from Third World to First, Galicia said he could not conceive of inflicting such suffering on his own children.

"Never," he said as I tipped him, thanked him and waved goodbye.

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