Learning To Be Economic Battlers

In Mexico, Carmen Garcia prepares her sixth-graders for the next grade - and a job

`LUSAKA. Where is Lusaka?" demands Jaquelin Tallez Bautista of her sixth-grade classmates at the Jorge Casahonda Castillo primary school. The steel, blue-enameled door to this third-floor classroom is shut, keeping at bay the cool and smoggy air. Two teams of students are locked in a duel over African geography in the front of the class.

The teacher, Carmen Celina Garcia Diaz, moves among the 40-odd battered wooden desks, checking the capitals neatly listed in the notebooks of the azure-and-gray uniformed students.

"I like to think of myself as a guide more than a teacher. Guiding their development," says Mrs. Garcia, a firm, 28-year veteran. The challenge at this point is to fill in the gaps, she says, to prepare them for not just the next grade, but their pending entrance into the job market. She's more concerned about skill deficiencies than pockets of ignorance.

"They need to be able to express themselves confidently," Garcia explains. Before Mexico's economic crisis of the 1980s, life was not as tough. Now, she says, "They must learn to be battlers in order to secure their necessities." The geography contests and, later in the day, a verbal report on nutrition by six students, are among the opportunities she provides to help them overcome timidity and learn to speak before a group.

In a developing nation, economic challenges permeate all aspects of life, in or out of school. Half of Mexico's population lives in poverty. The average Mexican gets 6.4 years of schooling - or, to put it another way, 45 out of every 100 Mexicans won't finish primary school. Mostly from poor families

Students in Mexico City tend to stay in school longer, but even in Garcia's class, most of her 12-year-old students are likely to enter the work force within the next one to three years. Laws now require attendance through ninth grade. But there's little school officials can do when "the family's need to eat becomes greater than [the need for] education," says Jose Carlos Gonzalez, director of the Jorge Casahonda school.

This narrow, red-brick school building is in a relatively wealthy section of town. But 95 percent of the students are from poor families. Many travel an hour or more to get here.

In the classroom, the financial needs are no less pressing. "We buy or make a lot of our own materials," says Garcia, pointing to the nutrition posters made of construction paper and magazine photos. Teachers often buy their own chalk and maps.

There are no music classes. "We've requested them, but I don't know why they haven't come," she says, looking pointedly at the school director.

When the air pollution levels are low enough to allow physical education, the play area is a cement courtyard about one-third the size of a basketball court.

One gets the impression that, despite the dearth of resources, Garcia hasn't lowered her standards. For example, the federal government provides a basic math textbook. But finding that text inadequate, she has asked each parent to buy a supplemental text. Although the school has no library, she has a small stash of books in the classroom. And students are required to use a nearby public library for research projects.

For her efforts, Garcia earns just under 1 million pesos (about $325) a month - including a recent 20 percent raise. "It's not sufficient, but I have a husband!" she jokes. Many teachers must take a second job or teach another shift.

The first shift, which Garcia works, lasts from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. But she is one of five teachers who stay until 2 p.m. to provide extra help or visit parents at home or at work for consultations about children who are struggling in class.

At 2 p.m., "my second shift starts," she laughs. She goes home to make the main meal of the day for her family. But many teachers will either return or go to another school (public or private) and work until 6 p.m. Owing to a lack of facilities, 80 percent of the public schools in Mexico City operate two shifts. Respect by geography

During her career, Garcia hasn't seen any diminution of respect for teachers. Rather, she says, respect varies by geography. "When I taught at the edge of the city, in a poor area, I was accorded great prestige. Here in the center of the city, I'm no more than a public servant."

Parents complain that because of the demands of their second jobs or illness, teachers often don't show up for work. Typically, substitutes are unavailable. "Yoshio is home 10 percent of the time. Who knows where the teacher is?" laments Sara Oralia Valdez, mother of an 11-year-old boy at another primary school.

A national survey in 1989 asked who Mexicans most respected. Teachers placed fifth behind priests, doctors, military officers, and holders of university degrees.

But parental attitudes toward teachers don't seem to have created a conduct problem here. Unlike inner-city schools in the United States, illegal drugs and lack of discipline are far less apparent. "It becomes something of a problem in secondary school, but here the challenge is lack of concentration," says Garcia. "We're fighting Nintendo, video games, and videotapes. We're fighting to retain their attention span and to help them discriminate between what technology has value and what hasn't."

Like most Mexican parents who can afford it, Garcia sends her own 14- and 16-year-old children to private school. There, every child has a computer. The school day is longer, and there are more activities, such as music and sports.

If money were no object, Garcia would love to offer the same things for her students. Her public-school "wish list" includes a science laboratory, a home economics and technical arts workshop, an "excellent" library, and a computer room.

But when asked what Mexican schools lacked most, funds or direction, she replies: "More than money we need a vision of where we're going. We need a solid [policy] base, that isn't constantly changing. We need a clear, long-term plan."

With a pending free-trade agreement with the US and Canada, and the economic competition that would result, she says the need is more imperative than ever. But Garcia remains hopeful that the latest "modernization" plan under discussion (see adjoining story) will provide that direction.

Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4 and 18; Dec. 2, 16, and 30; Jan. 21; Feb. 3 and 18; and March 2.

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