Traditional folkloric dancing in the Mexican school El Colegio Patria

Mexican schools are failing their students

In the poor, rural pueblo of Las Varas, I found the exception

Sitting in a restaurant at the edge of the village of Chacala’s beautiful sweep of bay, I looked out at what would likely be the future for most of the kids in the school where I’d been volunteering for three years. These kids will grow up to fish, work in restaurants or hotels, or hawk goods to Americans and Canadians on the beach. All of these activities require math, I thought, and I knew from experience that the children’s math skills were not well developed.

I also knew that things were not going to get better once they moved on from primary school. Chacala has no secondary school. Grades 7, 8 and 9 are delivered by something called telesecundaria, secondary school by television. You can imagine how well that works, especially for 13 and 14 year old boys. The result is that many Mexican kids end up leaving school after Grade 6, and they would be lucky indeed if they got a solid education that far.

Good schools anywhere often fail to teach math effectively. The British educational reformer Sir Ken Robinson lays out the basic problem. In education, he explains, we deal with kids by ‘date of manufacture’, the year that they are born. A child who is 6 is placed in Grade 1. A child of 11 or 12 is placed in Grade 6. While this might be fine for history or geography, it’s not okay for math. Learning, especially learning in disciplines like math, science and language acquisition, requires concepts built one upon another. If the basic concepts aren’t solid, the whole house of cards falls. When students in Grade 6 don’t know how to multiply, all the mathematical concepts that follow will pass them by.

Every teacher I know understands that children learn at different rates and in different ways. Not all kids learn at the same rate, but we teach them as if they do. A good education can not proceed lock step at a steady pace ignoring the understanding of the students.

In Mexico, the ‘date of manufacture’ problem is compounded by overcrowding, underfunding and inconsistent teaching. Things fall apart.

I’d already started wondering how the Khan Academy might improve the situation. Salman Khan had blasted onto the educational scene a few years earlier when he started teaching math over the internet to his nieces. Math-desperate parents, including Bill Gates, found his short videos online and the rest is interesting history.

Khan’s lessons are clear and precise and fun, and, more important, they are repeatable and FREE. The repeatable part is key, as it allows kids to play with concepts until they understand. Children can catch up on the math that they’ve missed, proceeding at their own pace. The free part is also critical for Mexican schools with their limited financial resources.

The kids in Chacala loved the short videos on the Khan Academy site when I tried them out with them. What would happen, I began thinking, if Mexican kids learned math over the internet using the Khan Academy? I began plotting a 3-year pilot project to integrate online learning into the classroom.

But first I needed to find a school to launch the project. Good teaching of any kind, especially teaching with technology, needs planning and consistency. Experience had taught me that Chacala’s village school would never offer that, so I set about looking for a school to fulfill three key criteria: a vision of the future, an organized and committed teaching team, and a computer lab.

I drove 12 kilometres inland to the small town of Las Varas where most of the people who work in Chacala actually live. It’s a typical Mexican town — hot, dusty, pitted streets, run down shops, taco stands, and tired, smiling people.

The first school I went to was recommended by Pepe and Claudia, the owners of the hardware store in Chacala, who sent their daughters there. The founders and directors of the school, two biological sisters, Laura Leticia and Rosa Armida Santillan, were waiting for me.

We sat in the cramped grotto of their office, a mouldy dark space so small that only Armida and I could fit behind the desk. Lety wedged a chair at an angle in the door. The directors told me that they had opened the school thirteen years earlier, with 2 primary school classes and 10 of their friends’ and neighbours’ children. Now they offered classes from preschool to secundaria (Grades 7, 8 & 9) and had an enrolment of 140 students.

I opened my computer to show them the multiplication video on the Khan Academy site, one of the few that had been translated into Spanish. Armida looked astonished. “Yes!” she said (in English) and then (in Spanish), “Not only our students, our teachers need this too.” Lety broke into tears.

Next we went on a tour of the school and Lety and Armida introduced me class by class to their students and teachers. The students sat in mismatched desks. The teachers had trouble taping materials to the brick classroom walls. The rooms were hot and noisy, but in every classroom from pre-school to Grade 9, I saw busy kids happy to be at school.

“Do you have a computer lab?” I asked. Armida and Lety took me to a dark windowless room with eight ancient mismatched computers. The instructor, a small, smiling woman named Chayo, was teaching a class of 14 how to format a report using Microsoft Word.

Next we went up a spiral staircase to an unfinished space on the roof above the classrooms. “Our new computer lab,” Armida beamed, “as soon as we find the funds.”

“¡Por sopuesto¡ (Of course!)” Armida cried, when I asked her if I could sit in on a class a few days a week to improve my Spanish. “You can begin on Monday. We open each school week with la escolta de la bandera (the escort of the flag). Classes for our secondary students begin at 7, primary school classes begin at 8, and the little ones come to school at 9. The flag ceremony begins a little after 9 on Monday morning.”

Flag ceremony each Monday in el Colegio Patria

It was la escolta de la bandera that sold me. Crisply uniformed children proudly marched the Mexican flag around the school’s central courtyard while the rest of children stood at attention, their hands across their chests, as they sang the Himno Nacional, Mexico’s national anthem.

Following the ceremony, the Grade 6 students, in costume, performed several of Mexico’s regional folkloric dances in honour of the traditions of their country.

This is it, I thought. If there is any school in Mexico where online learning has a chance, it’s el Colegio Patria. Although it only meets two of my three criteria — vision, organization and a computer lab — it exhibits those two in spades. Of the three, I reasoned, a computer lab is the easiest to build.

I thanked Armida and Lety and followed the escolta out of the courtyard to join my first class as an el Colegio Patria student in Grade 6.

This is the 12th story in the weekly publication A Remarkable Education: Lessons Learned in a Mexican Rural School. The next story describes one of the biggest events in the Las Varas Christmas season — the el Colegio Patria school parade.

The previous story describes math bingo, a low tech solution to the poor math education in Mexican schools.

Starting in the winter of 2009, Diane Douglas volunteered three years in the two-room school in the fishing village of Chacala, north of Puerto Vallarta. Since 2012, she’s been working to improve online learning at el Colegio Patria, a remarkable rural school in the poor, agricultural town of Las Varas.