Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Education a challenge in small Mexican community with strong ties to Dallas

Monday, June 9, 2008

LOMA ALTA, Mexico – Just down the dirt road from several small adobe houses, past a cat keeping silent watch under a street lamp, past two lounging dogs, 16 students line up outside their one-room concrete school.

The tiniest kid holds the Mexican flag. It's early March, and during a weekly patriotic ceremony the teacher tells her students about Mexico's beloved former president, Benito Juarez, whose birthday is later in the month.

"He was an Indian from Oaxaca and a sheepherder just like you," Maria Gloria Martínez says. "Imagine that, one of you could be president."

As she speaks, nine kids watch from the yard of a nearby house. Mexico requires that children attend school through junior high, but there is often little enforcement. Many of those watching are old enough to be in Ms. Martínez's elementary school, but their parents don't send them.

Ms. Martínez, 69, wears glasses, has short gray hair and does needlework to earn extra money. She also has the voice of a drill sergeant. Earning the equivalent of $170 a month, she lives at the school during the week, sleeping on a cot by the door. Village families bring her food.

In this arid region of Mexico's central highlands, nearly 1,000 miles from Dallas and 7,000 feet above sea level, the elementary and middle schools are, in effect, feeder schools for Adamson High School in Oak Cliff.

Adamson principal Rawly Sanchez has never met Ms. Martínez. But the success of his job is partly linked to her. Many of his students come from rural areas in Mexico such as this, pushed north by powerful economic forces that sometimes hinder schooling.

One of the Loma Alta students who now attends Adamson is Juan, a teen who saved enough money after coming to America to buy a house a short walk from the rural school. He moved to Dallas with his family in 2006 to work construction after dropping out of junior high in Mexico.

"If my children get an education, maybe they won't have to leave because they'll be able to find work," says Juan's aunt, Carmela, who lives in Loma Alta with her 10 kids. "But without an education what can you do? Maybe herd animals, but even those jobs are almost gone."

Loma Alta is one of the smallest of a dozen rural settlements surrounding the town of Ocampo in the state of Guanajuato. Ocampo is the largest community in the municipality (similar to a county in the U.S.) of the same name. The town has 6,000 residents, the municipality 21,000.

Stop anyone in Ocampo and chances are they have a relative in Dallas. If not, that's usually because the relative lives in Chicago, the second most popular destination.

Casa Guanajuato, an organization that helps new immigrants in Dallas, estimates that more people from Ocampo live in Dallas than in the municipality. Personal connections provide a built-in support network, adding to the job allure of Dallas. For a century, Guanajuato has supplied a steady flow of immigrants to the U.S., working on railroads, farms and in well-paying construction jobs.

The connections go both ways. During a 10-day period in Ocampo, two reporters and a photographer from The Dallas Morning News saw many signs of North Texas: a minivan with a Southlake Dragons bumper sticker in front of an elementary school, a first-grader wearing a Trinity Christian Academy jacket, a junior high student wearing a Boswell High School shirt, a woman in a Molina Jaguars T-shirt, and a young boy wearing a "Kahn Elementary Field Day 2002" shirt. Kahn, in Oak Cliff, feeds into Sunset High School. Molina is a Dallas high school.

On Friday and Saturday nights on Ocampo's main square, dreams of El Norte loom large. At the Ciber Cafe, teenage boys pay 10 pesos, about $1, an hour to cruise the Internet. Wearing Dallas Cowboys jerseys and Nikes, they slouch in their chairs as they click through MySpace and watch rap videos on YouTube. It takes only a few minutes of questioning to find someone who has either worked in Dallas, or wants to. For many, earning money is more important than school.

The culture shock of moving north is great. The education shock can be greater.

There was no elementary school in Loma Alta when Juan's mother grew up there. "I was 12 years old when they opened the school," says Maria, 38. "My mother says that before that a lady, on her own, would teach kids at her home."

The average schooling level for municipality residents is fourth grade, according to government statistics. Fifteen percent don't read or write; only 12 percent have finished high school. The municipality didn't have a high school until 1993.

"When we built the high school, the thinking was that people would stop leaving for the U.S.," says Francisco "Pancho" Pedroza, president of the municipality. They didn't.

José Juan Salazar, an Ocampo education official who works with Mr. Pedroza, believes the U.S. educational system is better at encouraging entrepreneurial spirit in kids. "In Mexico," he says, "they educate you as if you are always going to work for someone else."

Before moving to Dallas, Mr. Pedroza's niece, Gabby, and nephew, Luis Adrian, both attended Ocampo's only private school, Instituto Mexico, long the choice of better-off residents. Now, they attend Adamson with Juan.

In the United States, Mr. Pedroza would be called "mayor." Born in 1945, he completed the sixth grade at Instituto Mexico and started working. There were no junior highs in Ocampo then.

He moved to Dallas in 1966, unloading produce for a year at the Farmers Market. Immigration officials caught up with him, he says, so he moved to Chicago and worked at a meatpacking plant. He returned to Ocampo in 1985.

Mr. Pedroza, who has a full head of gray hair and a ready smile, says he is trying to expand the area's agribusiness opportunities and attract a shoe factory. Eventually, he hopes a branch of a university will open in town. Mainly, he wants to give residents an economic reason to stay home and kids a better chance at an education.

"We know we can't stop them from leaving," he says. "But if they're going to leave at least they'll have more education."

Next to agriculture, brick making is Ocampo's top industry, employing about 100 workers, Mr. Pedroza says. One of those workers is a sweat-and-dirt streaked 14-year-old named Luis Cortés. He wears a red "Tommy" cap and a Chevrolet T-shirt that says "The Heartbeat of America." He explains how he quit going to school in the fourth grade to help shovel and mix the mud that becomes bricks and tiles.

"Why should he sit in school bored, not learning anything, when he can be making $10 a day?" says his uncle, José Zuñiga, also a brick maker. The uncle, in his mid-20s, says he did not finish primary school, either. The average worker in Ocampo earns about $70 a week, municipality officials say.

Classroom challenges

The quality of education in Mexico ranges widely, from big urban centers to remote rural areas, like Loma Alta. Those from urban areas tend to be better prepared academically.

Educators in Guanajuato say there has been progress in the last 15 years. Even rural schools are now equipped with computers. There is a standard interactive curriculum for fifth- and sixth-graders that former President Vicente Fox supported.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Mexico is improving opportunities for students in rural areas, where economic pressures often force families to choose work over school. For decades, Mexico has experimented with ways to reach these students. Some Adamson students attended telesecundarias, junior highs that offer the same televised lesson at the same time nationwide. Between broadcasts, classroom teachers supplement the on-screen instruction with discussions and workbook assignments.

"I see so many kids with so much potential here, but we need to change the culture, and we need more government support," says Carlos Rosales, a regional high school director.

As families move back and forth across the border, more kids from Dallas schools are showing up in Ocampo schools. There is some evidence, municipality officials say, that students from the U.S. are helping improve achievement scores in primary grades.

That's not true for older students coming from America. Complaints of Mexican educators sound much the same as complaints of Dallas teachers talking about students from Mexico. The kids don't know the language well enough, and their math skills are weak.

Students from the United States bring with them some American attitude.

That was evident in an advanced English class at Instituto Mexico. Located behind double metal doors at the rear of a Catholic church a few blocks from the town square, the Instituto offers classes from preschool through ninth grade, charging the equivalent of $35 a month in tuition. Its resources are limited, but its community tradition strong.

That tradition doesn't mean much to Jorge Rangel, who was born and raised in Dallas and moved to Ocampo with his family just before the start of school last summer.

"Oh, man, I want to go back," he says. "This school is a waste."

The big 16-year-old bulges out of his small one-piece desk and chair. The laces on his white athletic shoes are untied. He pronounces his name George. His mom calls him Jorge.

In a class of 13, he is one of three students who attended Dallas schools. Jorge and one friend decided they didn't need to buy the class textbook. They act as if they already know more English than the teacher.

María Guadalupe López, the teacher, was born in Mexico and has lived in Chicago and Dallas. She says the kids who have been in American schools don't like being told what to do and are behind in math. She wonders if those who go back and forth between the countries will ever master one language to an academic level. That echoes concerns Adamson teachers have about Mexican immigrant students mastering enough English to pass the state TAKS exams.

"That's not what I wanted," Ms. Lopez tells Jorge about a class assignment, handing it back. "I said write what you saw, what you learned." The class had taken a field trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacan near Mexico City.

"It was cool but boring at the same time," Jorge had written in English.

Before moving to Ocampo, Jorge attended St. Cecilia Catholic School in Oak Cliff and then Greiner Middle School, where he played football. His father and uncle run a bus company that transports people and cargo to and from the U.S. His mother, Norma Rangel, a U.S. citizen and graduate of Sunset High School, admits some of Jorge's teachers think he is "sassy." Mrs. Rangel thinks he is having trouble adjusting to his new life. "As time goes by, I think he'll like it here," she says.

The next school stop for Jorge, his mother says, is Ocampo's high school, a modern two-story campus near two junior highs and the agricultural experiment station. Municipality officials say that of the nearly 600 students who graduate from Ocampo's junior highs every year, about 150 go on to high school. That includes students at two small high schools in other towns.

The decision to attend high school often depends upon economics. Does a kid have to work to help support the family?

Looking at enrollment figures for the 2006-07 school year, high school principal César Rangel (no relation to Jorge), says 332 students started the year in the school's three grades, and 272 were enrolled at the end of the year. Most who left went to the U.S., Dr. Rangel says.

Is it a brain drain for Mexico?

"Absolutely," Dr. Rangel says. "It's a shame for us that we're not able to retain our people. But it's because at the national level, we're not giving them employment opportunities."

The high school offers specialties in three technical careers: industrial maintenance (repairing machines, electrical, plumbing), information systems (software) and administration (office work). At the same time, some students take college prep classes.

Dr. Rangel says the school has 20 teachers, counting part-timers. They earn the equivalent of about $8 an hour and average about 32 hours a week. Each student pays an enrollment fee equal to about $45 a semester. Many have scholarships.

Dr. Rangel has some advice for the American teachers of Mexican immigrants.

"Really understand that these kids don't know English and they are going into a new culture," he says. "It's going to be little by little that they learn the language." The primary predictor of academic success is the same on both sides of the border, he says: the educational level of the parents.

In an industrial arts class at the high school where the students are wiring lights, instructor Sergio González says he worked construction in Atlanta but returned to Mexico about three years ago, just before he turned 30.

"I love being a teacher," he says. "You become a father to these kids. ...When they fail, I fail, too." Based upon his experience, he gives his students three rules for attaining success in the United States: 1. Learn English. 2. Work every day. 3. Don't get in trouble with the law.

Dreams of America

Back at Loma Alta, Ms. Martínez says this is the most difficult assignment she has had. Two teachers had already come and gone from the school this year before she arrived. The kids were not used to doing schoolwork and were out of control.

The preschool didn't open this term because enrollment was just two students short of qualifying for a teacher through CONAFE, the federal agency that places teachers such as Ms. Martínez in hard-to-fill jobs in poor rural areas. If all the families in town had enrolled their kids, there would have been enough students to unlock the preschool.

Some CONAFE teachers have completed only ninth grade, but they get government assistance to continue their studies. Ms. Martínez says her schooling would be equivalent in the U.S. to two years of college.

Her small classroom building has modern touches: a satellite dish, an IBM computer, an interactive "smart board" and a Lexmark printer. Yet, outside, the common restroom is an adobe wall around a hole in the ground. Students wash their hands from a spigot at the water tank. Ms. Martínez bathes near the front door of the classroom and throws the used water outside.

One day during class, the conversation turns to what her students expect to do in the future. Ms. Martínez listens to their dreams of making money in America. One girl says she's going to work in a restaurant. Another boy says he's going to slaughter pigs. The oldest of the class says he's going to work construction.

"Ay, what crazy dreams we sometimes have," Ms. Martínez says. "You know what? I am so happy here in my homeland."

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