Using TV and Rabbits to Go Beyond Classrooms

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to keeping rural children in school, it pays to be creative. Schools in Chile and Argentina have adopted projects to excite students, unite teachers, and rally parents who may be wondering whether their children could be better employed helping to put bread on the table.

In Chile, it's a TV station; in Argentina, it's rabbits.

Better learning through TV

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Every day at 2 p.m., residents living on the emerald hillsides of Quicavi, Chile, tune in to the local student-run TV station. They watch the news, a student-produced documentary, and maybe even laugh at a joke - reviewed by a teacher for suitable content, of course.

Six years ago the Aquelarre Rural School on Chiloe Island was singled out by the Education Ministry as one of Chile's poorest. Many students dropped out to help their families chop wood or harvest shellfish. Only a few went on to high school. "Now the story is very different," says Sergio Prez, director of Aquelarre for the last five years. "The spotlight's on us for what we've accomplished, not for what we've failed," he says.

Mr. Prez decided his school needed a project everyone could rally around. Various factors were considered - the students' low achievement in oral and written expression and generally introverted natures, and the area's isolation from technological advances. As a remedy, teachers, students, and parents decided to create a TV station.

With money from a special fund set up for the country's 900 poorest schools, Aquelarre acquired basic studio equipment, a transmitter, five television sets, and video players. Grammar and writing classes now produce documentaries. Social-studies classes have developed documentaries about the local salmon industry and the area's legends of witches.

"The [TV] project is great because it gets us out, talking with new people, and learning about new things through our own investigation," says Sonia Yez, 13, who is the school's No. 1 news and documentary presenter. "I discovered a fascination for journalism that makes me want to make it my profession."

Since Aquelarre began broadcasting, student's language skills have jumped from the 36th percentile in 1992 to the 72nd in 1996. The number of students being held back a grade fell from 25 percent to 1 percent. Last year, Aquelarre had no dropouts. Only three or four students out of a graduating class of 20 used to go on to high school; the past two years, that proportion has been reversed.

A practical education

In Argentina's Pampa Province, Victor Oswaldo Riboyra also realized he needed a project to interest rural Indian families in their children's education. Lack of support at home meant that many of his students dropped out and ran off to Buenos Aires, usually ending up in slums.

Mr. Riboyra literally pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The idea was to open up communication using rabbits as a sort of conversation piece. "These are very closed families," he says of the mostly Indian families he serves. "But the rabbit [he gave each family] became something neutral and unthreatening to talk about. It's really helped get me in the door."

Riboyra, who runs a boarding school for poor children who live scattered across the rural province, also focused classes on practical skills like computers, ceramics, and soldering that would help his students find jobs.

"All of these are hands-on activities that ... have the attraction of being related to economic activities found right here in the area," he says.

In many parts of Latin America, educators are discovering the need to twin education with economic-development efforts and job opportunities.

But that's not enough - families have to be involved, too. "Education has to be an integration of the kids, their family, and the community," says Roberto Esteban Ros, director of another Pampa boarding school. His school is also a farm, where students learn new horticultural methods and the discipline of farming.

He offers "open school" Saturdays where families and the community are invited. "Often the students become very comfortable at the school and become ashamed or uncomfortable going back to their modest homes," says director Ros. "Opening the school helps bridge that gap."

Children are allowed to take home the farm's produce, which also introduces new foods to families.

Back on Chiloe, math teacher Patricio Rios takes the official photo of the graduating class. Mr. Rios had his students call out their next destination: Some are going to a well-regarded polytechnical high school; others are headed for a general high school. Of 14 Aquelarre students who applied to the "poly," 12 were admitted.

Rios beams. "A few years ago most would have just mumbled something about scraping by bagging shellfish. It feels good to be part of this kind of change."

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