The PTA arrives in Mexico's schools

Parent-teacher associations are the face of the US public school system, but it is only recently that parents are starting to penetrate the hallways of Mexico's schools.

By , Staff writer

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    Second graders in Virginia Zenteno Ochoa's class at the Fray Matias de Cordova school in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, Mexico, April 26, are busy at work. Ms. Zenteno Ochoa says she can't do her job as well without parental participation.
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When Karina Saldaña enrolled her first child in elementary school, she hoped for the kind of parent participation that didn't exist when she was growing up. Her own school director was “untouchable” to both teachers and students alike, Ms. Saldaña says.

But what she found was the same impenetrable wall that has long kept parents locked out of the public education system in Mexico – where in some schools teachers don't show up to class or are woefully underqualified, and where students drop out at high rates.

A decade later, however, with her second child now in sixth grade at the same school, Saldaña is busy most weeks at the Fray Matias de Cordova elementary school.  Located on a busy block in central Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, Saldaña is the parents' representative on the official parent teacher council. “There has been a cultural shift,” she says. “They have involved us.”

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Parents associations are the face of the US public school system. But in Mexico, although by law they have existed for years, it is only recently that parents are starting to penetrate the hallways of Mexico's schools, not only helping to build infrastructure or raise money, but to demand that teachers show up to class and equip pupils with the basic skills they need to advance. And new research shows that such participation is having a positive impact on dropout rates and even test scores.

“Societal consciousness has grown about the necessity of including parents,” says Dolores Ramirez, the head of a program called School Management Support (AGE) under Mexico's Ministry of Education that funds rural parents associations. “Before, parents dropped their kids off and handed the responsibility of education to the school.”

For decades, parents in Mexico were disregarded. Many accepted a secondary role, deferring to teachers and principals. This is especially true in rural communities, where the schoolteacher is often the most educated member of the community and parents work long days, often with the help of their children. Many teachers once reckoned that schools were better off without parental interference.

Mexico's efforts to reinforce parental roles in schools was part of the school decentralization movement that gained traction across the globe in the 1990s from New Zealand to the Netherlands, and Honduras to Hong Kong. After decentralizing its system in 1992, Mexico's Ministry of Education gave new support to programs to help parents in rural and marginalized schools and later instituted councils of teachers, parents, and directors to help oversee compensatory funds.

“We thought it was better to keep them far away from the school,” says Marilu Sarmiento, the director of Fray Matias de Cordova, who was a teacher for 16 years before moving into administration. “[Now], each day parents participate more.”

Ms. Sarmiento’s school bustles on a recent morning. One class is doing calisthenics, not far from the new tables Ms. Saldaña's PTA constructed in December. They remodeled a cafeteria in August. Now they are planning to build a bigger boys' bathroom and launch a general cleaning campaign. They also began a program in February called “Return to School,” where parents lead the Monday school ritual of singing national and state hymns, and raising the Mexican flag.

Their work is voluntary and unpaid. In rural schools, parent participation has grown with the help of AGE, which began in 1996 in 5,200 schools, and has since expanded to 45,000 programs throughout Mexico today, says Ms. Ramirez.

Particularly active in large, rural states such as Chiapas, the AGE program gives small amounts of money, anywhere from $300 to $700 a year, to the school's parent association, to plan projects like constructing bathrooms, painting buildings, or buying vital school supplies such as pencils. The program is an important resource, as school spending in the budget, which is generous 22 percent of total government expenditure, goes almost entirely to salaries, says Harry Patrinos, the lead education economist at the World Bank.

“It leaves little for anything else,” says Mr. Patrinos, hurting poor schools most.

In the poorest states, for example, many schools lack libraries, computers, and in some places even desks and chairs for teachers to sit in.

More important, however, are the secondary benefits of parent-teacher associations: engaging parents and giving them a seat at the table. “Parents are able to see what is going on in schools,” says Paul Gertler, a professor of economics at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley who has reviewed the results of the AGE program with Patrinos. “They see if teachers are showing up, if their children are learning.”

In a paper published this year in the Journal of Development Economics, Gertler and Patrinos studied the impact of the AGE parent teacher organization program (PTO) and found that it reduces grade failure and repetition. In two new, currently unpublished pilot studies, they doubled the amount of money controlled by the AGE PTO, which led to students substantially improving their performance on reading and math tests. In another pilot they found that simple training of the AGE PTO led to similar increases in test scores and that these increases have been sustained for several years. Their results also show that reading and math scores increase at similar rates as they do under more expensive programs, like improving text books, says Mr. Gertler.

Mexico has made strides in expanding access to education. Enrollment rates at primary levels are nearly universal, buoyed by school construction and Mexico's famed conditional cash transfer program called Oportunidades. Many move onto junior high, but by the time they get to high school most drop out.

In terms of test scores, Mexico is actually a regional leader, just behind Chile, but when compared to Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development country rankings, Mexico lags behind.

One of the main issues is quality, which is where many hope parents can start to play a bigger role. The powerful teacher's union, whose head, Elba Esther Gordillo, is largely considered one of the most powerful players in Mexican politics, is accused of accepting antics more suitable to a movie script – and which were highlighted in the new, wildly popular documentary called “De Panzazo,” or “Barely Passing,” on Mexico’s public school system failings. Some teachers have been getting salaries for years, even though they are dead or work nowhere near classrooms. Others simply don't show up to class for days on end – and they easily hold onto their jobs. Politicians have done little about it, and parents have long reckoned they could do little, if any, more.

Parents do lack some of the most essential powers that parents have in the US, like holding schools accountable through school boards or other democratic mechanisms, says Lucrecia Santibañez, an expert on Mexico's education system at the RAND Corporation. “They do not have real power to get a teacher fired,” she says. Some parents are “frustrated because don't see any clear way to voice to complaints.”

But parents are taking a stand where they can, propped up by new programs to get them involved. They also received some outside support, such as society organizations like the Citizens Coalition for Education, which aims to get third-party players involved in setting the education agenda, and Mexicans First, which sponsored the “De Panzazo” documentary and is currently running an online campaign to end teacher absenteeism.

Maria Elena Brindis Rodriguez, the president of Chiapas’s parents association, says she works with organizations to train parents on everything from basic skills, such as computing so that they can more easily assist their children with homework, to their rights as clients of schools. If a teacher says he or she will be absent for three days at a training program, she urges parents to demand a copy of the certification or other proof that the course was actually taken.

And it is working, she says: “Parents have awoken.”

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